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A world of wonders in watertowns

INCESSANT noise, insane traffic and poor quality air are all a part of life in Shanghai. Many may feel worn down and exhausted by these elements and yearn for a simple sanctuary to jump off the urban treadmill.

In the Yangtze River Delta, there are a string of picturesque watertowns scattered about. Time seems to slip by slowly in these towns, creating a tranquil diversion from the city's hustle and bustle. Mottled cobblestone paths and meandering canals are the big features of these seemingly forgotten towns. But there are also exquisitely carved stone bridges, quaint residences, historical artifacts, tasty snacks and red lanterns hung on delicate eaves.

Here is a quick tour to help you plan a short getaway.

Qibao Old Town

The famed Qibao Old Town in Shanghai's southwest is renowned for its beautiful water scenery and abundance of delicacies.

The town dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). There's an old saying: "The Bund reflects 100 years of Shanghai's history while Qibao looks back 1,000 years."

Qibao literally means seven treasures. Legend has it that there were seven treasures in the area: a gold lotus scripture written by an imperial concubine during the 10th century, a magic tree dating back 1,000 years, a bronze bell, an iron Buddha, a golden rooster, jade chopsticks and a jade axe.

The town was built near the confluence of two rivers and flourished as a trade center for centuries.

Today, crowds of hungry people come here to enjoy some of the best food Minhang District has to offer. The local specialties include deep-fried tofu, sliced lamb, crabapple cake, tangyuan (rice balls with a sweet filling) and smelly bean curd.

Once the appetite is sated, it's time to stroll and enjoy the special amenities on offer.

Interspersed among the food stalls are a number of small museums with quiet interiors.

The Textile Mill at 41 North Street is a tribute to Huang Daopo, a legendary woman who made remarkable contributions to innovative weaving and spinning techniques.

Huang was born around 1245 in Wunijin Town of Songjiang Prefecture, which is today known as Dongwan Village near Qibao. The people of Qibao have long been celebrated for their weaving and spinning skills. At the museum, visitors can see how cotton fabrics are turned into clothing.

Stepping into Laohangdang (Old Trades and Crafts) at 9 East Street, visitors will likely marvel at the variety of arts that mark the history of this area. The 500-square-meter museum displays a vivid and meticulous panorama of Qibao in more ancient times, with wax figures recreating daily life. Here, you can come face to face with the blacksmiths, carpenters, fortune tellers, tailors and weavers in Qibao.

Zhou's Miniature Carving House, at 64 Fuqiang Road, hosts a vast collection of small, intricately carved sculptures.

The stone sculptures replicate settings from the classic Chinese novel "A Dream of the Red Mansions." A collection of stone-sculptured teapots is also on display.

Zhujiajiao Watertown

Zhujiajiao in Shanghai's Qingpu District has been coined "The Venice of Shanghai." Its history dates back more than 1,700 years.

The old town thrived in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It features well-preserved architecture, delicate gardens, an old temple and ancient streets. The walls are whitewashed and topped by black slate eaves. Red lanterns light up when night falls.

Fangsheng Bridge spanning Shoucaogang River is a landmark in the town measuring 70.8 meters long and 7.4 meters high. It is the city's longest, biggest and highest stone arch bridge. People traditionally fish off the bridge to show respect for life on the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year. They believe this will bring them good luck.

Baoguo Temple, which was built in the Ming Dynasty, has three treasures - two white jade Buddha statues and a ginkgo tree that is about 1,000 years old and 20 meters tall.

The Kezhi Garden has a beautiful natural setting. Construction started on the garden in 1912 and it took 15 years to finish with a budget of about 300,000 yuan (US$46,153). It has pavilions, rockery, stones, corridors and many trees.

It is said that Ma Wenqing, the owner of the garden, studied many Jiangnan (region in the south of the lower reaches of Yangtze River) gardens before building Kezhi. He ordered workers to replicate some famous attractions in Kezhi, such as the lotus pond and Jiuqu Bridge (Nine-zigzag Bridge) at Yuyuan Garden.

Zhouzhuang Watertown

Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu Province is among the most famous watertowns in China. With a history of more than 900 years, it still retains the style and pattern of an ancient village despite the hordes of tourists.

The town is surrounded and divided by lakes and rivers. There are 14 stone bridges crossing the rivers, all good vantage points for photographs. Houses are built partly above the canals and rivers. People see boats passing by from their windows and they wash their clothes in the canal and fall asleep to the gentle sound of water.

