Zhouzhuang bills itself as the “oldest water town in China” – and while this may or may not be true, it is certainly one of the oldest and most authentic water towns to see. What is certain is Zhouzhuang’s rustic beauty and reminder of a China unfettered by skyscrapers and fast-paced living. Built in 1086 AD, Zhouzhuang is 48 miles from Shanghai and 34 miles from Suzhou; there are buses and taxis, as well as private car rentals, that run from both nearby cities.
Zhouzhuang’s authentic Chinese culture has been preserved over the years through its culture, cuisine, architecture, and natural landscapes. The town’s people have preserved the ancient traditions and are eager to share them with visitors, whether at religious sites like Quanfu Temple (a Buddhist temple near Baixian Lake with extensive grounds including a number of ponds and gardens) and Chengxu Temple (a Taoist temple known as “Sanctity Hall” and sitting opposite Puqing Bridge) or in shops selling locally-sourced pearls, woven bamboo, or fresh fish and seafood caught that morning. Zhouzhuang has 14 bridges that traverse its rivers and waterways, with the Twin Bridges being the most iconic. The two bridges that make up this double bridge (Shide and Yongan) were built in the late 1500s and sit perpendicular to one another, connecting at one side. Shide’s semi-circular arch and Yongan’s square beam arch give the look of an antique Chinese key, lending to its nickname of “Key Bridge.”
Zhang Ting (or “Hall of Zhang”) is another popular spot in Zhouzhang. A residence built during the Ming Dynasty for the well-to-do Zhang family, the sprawling grounds contain six courtyards and more than 70 rooms. A small waterway actually runs through parts of the manor, allowing small boats access to the back of the house. Today the original rock pillars of the house remain, with lanterns and streamers greeting visitors, art-covered walls, flower gardens and more still standing at the ready for guests. Zhouzhuang can easily be covered in one day by foot, rickshaw, or boat (note there is no motorized traffic in town), but seeing the town by boat is an experience to remember. Visitors can ride a gondola, complete with singing gondolier (there’s a reason they called it “the Venice of the East”) for about USD$16.
To fully absorb the well-preserved ancient buildings, elegant views, and classical combination of nature and art in Zhouzhuang, come during the week when it is less crowded. June is especially popular, with the annual Dragon Boat Festival and the China Zhouzhuang International Tourism Festival take place in town. Windmill season is also in effect then, with colorful pinwheels festooning the town as a nod to the windmills that were used centuries ago for power and are a symbol of good fortune in traditional Chinese culture.
Photo Credit: www.zhouzhuang.net