Zhouzhuang is one of the oldest of the “water towns” which lie between Shanghai and Suzhou. Like Venice, a network of canals criss-crosses this ancient settlement, and flat-bottomed punts with a remarkable similarity to gondolas still throng the waterways – although these days it’s almost entirely for the benefit of tourists.
Entering the old town costs RMB 100 (RMB 50 for children, under 130cm get in free). Be aware that they don’t accept cards, Alipay, or WeChat, which came as a shock to us having grown accustomed to Beijing’s largely cashless economy. There’s an ATM not far away, but you may want to make sure you have enough money before you queue up at the ticket office.
The lines for tickets were long but not unbearably so. In fact although all the travel sites warn not to go there on a weekend, we visited on a sunny Sunday in July and the crowds were no worse than I have encountered at most popular tourist sites in China. And unlike many such sites, the buildings of Zhouzhuang are almost all original, not reconstructions, although most of them are now food stalls or souvenir shops.
“Are you not transported back in time to the Ming Dynasty?” I asked Noah, as we strolled across a weather-worn stone bridge. “No,” he answered, “all the Minion mugs and Bayern Munich jerseys kind of shatter the illusion.”
For me though the combination of the old and the new was part of the charm. People still live in Zhouzhuang, and although they’re mostly located in the newer areas, down the backstreets by the canals you can find Qing-era courtyards scattered with children’s toys and with washing hung out to dry.
There’s a curious story about how Zhouzhuang came to be a tourist attraction. A painting of the Twin Bridges was picked out from a New York gallery by American millionaire Armand Hammer, to be given as a gift to Deng Xiaoping. This brought the painting and its subject to wider attention in China, and visitors began to flock to see the beauties of the water town for themselves.
The ticket includes admission to several of the more important buildings, such as Shen’s House and Zhang’s House. However my children most enjoyed the Strange House, which has a separate RMB 60 entrance fee. This ancient building has been decorated with a variety of optical illusions and trompe l’oeil murals, and my kids were far more interested in taking pictures of themselves walking on the ceiling and being eaten by giants, than in learning about Qing architecture.
Photos: Andrew Killeen