Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Amazing Ancient Water Town of Wuzhen

We made a trip to Suzhou a couple of days ago. Our first stop over was Shanghai for a night before we made our way to Suzhou for two nights with our driver that we engaged in Shanghai.  I have always been mesmerized by the beauty of ancient water towns in China, such as the one I visited at Zhujiajiao about a year ago and I was always thinking that the best ancient water towns would be those found in Suzhou or so I thought.

But my driver cum tour guide, Mr Loh, suggested otherwise. An experienced guide, he explained that Suzhou is renowned for her delicate and unique gardens though there is still a fair amount of water towns to see. When I told him that I am interested to photograph the ancient water towns at night, he suggested us to visit and stay a night at Wuzhen (乌镇) instead. 

Xi Zha (West Sector) of Wuchen ...

"If you have been to Wuzhen, you would never have to visit another water town ever again. " he proudly proclaimed.

We did some research on the Internet and made a booking for a night at one of their 'so called' 5 stars hotel, known as Tong An Hotel, reputedly the largest hotel there. The rates are by no means cheap. A standard room will set you back RMB830 (with breakfast). A lady at the front desk at Marriott Suzhou who incidentally have worked at Wuzhen before, even suggested that we take the cheaper guest house for the local feel. However, since we were traveling with kids, we opted for the larger Tong An Hotel.

The drive to Wuzhen from Suzhou is approximately 1.5 hours and the journey was pleasant. In fact, it would take only 45 minutes drive from Hangzhou which is nearer.

Wuzhen, an ancient water town boasting of an almost 2000 years of history, is located at the north the Zhejiang province and is part of the Beijing -Hangzhou Grand Canal, very much like Suzhou. Life at Wuzhen has been pretty idyllic and hence, much of the ancient lifestyle and uniqueness of this historical water town has been well preserved.

Dong Zha (East Sector) of Wuchen. The old houses and structures are well preserved. Clearly a different view as compared to Xi Zha (West Sector) which has been rebuilt ...

There is two distinct sections of Wuchen, known as Dong Zha (East Sector) and the Xi Zha (West Sector). Dong Zha is smaller and consists of most of the original ancient houses and structures, many with the original residents while Xi Zha is larger, rebuilt with many guest houses, hotels and restaurants. 

The main canal at Xi Zha (West Sector). The place is almost deserted during the day when we arrived as it was a weekday and it was winter, just the way we like it ...

Entrance tickets are required for both sections. RMB130 for Xi Zha and RMB100 for Dong Zha or a combined ticket for RMB150. (We purchased the combined ticket). Our hotel is located within Xi Zha since this is reputed to offer very interesting photography opportunities at night.

Xi Zha apparently is a string of small islands connected with historical stone bridges. Upon arrival, we were ferried a short distance across to the nearest island on a single oar ferry.

We checked into our room with a balcony view of a smaller canal. The room was basic and clean but definitely not the international 5 star treatment that one would expect nor the price we have to pay. In fact, we had a problem with water clogging in the bathroom when we took a bath resulting in the entire bathroom being flooded. We were later told that there is a design flaw with the drainage system in most rooms. The breakfast was nothing to shout either and service is forgettable. 

Our room at Tong An Hotel that cost us RMB830 ..clean but basic 

After dumping our luggage in the room, we went out, ready to explore this ancient water town, along the narrow alleys and the shops lined up along the river front.

Xi Zha (West Sector) comprises of hotels, guest houses, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops, some hidden among the many narrow alleys while others along the river front.

Besides hotels, guest houses, restaurants and cafes, there were also some museums of depicting some former craftsman and business here or well known people who grew up within this ancient township.

Yichang Foundry Workshop with their largest cauldron forged in the world. Yichang was started by a blacksmith from Hangzhou in the 16th century by the name of Shen Ji and was the only forge in the western Zhejiang Province.

Food is still preserved traditionally here and fish, sausages or pork can be seen hanging to dry by the windows of restaurants or along the corridors of some guest houses.

Fishes being hung to be dried ....

Pork being dried in the cold winter air. We are so not eating this after we see this hanging in the open air ....

There is definitely plenty to see and explore here and without the usual weekend or summer crowd, one could walk leisurely among the narrow alleys, exploring all the restaurants, cafes, museums and occasionally stopped to buy some finger food to munch along the way.

It was way past lunch time, when our growling stomach reminded us that we have not had lunch after our heavy breakfast at Marriott Suzhou before we checked out. We started to scout around for a restaurant for our meal and chance upon this guest house. We walked in not knowing what to expect but the friendliness of the owner, his wife and his aging dad who helped to run his business made us feel so at home that we went back for our dinner later that night (he actually served us specifically although they were officially closed, since it was well past 9pm) and again for our lunch before we left.

The place was small with only two tables but clean. Not knowing exactly what to order, we took most of the dishes that were recommended with absolutely no regrets.

We were quickly served with a pot of hot chrysanthemum tea which was perfect drink during the cold winter ...
 Our first dish was the fried river prawns. Absolutely delicious but the only setback is that they were not really large. Although the shell is soft and can be eaten whole, I had to peel the skins off for almost the entire plate for my wife and two kids who absolutely adore this dish ....
Braised Mutton which was out of this world ...
A simple lcoal vegetable stirred fried with bean curd. We ended up ordering this for all our three meals here...
Chicken soup with Siow Bai Chai, especially for the children....yummy.
Local river fish simply with soy sauce and some chopped chives...good to the last piece....
Even the plain rice taste good ....maybe because we were hungry or maybe because we were made to feel so at home ...

It was definitely a memorable meal for us, not only because of the food but probably more because of the hospitality and the friendliness of the innkeeper and his dad who served us. The bill came up to about RMB230 (RM115) including a bottle of Tsingtao beer and we were well fed.

With our stomach filled, we were ready to continue to explore this ancient historical site. The sun was ready to set even though the clock showed that it was only just a little past 5pm since it was winter.

I was excited not only anticipating sunset over this ancient water town, the canals, the old antique structures but also hoping for a fruitful night photography opportunities with great reflections of these structures on the calm waters.

And I was NOT disappointed....more pictures of this charming place at night in my next post, coming right up....

1 comment:

  1. Dear sir,
    Noted that you have engaged a driver. can I know if you still have the contact? what would you rate him?