I didn’t get much of a chance to explore new places in China this year, but I’m glad that I did at least manage to make it to Wuzhen (乌镇), one of the most famous ancient water towns located less than a two-hour high speed train ride from Shanghai.
Wuzhen was a prosperous trading center during the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties thanks to its location along the Grand Canal, which was once the main transportation route connecting Hangzhou and Beijing. Most recently, it has turned itself into a popular tourism destination following extensive renovations to the stunning architecture of the old town center, attracting over 1.5 million visitors a year.
When I went to Wuzhen for the 6th World Internet Conference, tourists were mercifully thin on the ground. Although this also meant that most of the most famous sights were closed off while I was there, there were still plenty of unvarnished parts of the city left to explore in my free time.
Strolling down a quiet, narrow lane by the river, I came across a delightful little shop selling old artifacts – including quite a collection of posters, magazines, and other items from the Cultural Revolution.
Close by, I was made to feel about three feet tall when I stepped into an old merchant’s mansion and was given a withering look by the owner after explaining that I couldn’t pay the 10RMB entrance fee using a WeChat or AliPay because I didn’t have a residence visa. Her mood brightened, however, when I produced a 20RMB note that she was happy to accept but somehow couldn’t find any change for. Not that I complained too much, because I had a wonderful time rooting around the mansion and was the recipient of copious free advice from the owner on the best angles to take photos from.
A few doors down from the mansion, I found myself in a rice wine distillery that claimed to produce its liquor using traditional methods. I had no expertise to draw on in order to verify the veracity of this claim, but the wine certainly tasted good enough for me to buy a bottle to share with my colleagues over a dinner of traditional Zhejiang cuisine later in the evening.
I hope it won’t be too long before I return to Wuzhen to see the parts I missed. Who knows, perhaps one day I’ll find the time to visit all of the top ten ancient water towns within the Shanghai-Hangzhou-Suzhou triangle.