Introduction to Wuzhen, Ancient Water Village
Wuzhen is one of the many shui xiang or 水乡 that dot the lower Yangtze River Delta, all of which seem to claim the title “Venice of China” or the “Venice of the East”. Why this comparison? These old towns were built over systems of canals that were used in ancient times instead of roads. The canals connected up with major rivers in the area and then on to the Yangtze and the Grand Canal that extended to Beijing. The area’s major commodities such as silk textiles were sold and traded along these routes.
The Venice of the East
As I mention, every water town I have visited from Zhouzhuang to Zhujiazjiao and now to Wuzhen claim the same title. It doesn’t really matter; all of these villages have picturesque old quarters or gucheng (古城) in Mandarin. Some villages are better than others. Wuzhen is by far the nicest water town I’ve visited so far.
What make is so nice? For one, the old quarter itself is much larger. In truth, this simply means that the local government restored much more of the old town than other local governments have done. But the restoration itself seems to have been painstakingly done. Furthermore, the shops, tea houses, guesthouses and hotels are nicely kept without garish signs in the front or pushers of horrible tourist trash on the sidewalks. Therefore you get a much more authentic feel for the town without constantly stepping around silk scarves being thrust in your face by desperate vendors.
What I’m saying is that the look and feel of Wuzhen is much less obviously touristic than other water towns in the area.
Wuzhen is located about an hour north of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province right off the Grand Canal. Wuzhen is in a place called Tongxiang County. Practically speaking, it is easy to get to from Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai and can easily be made into a one-day trip, although I would advise sleeping there one night if it can fit into your itinerary.
The architecture of Wuzhen is typical of this region. Buildings are low - usually two stories - though some have 3 or 4. They are made from gray brick that is then either whitewashed or overlaid with wooden paneling. Roofs are covered with black tile. Inside the homes, the floors are wood and outside the paths are all stone and connected by stone bridges. Wuzhen is unique for the number of buildings that are wood-clad instead of whitewashed. The wood cladding gives the town a much warmer feel.
There are two major parts to Wuzhen for tourists to visit. It is divided into East and West parts and requires an entrance ticket for each. Although, if you are spending the night, you won’t need an entrance ticket - or it depends on which side you are staying in.
The two parts are referred to in Chinese as follows:
- East Area - Dong Zha or 东栅
- West Area - Xi Zha or 西栅
According to many, the East Area is much more touristy than the West Area so if you have to choose, you may want to focus your time in the West Area.
In the East Area there are a number of performance areas where you can see the following at certain times of day:
- Shadow puppet plays
- Martial arts performances
- Bamboo pole climbing
In addition, the East Area of Wuzhen is much more commercial and you'll find many shops with touristy items and local food.
As mentioned above, the West Area offers a more unique and less touristy experience (although you'll still find plenty of visitors). But the commercial feel is much less in the West Area. Here are some things to see and do in Wuzhen's West Area:
- Wuzhen holds an international theater festival. The Wuzhen Grand Theatre is right inside the West Area gate. The festival attracts international theater groups and hosts performances at a number of venues throughout the ancient town. The festival takes place in October.
- Stroll along the canals taking in the lovely architecture and absence of commercialism that plagues many other Chinese tourist towns
- Take a boat ride through the canals to see a different view and experience how life was along the canals. From the West Area, you can reach all the way to the Grand Canal that connected Hangzhou to Beijing.
- Be sure to stroll off the main canal-side streets to find the small alleys and hidden paths. The entire area has been renovated and you'll be able to wander around enjoying the less crowded areas. If you're there in the spring, you'll be astounded by the number of gorgeous and enormous wisteria vines that shade the back alleys.
- Explore local wares such as
- Wuzhen black pottery
- Wuzhen soybean products - there is a local soybean paste and soy sauce maker where you'll find the beans fermenting under hundreds of cone-shaped bamboo baskets
- Wuzhen indigo products - another local product is the ancient art of indigo batik. You'll find many textile products in this beautiful locally produced blue and white
- Locally made pickles - there's a wonderful family selling homemade pickles or xiancai (咸菜). Be sure to try some. Many are very spicy so be careful.
Where to Stay
There are countless guesthouses, inns and hotels in Wuzhen. I didn't stay overnight on my visit but I see the attraction. The day-visitors all leave and then you have the whole town to yourself. The small restaurants and inns light lanterns and the light reflected off the water in the evening would be quite romantic and picturesque. I will certainly book a weekend there with my family.
Check guest reviews and prices for Hotels in Wuzhen on TripAdvisor.
Getting To Wuzhen
There’s not a train station that Wuzhen is connected to so getting there requires at least a partial bus or taxi ride. You can find direct buses going to Wuzhen from all major cities in the area such as Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai and as far away as Nanjing. A direct bus might be the best option for tourists as it will take the least amount of negotiating transfers.
You can take the train part of the way there, depending on where you are coming from, and then catch a bus or taxi the rest of the way. However, depending on number of people in your group, it might be best to hire transport for the day to get there and back. When I visited Wuzhen from Shanghai, we were a group of five so we hired a van and driver to take us to Wuzhen and return to Shanghai that evening. Your hotel should be able to help you arrange this. Or you can book directly (and likely cheaper) by hiring from a car rental service.
When to Visit Wuzhen
The best times to visit anywhere in this area are spring and fall. These two seasons have the mildest temperatures and you’ll be able to enjoy being outside without have the extreme weather conditions like in winter and summer. If you can choose between spring and fall, then choose fall. Spring is very rainy in this region so you may be battling umbrellas in the small lanes of Wuzhen, which is not very pleasant.
I don’t advise winter as the ancient architecture in these parts does not provide for any insulation or heating. If you’re planning to spend the night, then choose a new hotel, not a traditional guesthouse, so that you can warm up at night. Summer is advisable only if you don’t mind extreme heat and humidity. While you can find shade wandering in the lanes, it will be crowded in summer and difficult to cool off.