One glimpse of the waterfront houses in the canal town of Xitang, and every Chinese scroll painting I'd ever seen as a child suddenly made sense. It was all there: the arching stone bridges, the tiled rooftops, the red lanterns strung from the eaves, even the boatman paddling down the river.
This is the other postcard China – the one without the Great Wall or the Terra Cotta Warriors. And it’s one that remained largely undiscovered until the 1980s, when a New York gallery owner presented a Chinese painting of the canal town Zhouzhuang to then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as a gift. The town immediately became a household name in China. Since then, the whole country has been swept by a canal-town craze, and millions of Chinese tourists have flocked to the dozen or so of these rustic floating villages in the Yangtze River Delta.
These days, Zhouzhuang draws more than 2.5 million visitors each year and has been dubbed both the “Venice of the East” and the “Number One Water Town in China.” It has become so touristy that purists no longer consider it authentic. When we asked a local friend for a canal-town recommendation, her advice was emphatic: “The water town I recommend is called Xi Tang,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The one I do not recommend is Zhou Zhuang.”
And so it is in Xitang that my husband and I arrived on a late Saturday afternoon. Because of our schedules, we were unable to heed the single most important piece of advice repeated in every forum, brochure and guidebook on the canal towns: Don’t go on a weekend. So we arranged at least to arrive later in the day, to avoid day-trippers from Shanghai. But considering the throngs of Chinese tourists packed onto the small cobbled paths here, it hasn’t made much difference.
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Despite the flurry of tour leaders’ pennants waving in my view, though, I actually found myself wishing that we had arrived earlier. There’s a reason Chinese tourists come here in droves: Xitang just oozes kitschy charm and old-world scenery. Trinket shops and willow trees line the pathway along the canal; tables and stools for sipping tea and dining crowd the water’s edge; and on the other side, centuries-old homes have been turned into guest houses with back terraces overlooking the canal.
One of the smaller water towns, only a little more than half a square mile in size, Xitang has a historic center that consists of one main thoroughfare along the water, with dozens of tight alleys snaking off it. The town boasts more than 100 of these lanes, the narrowest of which, Shipi Lane, is only three feet wide – not even enough room to stretch out your arms.
To visit these rustic, preserved canal towns is to be transported back into history, but in many ways it’s also a chance to experience a Chinese holiday. We notice that nobody speaks a word of English here, and we see only one or two other foreign faces around. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, with an emerging middle class for whom traveling internationally is still both expensive and bureaucratically difficult, spots like these make the perfect domestic getaway. Add to that the nostalgia for a way of life that’s fast disappearing beneath jutting skyscrapers and newly paved roads all around the country, and it’s easy to understand the lure of the canal town.
As we walk through the alleys, a certain canal-town street fare becomes unavoidably evident. I immediately pick up on the heavy scent of stinky tofu, that fermented street snack that I first sampled in Taiwan and that I now enthusiastically tell people tastes much better than it smells. Naturally, we stop to buy a serving with hot sauce from a woman at a corner who is also selling chicken gizzards and other bits of skewered meat marinating in a spiced soy sauce.
Baskets of broad beans are also a common sight: beans baked in the sun, seasoned with orange peel and aniseed and then stir-fried dry in a wok. And I’m all too happy to find dragon’s beard candy here, a treat I associate with trips to Chinatown in my Toronto childhood, when my cousins and I snacked on these powdery dry bundles of wispy spun sugar wound around crushed peanuts. There’s something comforting about these snacks, a taste signaling to the Chinese that they’re on vacation, just as candied apples or funnel cakes might to an American.
Xitang has retained much of its historic environment. The stone slab buildings and shingled roofs have been preserved from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The town almost looks unreal, like a Hollywood stage set or a theme park. In fact, not long ago, Xitang served as one of the backdrops for the movie “Mission Impossible III,” a distinction that no doubt contributed to the town’s rise in popularity and is now enshrined on a billboard staked at an embankment.
