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Exploring the Chinese water towns

Water world

Discover a string of villages in the heart of the Chinese Yangtze delta that seem to be frozen in time. These are the so-called water towns, surrounded by rivers, lakes and canals. Only a two-hour drive from Shanghai, these villages transport you to a whole other world. iFly reporter Iris travelled to this unique part of China.

Join us there!
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Text and photography
Iris van den Broek

A trip along Chinese gardens and water towns

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I type “Is this Wuzhen?” into my translation app. An incomprehensible string of Chinese characters appears, but my taxi driver understands and nods affirmatively. I get out and watch the cab drive away, for the first time feeling completely alone. This morning I had set out from Shanghai. Although only a two-hour drive, the metropolis now seems a world away. Everything about Wuzhen is different.

This is one of the eight classic water towns in the Yangtze delta. The Chinese flock here in droves to explore these unique villages, but Western tourists are still few and far between. My survival kit consists of a rented mobile WiFi modem (picked up at the airport) and a translation app. Travelling to these water towns is quite the adventure when you don't speak Mandarin so I have come prepared.

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Rustic and authentic

My hotel is located right on the border between Wuzhen East and Wuzhen West. These two scenic areas have separate admissions and require an entry ticket. The eastern part is the most authentic. Here you will still find numerous artisans and crafts.

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I visit the Sanbai distillery, which produces 200 litres of San Baijiu rice wine a day.

Wuzhen is also famous for its production of indigo blue fabric, which is still dyed by hand. Everywhere in the village you will see billowing blue fabric.

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The magical west

Wuzhen West is bigger and in my opinion much more beautiful. It can get quite busy with large Chinese tour groups, but that doesn't diminish the beauty of the place. Xizha is the charming main street that lines the canal, packed with shops and restaurants. I sample some rice cookies and sip tea in one of the tea pavilions along the water.

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At nightfall lanterns are lit everywhere and the small squares are illuminated with colourful lights. Classical music drifts out of cafés as gondolas float by and lights sparkle in the trees. At night, West Wuzhen is transformed into a fairytale landscape.

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Nanxun: 1400 years of history

The next day I continue to Nanxun, a water town north of Wuzhen, only a half hour drive by taxi. Not often visited, this village is something of a hidden gem. With dozens of lush weeping willows, Nanxun is a green oasis. The village is 1400 years old and acquired its wealth during the silk trade in the 12th century. My hotel is located in the heart of the historic neighbourhood. When I open the shutters of my garret window I see the main canal and a wall with dozens of Chinese lanterns. Compared to Wuzhen it is delightfully quiet here.

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Out on the canals

As I stroll along the quay, a boatman waves at me. He motions to his boat, inviting me to go with him. Of course, a water village is best seen from the water. Seated in the gondola, I float through the willow-lined canals, past the former homes of wealthy silk merchants.

I disembark at the Little Lotus Garden, one of the highlights of Nanxun. Designed as a quiet and peaceful haven, this enormous garden was the private property of Liu Yong, once the richest person in Nanxun. From the tea pavilion I gaze out over the enormous pond with water lilies. Very zen indeed.

A row of 100 houses

The most beautiful part of Nanxun is Baijianlou, also known as the row of 100 houses. As it’s just off the beaten path, Chinese tourists are absent and I find only the locals doing their laundry, taking a nap or painting along the shore. Little has changed in the last 1400 years. As I walk under the arches, I hear shouting: “Nihao! Nihao!” I look around but don't see anyone. Then I notice a bird in a cage overhead. He proudly looks at me and calls out, “Hello!”

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In the last two days I haven't come across anyone who spoke English, so it's quite ironic that this bird seems to know a few words. “Bye bye!” he calls out as I walk way. 

At nightfall, I see dozens of Chinese lanterns shining across from the hotel. Beautiful! I pause to enjoy the view as tomorrow I take a bus to Suzhou, my last stop. 

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The classic gardens of Suzhou

“Above is heaven, below we have Suzhou and Hangzhou” is a well-known Chinese saying. My first impression? Not quite heavenly. After several serene water villages, Suzhou with its high-rises and busy traffic is quite the shock. With ‘only’ 1.6 million inhabitants, this is considered a small city in China.

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However, I discover that heaven can be found in Suzhou’s gardens. Known as the Garden City, nine of its gardens have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The gardens are a model of natural beauty, depicting entire landscapes in miniature format. I decide to visit two of the largest gardens: the Humble Administrator’s Garden and the Lingering Garden. I stroll through these green oases that evoke descriptions such as ‘poetic’ and ‘picturesque’. The ingeniously designed gates form beautiful viewing windows of the lovely scenery and artistic rock formations that stand magnificently in the delicately landscaped pavilions.

To conclude my trip I take a walk along the many canals of Suzhou and through historic Pingjiang Lu street, lined with lovely boutiques and cosy cafés. At night, I board the bullet train and in 20 minutes I am back in futuristic Shanghai. A bigger contrast is hard to imagine.

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