By Shelley Seale
The beautiful 6,500-year-old water town of Wuzhen – the last in China – is often called the “Venice of the East.”
It is a charming place full of ancient bridges, heritage hotels, boutiques and restaurants all built around an amazing water network that is part of the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal, the longest canal in the world.
Over the past thousand years, Wuzhen has not changed its name, water system or way of life, and the entire town is one of China’s most important cultural relics. It is literally a living museum for an ancient civilization’s history, food and traditions.
The buildings of Wuzhen are all a century or more old, and built in the traditional wood and stone architecture, with tile roofs.
For centuries the local people of this area have been building their homes and markets along the river’s edge, with stone railings and arched bridges connecting the residential and village life. Spacious, beautiful courtyards are hidden by the thousands in between the buildings, providing a delightful discovery at almost every turn.
In this ancient town there is plenty to do, or nothing at all if your aim is to relax. The place is quiet and serene, yet also offers wine bars, pottery and glass workshops, theaters and an open-air film pavilion.
Take in the delightful town from the water on a traditional wood boat, and stay in one of the many luxurious hotels or guest accommodations in residents’ homes for a true taste of Chinese village life.
What to See
Shadow Plays are put on with folk-art shadow puppets, hand-crafted with translucent patterns that allow the light to shine through and threaded joints so that the puppets can be moved freely.
Accompanied by traditional Chinese musical instruments such as the flute and urheen, shadow plays are immensely popular.
East Street has been a prosperous business center of Wuzhen since ancient times. More than 700 local households are established along this street, most engaging in traditional craftworks that visitors can admire and purchase.
Many interesting exhibition centers are also here, including the Wood Carving Museum and Hundred Bed Museum. Take in the Huagu Opera played on a hundred-year-old stage, or delight in the daring acrobatics and martial arts that are performed on boats just offshore.
Several local workshops and stores that have been operating for over a century also provide glimpses into a past life. Check out the Hengyitang Chinese Medicine shop and the historic Wuzhen Post Office.
For a look at the rich silk industry, visit the Yida Silk Store dating from 1875, to see beautiful brocades being hand-woven by skilled craftsmen.
Also drop by the Ending Golden Lotus, also known as the Chinese Footbinding Culture Museum, offers a fascinating glimpse into a tradition that seems unreal in today’s world.
The beautiful temples are not to be missed. Soak in the intricate painted and gold statues in the Temple of God Guan, and the Temple of General Wu, built to commemorate the heroics of General Wu Zan from the Tang Dynasty.
The awe-inspiring White Lotus Tower rises empirically into the sky at the end of a long stone pier that snakes across the water.
What to Eat and Drink
Delectable seafood is, of course, a staple of this water town. Local favorites such as steamed fish shouldn’t be missed; but non-seafood dishes are also popular, like the braised mutton.
For dessert, try the Gusao Cake which is as delicious in its presentation as it is to eat, served in a traditional red lacquered box.Sanbai wine, a liquor distilled from rice or sorghum, is still made by hand in old-fashioned distilleries using the same methods that have been employed for centuries.
Take a tour of the Sanbai Wine Workshop to watch the men cooking the liquor over wood fires and distilling them into old oak barrels. Dozens of pottery casks of the finished product are lined up in the courtyard and the thick, strong smell permeates the air – and you are invited to taste or buy for yourself.
Also try the delectable Chrysanthemum Tea that is a specialty of the region.Wuzhen has plenty of night life, as well. Visit Chashi Jie for lively cafes and bars, as well as spa treatments and traditional salt baths available until late, to enjoy your leisure time. For entertainment, take in a show on the ancient Xiuzhenguan Square stage, or the Xizha stage that floats on the water.
Where to Stay
Theme hotels are a perfect combination of modern amenities and ancient culture, decorated in traditional Chinese style. Try the Zhaoming Academy Inn, named after Prince Zhaoming who studied here 1500 years ago, and focusing on ancient Chinese literature and scholars.
The setting encourages visitors to partake of the wisdom imparted from books in this inspiring setting that preserves a way of life.
Or check out the Lin Clan Hotel, most unique for the gorgeous, traditional rosewood shelf beds that are in every guest room. In the south Yangtze style, the Lin Clan hotel has the feel of the home from a wealthy ancient family, and allows visitors a glimpse into the glory of a royal past.
The Clubhouse Hotels of Wuzhen have been rebuilt in the old mansions of former wealthy families from the town, offering a rare opportunity to stay in an ancient heritage hotel.
The Splendid Clubhouse has 30 deluxe guest rooms and four suites in a group of buildings with traditional Chinese garden architecture style.Beautiful scenery lies in every direction, from the Lotus Spa to the waterways and natural marshes, and ancient streets of Wuzhen town.
Or stay in a private villa at Shine Town Clubhouse, complete with its own teahouse and furniture and fine arts from the Ming and Qing Dynasties.If you’re after wellness and relaxation, check into Heal Town. The natural, harmonious environment includes a medicinal diet restaurant where delicious dishes are created with Chinese herbs, according to traditional health culture and cuisine of China.
Guest Houses enable you to truly experience an authentic taste of local life in this beautiful, quaint place.Guest houses are located in individual family homes that are over a century old, distributed mainly along the river. The furniture and decor are diverse, but all are traditional Chinese style and reflect the architecture of the south of Yangtze River.Modern amenities and comforts are provided, yet you take a step back in time and enter into the daily life of your host along the peaceful water of Wuzhen.
Visit the China Tourism Office for more information.The Wuzhen Tourism site provides a delightful tour through the town –East Tours specializes in custom, private tours that open the door to the world’s most culturally rich destinations.Air China can get you there.
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Shelley Seale is an Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman, and many others. Her favorite quote is by Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”