Welcome to Waterworld

The Chinese city of Wuzhen,with its maze of canals and alleyways, is an example of historic preservation.

By: By Mark Edward Harris


Getting There
For North American visitors, the most convenient route to Wuzhen and Hangzhou is to fly into Shanghai’s Pudong airport. Direct bus service is available from the airport to both cities. There is also train service from Shanghai, as well as day and overnight tours that can be booked through Shanghai’s major hotels.

Wuzhen Visitor Center

Where to Stay
Guest House

Splendid Clubhouse

Tong An Hotel

Shangri-La Hangzhou

Wuzhen is a maze of canals and waterways // (c) Mark Edward HarrisWith bulldozers razing old neighborhoods to make room for massive apartment buildings and ultra-modern skyscrapers, the face of China is changing forever. At first this development carried on with seemingly little regard for preservation. In recent years, however, a new trend emerged — one that helps preserve at least some of the country’s irreplaceable ancient neighborhoods called hutongs.

A successful case study in historic preservation is the town of Wuzhen, located approximately 80 miles southwest of Shanghai. The walled city is a maze of canals and narrow alleyways, and in 1991, it was named a Provincial Ancient Town of History and Culture. As a result, modern visitor’s centers with fee-collecting kiosks guard its two entrances. Even if the experience has a bit of a Disneyland feel, visitors should not be discouraged to venture past the turnstile and enter the fascinating city beyond.

Wuzhen is laid out in six districts, all reachable on foot or by waterbus.

The Traditional Workshops District includes a workshop that produces popular blue calico-dyed handmade cloth and the Xuchang Paste Company, where visitors see how soy sauce is made.

The Traditional Dwelling Houses District includes the 19th-century former residence of revolutionary writer Mao Dun and state-of-the art boutique hotels that seem right at home.

The Traditional Food and Beverage District has Fanglu Pavilion — considered the best teahouse in Wuzhen.

The Water Township Customs and Life District features the Wujinatang Salt Baths. These magnesium-rich waters increase circulation and their anti-inflammatory properties reduce the swelling of arthritis. For those in need of other ancient healing methods or just have an interest in traditional Chinese medicine, Wuzhen’s Hengyitang Drugstore has herbalists on the premises who will use traditional methods of diagnosis: observation, interrogation, auscultation (listening to the sounds made by a patient’s internal organs) and pulse analysis. And then, if needed, they will write a prescription that can be filled while the patient waits.

A Traditional Shops and Stores District has both inexpensive souvenirs and good quality objets d’art.

The Traditional Culture District has a number of museums, including the fascinating Chinese Footbinding Culture Museum with its unique collection of 825 pairs of footbinding shoes, an array of footbinding tools and photographs of women who were physically altered by this ancient practice. For furniture aficionados there is The Hundred Beds Museum containing beautiful examples of Ming and Qing dynasty beds.

Crossing from one district to another over ancient stone bridges and through Wuzhen’s narrow alleys transports visitors back in time. Two river crossings that should be sought out for their unusual design are the Tongji Bridge and the Renji Bridge. With one running east-west and the other north-south, the two create what is called a bridge-in-a-bridge where they intersect.

While a visit to Wuzhen is an easy day trip from Shanghai, an overnight stay in one of the town’s unique boutique hotels can transport visitors back to the China depicted in countless scrolls and paintings.

An equally attractive option is to overnight in nearby Hangzhou’s magnificent Shangri-La Hotel Hangzhou, located on the north shore of the city’s West Lake, overlooking Solitary Hill Island and historic Xiling Bridge.

The hotel has 382 architecturally distinctive and spacious guestrooms and suites all equipped with broadband Internet access. There is also a business center which offers comprehensive business services. Its health club and recreational services are considered the region’s finest. And a ride on one of the hotel’s rental bikes along the lake and paths winding through the 40-acre property will reenergize not only the body but also the mind of anyone peddling through the spectacular scenery.