A couple of years ago we decided to stay the night in a watertown near Shanghai, and we made our way to the small and charming Nanxun 南浔. It takes just a quick look at the geography of Shanghai to see that it is surrounded by rivers and deltas that make the whole area around Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Nantong extremely wet.
There are many old towns dotted around this area, which romantics are quick to call the “Venice of the East”, since it seems it is ever popular to reference that famous Italian city when referring to any town or city with a reasonable number of canals, Bangkok of old being another example of a “Venice of the East”.
These towns date back many hundreds of years and are full of rickety old traditional houses fronting onto picture-perfect canals with beautifully carved bridges and wooden boats floating up and down, albeit mostly carrying paying tourists these days.
No traveller would argue that there is a better way to soak up the ambiance of a town than to stay over in one, so that once all the day-trippers from the city have gone, one can experience the true local feel. So that is what we did, a couple of years back, we stayed over in Nanxun, one of the smaller, less-known watertowns. We stayed in a tiny homestay, our bedroom overlooking the waterway, very atmospheric and peaceful, and with the most friendly host who cooked the most delicious bowls of noodles for our breakfast.
So to this year, with some family visiting we planned to go back to Shanghai and stay over once again in a watertown. But every homestay in every old watertown we looked at, had a clause stating they were unable to accept guests from outside of mainland China. Even the homestay we stayed at two years prior. At the last attempt, I tried Airbnb, noting Airbnb’s desire to create an environment whereby guests are not discriminated against on any grounds including nationality. We found a very nice homestay, made a booking, and a reply came back asking if we all had mainland Chinese ID cards. Since we didn’t, the owner apologised but said she was unable to host us.
I contacted Airbnb to make them aware, but received no reply.
So we gave up. Since it seemed all homestays in the old watertowns would not be able to host foreign guests we decided the only way forward was to visit a watertown as a day trip from Shanghai. As we didn’t want to travel too far from the city, we were afraid that this would mean going to one that would inevitably be full of large numbers of group tours, their tour leaders flag in one hand, mega-phone in the other, blasting everyone in a mile radius with their commentary, all people pushing and shoving through the packed narrow streets, past aggressive shop owners, full of emotion if one inquires a price and decides not to buy. An experience every traveller wishes to avoid.
Searching online for the best watertown to visit as a day-trip (Time Out Shanghai has a good guide to watertowns near Shanghai), we came across 朱家角 Zhujiajiao, which is described by various travel publications as an authentic town with beautiful canal-side streets and intricate bridges, but due to its proximity to Shanghai – it’s just a 50 minute drive – can often be quite busy with tourists.
But balancing accessibility from Shanghai and authenticity, we decided it was the best option. We booked a car and driver to take the four of us out there. It was the second week of January on a Friday and the weather was suitably rainy and misty, I write suitably as it really does add to the ambiance of the towns. It was in fact misty and rainy almost the whole three days we were in Shanghai, which being from the UK made us feel quite at home, and living in dry northern China, was actually quite welcome.
From our hotel on the Bund the drive there took us along busy highways passing through the fascinating modern Shanghai skyline. Coming off the highway we went by new developments that reminded us we were still very much in a built-up area, but as soon as we entered the gate to the ancient town, we could see that all had been preserved and we were immediately soothed by the sight of the picturesque ancient canals and old bridges with the many narrow streets to begin exploring.
But for a town relatively close to Shanghai, what was most remarkable was the lack of tourists (see the pictures). Like us, there were tourists there, but just not in the huge unmanageable numbers that I had imagined. There were many shops selling tourist souvenirs but no aggressive sellers that might be found in other areas, all very passively waiting for customers to show interest. And many of the shops were selling interesting, high-quality goods that would not necessarily be found everywhere in the area.
So our experience was great, far exceeding my expectation of a town so close to the city. We did indeed spend hours wandering the narrow streets, going into a shop occasionally to browse. When the rain got very heavy we dived into an artsy cafe for hot drinks, and when our hunger got the better of us, we had some noodles and wontons in a very friendly family run cafe overlooking the canals and bridges.
Perhaps it was because it was early January. Most locals will travel over Spring Festival which this year is at the beginning of February, so rather than travel so close to the festival period, they may be more likely to save any plans for February. I am very sure the situation in Zhujiajiao over the Spring Festival period would be chaotic.
It could also be that we visited on a weekday. Like in most countries around the world, Saturday and Sunday are usually rest days for Chinese workers, meaning there will certainly be many more visitors travelling over the weekend.
There are many sensationalist stories about tourist areas in China being extremely crowded, but with a little planning it is easy to avoid these situations, even if travelling to somewhere relatively well-known. Certainly avoid travelling to well-known tourist places over Spring Festival and mid-Autumn festival, unless of course you live in China and don’t have significant holiday leave outside of these periods. Many Chinese people don’t, hence these travel periods are very, very busy. Perhaps an understatement.