Zhouzhuang: The Perfect Day Trip Destination

Looking to make a quick weekend getaway, or just need a break from the Shanghai hustle? ChinaTravel.net writer Miller Wey suggests taking a trip to Zhouzhuang…

Only 60 kilometres from Shanghai, the historic water town of Zhouzhuang is a great daytrip away from the big city. Alongside nearby cities Suzhou and Tongli, it’s one of several canal towns in China to claim the mantle “Venice of the East,” and with nearly a quarter of the town covered in water, it’s a worthy contender. Sitting at the confluence of four large lakes, Zhouzhuang, like Venice, is made up of a collection of islands connected by a web of winding waterways and arched stone bridges.

It was founded in 1086 when wealthy landowner and prominent Buddhist Zhou Digong donated 200 acres of land to the Quanfu Buddhist Temple. The newly formed enclave thrived on its geographical location, becoming a trade hub for food, silk and ceramics and by the early Qing dynasty it was renamed Zhouzhuang Town in honor of Digong. The picturesque grounds, lakes and pagodas of Quanfu Temple remain one of the town’s primary attractions today.

Zhouzhuang’s potential for tourism was recognised early on and since the 1970s its landscapes and buildings have been under the protection of the local government with around 100 buildings from its Ming-Qing heyday carefully preserved. Boats ply the emerald green canals between the whitewashed walls that back up onto the water. Along the main stone-paved thoroughfares and squares, hawkers tout trinkets and souvenirs—a mix of the usual tourist tat and more unique local wares such as woven bamboo, Zhouzhuang’s unusual stone teapots or pearls from nearby Suzhou.

Restaurants entice customers with local specialties like Wansan roast pig’s trotters, a must-try Zhouzhuang dish, where pork legs are slow-cooked in a savory mix of ingredients resulting in tender trotters that have a sweet, succulent flavour.

A boat ride (RMB 80 per boat) is a great way to see the town, passing under willow trees and arched stone bridges. Much like in Venice, for another RMB 20 the boatmen or women will serenade you with local songs—it’s not Italian opera however and some visitors may prefer to catch free snatches of the ditties from passing boats instead of forking out more cash.

A boat ride will take you to the junction of Zhouzhuang’s central waterways the Twin Bridges. One of the town’s most iconic images (a painting of the scene by notable artist Chen Yifei was given as a gift to Deng Xiaoping by a New York art dealer in 1984), round-arched Shide Bridge and square-shaped Yong’an Bridge cross perpendicular to each other, meeting in their shared corner. Like six of the 19 bridges in Zhouzhuang, both were built during the Ming Dynasty.

The town’s oldest bridge, Fu’an Bridge, dates back to 1339 and just next to this is another of Zhouzhuang’s main attractions, the sprawling Shen Residence. Built by a descendant of Shen Wansan, a Yuan-Ming-era Zhouzhuang resident famed as one of the richest men south of the Yangtze whose name was also appropriated for the town’s favourite pork dish, its 100 rooms and interconnecting courtyards offer a glimpse into aristocratic Qing-dynasty living. Though much of Zhouzhuang’s charm lies in its picture postcard scenery, there are lots of indoor sights like the Quanfu Temple, the Zhang Residence and Chengxu Taoist Temple – musts to explore if you are unlucky enough to visit on a bad weather day.

Though a little light rain can actually be a blessing in disguise lending a misty and romantic air to the narrow lanes and waterways and keeping the tourist crowds at bay!

Admission to Zhouzhuang is RMB 120 including entrance to all main attractions (excludes boat tour). As part of an ongoing promotion throughout 2012, Ctrip.com has a special one-day tour to Suzhou and Zhouzhuang departing 21 April for just RMB 199. Check http://activities.english.ctrip.com for details.
Miller Wey is an editor for ChinaTravel.net. A sister site to Ctrip.com, China’s leading online travel service provider, ChinaTravel.net brings readers everything they need to know to enjoy their China adventure to the fullest.

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