On the fourth day of our trip to Shanghai we travelled out to Zhujiajiao, one of the eight ancient water towns in the region. Zhujiajiao is one of the closest of the water towns, situated an hour by bus from the city centre. Despite its relative closeness to China’s biggest city, Zhujiajiao makes you feel as though you’ve been transported to an entirely different time and place.
We left Shanghai early in the morning and we were among the first to arrive at Zhujiajiao. I highly recommend getting there early. We went on a Monday and still by the early afternoon it was extremely crowded, especially on the bridges making the idyllic views somewhat obscured. Zhujiajiao is a city of bridges and canals. I’m not going to call it the “Venice of China” because it’s cliché and every city in the world with a canal has been compared to Venice before. Zhujiajiao is unique and it provides a charming glimpse into a time gone by.
After we arrived, we paid our entrance fee and were provided with a map. Technically you can get into the ancient town for free and without a ticket but the ticket gives you access to various attractions once you’re in the city, including a boat ride down one of the canals. The ticket that we got was for all nine attractions and cost 80 元 ($15 AUD) per person.
Our initial walk over Fangsheng Bridge on the way to the Kezhi Gardens took us alongside narrow canals and past the type of birds you normally only see in zoos.
At the Kezhi Gardens we fed goldfish and admired all the pavillions and temples. It was here that we temporarily found ourselves at the center of an impromptu photo shoot with some locals who were intrigued by my blonde hair. After about three-hundred photos posing with every member of the family at least two or three times we politely made a getaway to a different part of the garden. I could have spent a whole day in the garden honestly. It was such a relaxing place to be. The garden is divided into two parts. The first part, the ‘ke’ garden is the study garden. It includes all the pavilions and even a library. The second half is the ‘zhi’ garden, meaning ‘farming’ and indeed there were mostly vegetable gardens here.
After the gardens we took a boat down the canal. It took us from Yongquan Bridge to the dock just outside the Yuanjin Buddhist Temple.
The food in Zhujiajiao is to die for. It is immediately apparent that there are a few local specialties and they’re all worth trying. From lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice to pork belly, it was delicious and we tried it all.
The Yuanjin Buddhist Temple was so lovely and peaceful. We really enjoyed being there. The City God Temple was equally lovely at first but we soon realised we’d been roped into a bit of a tourist trap/ scam. We accepted some incense to burn on our way in and within a couple of minutes that small gesture had escalated to being requested to donate money to the temple, and not a small amount either. There was a donations book filled with the names of other gullible tourists who had given up to hundreds of dollars (you do feel quite pressured) Fortunately we only left short of a few dollars and feeling like we had been conned. And we’d been so good at avoiding all the scams so far! Oh well, it had to happen once.
In much need of some refreshing tea, we took a walk down charming Cahoe Street, this eventually led us to the Great Qing Post Office and then to the Tong Tian He Chinese Pharmacy. The pharmacy was interesting but the post office was just a really bizarre place. It was a very didactic museum experience that didn’t make much sense in English. Perhaps Chinese-speakers would get more out of it, unfortunately for us our Chinese is very restricted to a few pleasantries and a handful of nouns (all of which I’m sure we pronounce incorrectly.)
By the afternoon, Zhujiajiao was filled with fellow tourists and locals alike. We were glad we had visited the main attractions in the morning and could spend this time simply wandering. We made sure we had seen all of the bridges before we got back on the bus and returned to Shanghai.
They say that Zhujiajiao isn’t as authentic as some of the further afield ancient water towns as it can be quite touristy. However, considering its close proximity to Shanghai and the ease with which it could be reached it was the best option for a day trip for us. We certainly left feeling as though we had experienced and important part of local history as well as a truly beautiful place.