Shanghai, China: The Ancient Xitang Watertown
I was on vacation in Shanghai with my friend, Abby. We were in the bustling metropolis for a few days, and decided that we’d love to make an overnight trip to one of the many ancient watertowns out of the city. Upon doing my research, I discovered that there are at least 8 known ones– the popular and overcrowded Zhouzhuang, Zhujiajiao, Qibao and Wuzhen; and the relatively quieter Nanxun, Tongli, Xitang and Luzhi. I ended up chosing Xitang for two reasons — it is less commercialized than many of the other ones, and was the filming location for Mission Impossible III (okay, so this was the main reason).
The Xitang Watertown
The ancient Xitang Watertown is located in China’s Zhejiang Province, in the Jiashan County; about 2 hours from Shanghai. The scenic town is known for the hundreds of old bridges that connect the cobbled-stone lanes and covered waterside walkways in town — a unique feature only found in Xitang. Dating as far back as 770 BC, the town is intersected by 9 rivers, with antique buildings lined along the banks of the canal.
Being in Xitang is like taking a walk back to the ancient times of China; especially in the early morning before the crowds arrive. I loved how the morning sun cast a golden glow on the black rooftop tiles and tranquil waters; and through the light mist, I watched as locals go about their daily chores. Xitang is so old, so picturesque, and so charming.
Getting to Xitang
The best way to get to Xitang is by bus. Buses from Shanghai leave from two bus stations — Shanghai South Bus Terminal (上海长途汽车南站), and Shanghai Bus Terminal (上海沪东长途客运总站). We took the bus from the latter station at 15:20 — there are 8 buses that leave this station daily from 07:20 to 18:30. The trip takes about 2 hours, and cost CN¥37(US$6). I would suggest getting to the watertown before dark because the pedicabs and trams (free with the town entrance ticket) in Xitang usually only operate till evening (we arrived late and had our own little adventure, read about it here).
The last bus leaves Xitang for the Shanghai Bus Terminal at 18:00. We wanted to buy our return tickets upon reaching the bus station in Xitang, but it was closed when we arrived — so we returned the next day to buy them early in the morning. I just felt better having those tickets in my hand! You can check the schedules online/on the boards in the bus station to get to exact bus timings — it also connects other nearby cities like Suzhou, Hangzhou and Nanjing.
I initially booked a night’s stay in a different hotel, but ended up at the Xushe Boutique Guesthouse (叙舍客栈 – Xu She Ke Zhan) — read about the hotel switch here. The guesthouse doesn’t face the canals (like some of the others do), but is situated along a quiet tree-lined alley in the ancient town. Our room was spacious and clean, and the host, Bao Zi was extremely gracious and helpful. The room for a night cost us CN¥200(US$30).
There are many other choices of hotels, hostels and guesthouses in Xitang. The hotels in the ancient town are usually brick buildings with simple rooms, and most of the private guesthouses are in ancient houses that line the waterfront — some are pretty old, with musty smelling rooms and thin walls; but waking up to the peaceful view of Old China just outside your balcony, more than makes up for everything else.
Exploring the Xitang Ancient Town
Since we were staying in a guesthouse in the ancient town, we didn’t have to pay an entrance fee to explore the alleyways and narrow lanes in the early morning before the watertown officially opens. If we had decided to just remain within the boundaries to walk around (and not enter the museums etc), we wouldn’t even have to pay for a ticket.
Tickets to the watertown cost CN¥100(US$15) per person (our guesthouse host helped us get it for cheaper), and it opens from 7:30 to 17:00 during the weekdays, and till 21:30 on the weekends. The crowds usually come on their day trips at about 10:00 and leave at 15:00 — so the watertown is best experienced outside those times.
Places of Interest
Included in the ticket to Xitang Watertown are entries to 11 scenic spots within the ancient town. Abby and I only had a day to explore and wanted to have a relaxed time, but we managed to visit most of the museums and gardens. All of the museums are housed in the traditional houses that line the canals, and mainly exhibit Chinese culture and arts. We dropped by the Wine Culture Museum, the Tile Museum, the Museum of Buttons, and the Ming and Qing Wood Carving Hall.
The lovely gardens, Xiyuan and Zuiyuan are also worth a visit to see some pretty Chinese garden landscaping; and there’s also a temple dedicated to an ancient general, called the Shengtang Temple. The most famous lane in Xitang is also an attraction by itself — the narrow 68m-long Shipi Lane is 110cm at its widest, and only 80cm at its narrowest. It’s great for photos!
And for a view of the ancient town from the canals, take a boat ride along the calm waters, and listen as the boatmen sing their traditional songs. We didn’t do the boat ride, but merely watched them float by from the banks.
We didn’t expect to find exceptional food in such a small watertown like Xitang, but we were pleasantly surprised. The host of our guesthouse, Bao Zi, introduced some restaurants to us — and I have to say his recommendation for the Seven Tables Restaurant (七张桌饭店 – Qi Zhang Zuo Fan Dian) was great. I thoroughly enjoyed my Chinese meal of hotpot beef, homemade tofu, shredded potatoes, and banana salad. The restaurant gets crowded as it only has seven tables (like its name) — and we waited about half an hour to get a table.
Another restaurant to note is Wu Fang Zhai, a local favorite for glutinous rice dumplings, also known as bak zhang. The restaurant has been around since 1921. And if you’re looking for street foot — the ancient town is packed with food stalls facing the canals, and they sell everything from pork knuckles, chicken feet and meat/vegetable skewers, to long fries, cockles and stinky tofu.
What I enjoyed the most was chilling by one of the little cafes along the waterfront (look for those that has a backyard sign), and having a cuppa while watching the world go by.
Lots of Shopping
The small traditional buildings that line the canals and alleyways in Xitang now houses lots of restaurants, and many many small shops. You can find anything and everything Chinese in these shops — Xitang souvenirs, cosmetics, jade, pearls, Oriental paintings, local handicrafts, Chinese wine, spices, chilli products, and Chinese sweets and biscuits.
The shopkeepers and locals are extremely welcoming and friendly (unlike some of the other night markets in the bigger Chinese cities) — they did not force us to buy their things, and we didn’t feel the need to haggle too much. It was nice just browsing through the shops in the ancient town, and admiring some of the extremely beautiful handmade items on display.
It was to my utmost surprise that Xitang comes to life at night — and when I mean come to life, I literally mean loud techno music blasting from the many nightclubs, and the young locals and visitors coming together to dance on the ‘moving’ plastic stage. If you’re one who loves partying the night away, one part of Xitang provides you with the opportunity to do exactly that.
But I love my peace and quiet, and thankfully, the ancient town is filled with small alleyways that led us away from the loud blaring noise. The shops and little cafes open till pretty late at night, so we had a lovely time walking around the area — just being a part of the smaller night crowd, admiring the bright red glow from the many lanterns, and immersing ourselves in the night beauty of Xitang.
My Experience in Xitang
There’s just so much to see in Xitang — everywhere I turned was a beautiful view, a captivating sight, an interesting attraction. Everything felt so old, yet so new to me; and when the crowds dawned upon the town, despite the hustle and bustle, there was just something so serene about the calm waters and the covered waterside walkways that run along its banks.
If you have the time, stay a night in the ancient town. I loved the fact that I got to explore the place before and after the crowds — and had the entire lanes and alleyways to myself. It really felt as if I was reconnecting to my roots in China by being transported back to the times of my ancestors. I have yet to visit the other watertowns around Shanghai so I can’t make a comparison; but Xitang is lovely — it is not overrun with tour groups during the weekdays, and still manages to retain the peaceful atmosphere of a country so ancient, so historic, and with so much culture.
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