After spending the first couple of weeks in Shanghai getting ourselves up-and-running, last Saturday was our first opportunity to leave the city and explore ‘Zhouzhuang’ (周庄水乡); one of China’s ancient water towns.
We and two friends from work had been invited to visit Zhouzhuang by Emily, a Chinese colleague whose father had been born in the town. The weather was delightfully ironic for a watertown visit – relentless torrential downpour – but we gratefully accepted the blue plastic macs that Emily had brought for us and carried on 🙂
Entering the town through a wooden gateway, stone-cobbled streets weave you past small open-fronted shops which sell hand-made souvenirs made from traditional methods such as bamboo-weaving and silk-spinning. These ladies making small silk shoes were my favourite, and put a less commercial lens on ‘Made in China’
Canals and waterways divide the old buildings and are criss-crossed by stone bridges. Arriving at lunchtime, we dripped and sloshed our way into one of the restaurants and let Emily order for us. One of the traditional foods in this area is slow-cooked pork knuckle in a sweet sauce, which we all devoured. Apparently this is typically served as a wedding food in the area (there were at least a dozen stalls selling these, so you could often pick up the pungency of braising pork while walking through the town) Less popular were the river snails… but Matt and Austin gave it a good go; washed down with some local beers of course!
Zhouzhuang has about 1,000 households living in old dwellings that were built in the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties and the early Republic of China. Emily had kindly arranged a guide to show us around some of the old houses and explain the cultural significance of the architecture. Stepping over a wooden doorframe about 10 inches high told us that the house was owned by a rich person, or an important government figure (less rich or important people had lower doorframes). The rooms led one to another, with stone floors and wooden walls, and were furnished with beautifully carved angular hardwood furniture from the respective dynasties. In the ‘women’s room’ (there were separate spaces for men and women, with marble screens to divide them), some of the chairs had backs and others were backless; our guide explained that the backless chairs were for unmarried women, as the husband represented the backbone! Despite the throngs of tourists with brightly coloured macs and brollys, the houses were themselves tranquil and calm, with beautiful courtyards which backed onto the waterway system.
My favourite part of the day was the boat ride, again arranged in advance by Emily. We climbed aboard and were steered through the canals, under bridges and past beautiful old crumbling buildings.
Matt and I had the obligatory “we were here” photo in our attractive macs beside the twin Shide and Yong’an stone bridges (‘The Twin Bridges’), which were built between 1573 and 1619 in the Ming dynasty. Each bridge has one square and one round opening that look like ancient keys, so they are also known as the Key Bridges.
Then we headed back to the car. And the rain stopped!