Tourists usually like the leisurely boat rides. Locals who ferry people down the rivers often chant old melodies.

Zhouzhuang's most famous attractions are Fu'an Bridge, Double Bridge and Shen's Residence.

Built in 1355, Fu'an Bridge is the only remaining structure that made a connection between bridge and a house, while Double Bridge is connected by two bridges to make one big bridge. It is firm and simple, composed of a stone arch bridge and a beam bridge. It was famous because of the late artist Chen Yifei, who dedicated one of his works to the bridge.

Shen's Residence is a typical building of the Ming Dynasty. Covering more than 2,000 square meters, it has over 100 rooms and is named after Shen Wansan (1330-1376), one of the richest men of his age. Shen started out as a farmer. Although how he became so wealthy remained a mystery, it is said his relationship with Jiang Zuo, also a very wealthy person, played a role. Jiang appreciated Shen's wisdom in doing business.

Shen's residence features carved statues, painting and calligraphy works, clay sculptures and elaborate settings.

Zhouzhuang is also known for a variety of special snacks. The most famous is Wansan's pig shank, known by locals as Wansan's elbows or Wansan's hoof.

Other local snacks include Wansan cake, sesame cakes, walnut cakes, green cake and shrimp.

Residents like sipping tea that is usually accompanied with snacks.

Xitang Watertown

Xitang Watertown in Zhejiang Province offers an even more tranquil refuge for urban dwellers as it usually has fewer visitors. It is the site where Tom Cruise shot scenes for "Mission Impossible 3."

It retains a peaceful ambience and scenic beauty. Strolling along the banks of the canals is like walking in a picture.

The town is crisscrossed by nine rivers and linked by old-fashioned stone bridges. Different from other watertowns, Xitang has a distinctive structure called langpeng, which translates as street with roof. Riverside streets in Xitang have delicately carved brick and wood roofs, which stretch about 1,000 meters. They provide shelter from the sun and rain.

In ancient times, many transactions were made on boats along the river banks, therefore, langpeng were built. Now they are a tourist attraction.

The beam of Zunwentang, an old residence built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), is another scenic spot. Its 5-meter beam was carved with the Chinese character shou (longevity) 100 times.

Shipi Lane is the narrowest alley among Xitang's 122 lanes. At its narrowest, it is only 0.8 meters wide although most of it is 1 meter wide. It is 68 meters long. It is nicknamed Yixiantian, which means one thread of heaven.

The stone path of Songzi Laifeng Bridge is divided into two parts, the left for men, and the right for women. Since women often had their feet bound in ancient times the ramps were built to make it easier for them to cross the bridge.

The China Button Museum is housed in a Ming Dynasty building. It has a wide collection of buttons from traditional Chinese knots to the latest ones made from horn, ivory, mother of pearl and bamboo.

Also on display is some old machinery used by Xitang people more than 100 years ago to make buttons out of shells.

Wuzhen Watertown

Like other watertowns, Wuzhen is characterized by ancient stone bridges, mottled walls, refined architecture and cobblestone paths. Located in northern Zhejiang Province, it has a history of more than 2,000 years.

There are over 30 bridges here, with the earliest dating back to the Song Dynasty.

Locals have retained many old traditions like walking on bridges during the Lantern Festival without retracing their steps. It was said that women in ancient times carried a crock pot used to boil herbs and walked on at least 10 bridges in groups. They dropped the crock pots into the river as a blessing so that they wouldn't get any diseases in the new year.

During Zhongyuan Festival, or Ghost Festival, locals usually placed lanterns with wood plates on the water, signifying giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of their ancestors.

Mao Dun (1896–1981), an acclaimed novelist, was born in Wuzhen. The former residence of Mao Dun, on Guanqian Street, was originally built in the mid 19th century and covers 650 square meters. Mao lived at the residence for 13 years. The setting of the residence is simple, and it is steeped in the reverence of literati.

Mao's well-known work "The Lin's Shop" describes life in Wuzhen.

Also, there is an old stage in the town. Covering 204 square meters, it was built in 1749. Flower-drum opera is still performed on the stage.

Wuzhen produced many candidates who successfully passed the highest imperial examinations from the Song Dynasty through the Qing Dynasty. It is also known as the "capital of silk."

It also attracts visitors with its time-honored art of making indigo-dyed calico items. In ancient times, indigo-dyed cotton items were used for curtains, scarves and tablecloths in every household in the Zhejiang countryside.


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