Among the canal towns, Xitang is distinctive for its long covered corridor, which formed over the years as rooftops were connected into one long patchwork of awning to provide shelter from heavy rain. The covering now stretches more than half a mile along the canal, which is part of the much larger Grand Canal, a 1,103-mile waterway that runs from Beijing south to Hangzhou and served for centuries as one of China’s main trade arteries.
Even though many sections of the Grand Canal have silted over, remnants of an ancient way of life still linger in these towns. Our hotel owner tells us that her family has lived here for at least five generations and probably more, though no one remembers who was the first descendant to arrive.
As daylight begins to dim, we stop to buy a floating lantern – a tea light set in an origami flower – and release it into the water, which by now has taken on the sky’s indigo blue and the lanterns’ red glow. Charcoal grills are starting to come out, and glass display cases show that you can get anything grilled on a skewer: squid, beef, chicken wings, lamb, enoki mushrooms, even sprigs of Chinese chives. Nearby, a Chinese opera group has set up in a pagoda to serenade diners.
It’s not until the next morning, in the faint light just after daybreak, that I find Xitang at its prime. Watching the town awaken is worth an overnight stay. The once-packed streets are almost abandoned. Angular shafts of sunlight fall onto the stone-paved lanes. At the side of a path, smoke rises as a man fans a charcoal fire. Out on the water, a trash jetty slowly floats from one end of the canal to the other, steered by a garbage collector fishing out last night’s debris with a net, clearing the canal for another day of visitors. Not far from him, a woman squats on the steps leading down to the water, washing her clothes in the canal.
We stop for a breakfast of dumplings, lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice and xiao huan tun (wontons with literally a chopstick’s smidgen of filling). Then the grandma from our hotel kindly shows us how to get to the bus stop, and we head off to Suzhou, a moderate-size metropolis along the Grand Canal that serves as a good transfer point between the smaller water towns.
On Monday morning, my husband has to head back to Shanghai for work. He asks me what I want to do. I can’t resist the urge to see just one more canal town. I tell him to go on without me as I head to the bus station to buy a single ticket for Tongli, my next stop.
IF YOU GO
From the Shanghai Long Distance Bus South Station, buses to Xitang run almost every hour from 6:30 a.m. to 6:34 p.m. Buy tickets at the station the day before to secure your desired time of departure or on the same day if you don’t mind possibly waiting for the next bus. Buses back to Shanghai run almost every hour from 7:25 a.m. to 5 p.m. A one-way ticket is about $5.
WHERE TO STAY
The staffs at these hotels do not speak English, so it’s best to have your hotel in Shanghai call to make a reservation (recommended if you go on the weekend). Have the name and address written out in Chinese before you leave.
Shui Jing Yuan: Four double rooms available, each with a TV and a computer with Internet access. One room has a private deck overlooking the water. The owners are helpful and meet all guests at the Xitang bus station if given the arrival time. Rates from about $27 on weekdays, from about $45 on weekends.
Caiyuntang Youth Hostel: One family room with private bath and TV; four- and six-person dorm-style rooms with separate bathrooms. WiFi available throughout building. Beds from about $7.
WHERE TO EAT
Ding Ji Restaurant and Xiang Tang Restaurant: These adjacent restaurants serve similar fare. Whole steamed white fish is the local specialty. Dinner for two about $10.
San Wei Chou Dou Fu: Dragon’s beard candy and stinky tofu for $1 or less.
Xi Jie Hostel Coffeeshop: Coffee, tea and fruit juices for $2 or less.
WHAT TO DO
Ni’s Residence: Tour of a literary family’s courtyard home. Admission without a town ticket is about $7.50.
Eaves Tile Display Hall: More than 300 building artifacts, including decorative eaves, bricks and pottery. Admission without a town ticket about $7.50.
Canal boat tour : Futang Pier near Songzilaifeng Bridge, $3 per person on weekdays, $4.50 on weekends.
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