Have you seen any Chinese costume/historical movie? If you go to Zhouzhuang it will make you feel as if you just found yourself in one. Don’t misunderstand – there are no cosplayers. There is something else – a town with a few hundred years of history. Walking down very narrow streets between wooden houses (some as old as 500 years) really makes you feel as if you’ve gone back in time…
Zhouzhuang is one of the few famous water towns in China (each of them likes to title itself as ‘Venice of the Orient’ or ‘Venice of the East’). It’s located around 30km southeast from Suzhou. Its main attraction is (as you probably guess) a boat ride. It’s worth trying, not only for picturesque views, but also to see part of the real life of the town’s inhabitants. If you just walk down the streets (however charming they are) you will see only colourful facade for tourists (shops with handicrafts, silk, souvenirs and restaurants). It’s dazzling and brimming with life but also untruthful in a way. When you board a boat you can escape from calls of pushy shop owners and see the ‘backyard’ of the town (people still doing their laundry the old way – in the canal or fishermen drying their nets in the yards).
After a ride you can enjoy a meal in one of the many restaurants near the canal. You should be warned however, that they are quite expensive. If you prefer something cheaper, you can look for street vendors. Try fried little fish (2 sticks for 5 RMB). An interesting snack will make also different kinds of steamed cakes.
Once your hunger been satisfied you can aim for more cultural attractions. There’s an old building of opera where you can watch traditional performance (usually between 13:00-15:00). You’re worried that you won’t understand a word? There’s a screen with live English translation. Does it help? Honestly – not really. You might understand the text but it will make you even more perplexed watching what’s happening on stage. Let’s just say that traditional Chinese opera is something rather difficult to comprehend by average commoner. Nevertheless it’s interesting to see something so different from the Western art. Performances take place in inner yard of an old mansion and each part lasts around 20 minutes. You can leave during the break without disturbing anyone. You don’t have to pay admission fee either. Once you bought Zhouzhuang entrance ticket it allows you to go anywhere in the town without additional costs (except for the boat ride).
Some of the old buildings (like Zhen house and Shen house) were turned into museums. Both of those residencies were built during the times of Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). You can see them both without any additional fee. It will give you slight insight how people lived during that times.
If you’re willing to see something more spiritual, there are two temples you can visit: the Quanfu Temple (Buddhist) and the Chengxu Temple (Taoist). Both still serve as religious centers (they are not only for show).
Any drawbacks? I would mention three:
1. High admission fee -100 RMB (around 16$)
2. Crowds of tourists.
3. Pushy shop owners.
Is it worth seeing? Definitely. If you’re planning to come to China, you should absolutely put one of the water towns on your tour list (it doesn’t have to be Zhouzhuang though). List of other water towns you can find here and on CNN Travel.
Location – 30km southeast from Suzhou (Jiangsu province)
Ticket – 100 RMB (around 16$). It allows visiting all the attractions within the town (except for the boat ride).
Boat ride – 100 RMB per boat (can fit 6 people). If you can find 5 other people it would be less than 20 RMB per person (3$). The ride lasts around 20 minutes.
Souvenirs : embroidery, silk, handicraft (you can buy them cheaper in Suzhou).
From Suzhou North Bus station (29 Xihui Road) – there’s a bus every half an hour. The last one departs around 17:00. Ticket costs 16 RMB (less than 3$). It takes around an hour to get to Zhouzhuang.