Drift back in time in China's picture-perfect canal towns

By Julie Wan
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 11, 2011; 12:35 PM

One glimpse of the waterfront houses in the canal town of Xitang, and every Chinese scroll painting I'd ever seen as a child suddenly made sense. It was all there: the arching stone bridges, the tiled rooftops, the red lanterns strung from the eaves, even the boatman paddling down the river.

This is the other postcard China - the one without the Great Wall or the Terra Cotta Warriors. And it's one that remained largely undiscovered until the 1980s, when a New York gallery owner presented a Chinese painting of the canal town Zhouzhuang to then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping as a gift. The town immediately became a household name in China. Since then, the whole country has been swept by a canal-town craze, and millions of Chinese tourists have flocked to the dozen or so of these rustic floating villages in the Yangtze River Delta.

These days, Zhouzhuang draws more than 2.5 million visitors each year and has been dubbed both the "Venice of the East" and the "Number One Water Town in China." It has become so touristy that purists no longer consider it authentic. When we asked a local friend for a canal-town recommendation, her advice was emphatic: "The water town I recommend is called Xi Tang," she wrote in an e-mail. "The one I do not recommend is Zhou Zhuang."

And so it is in Xitang that my husband and I arrive on a late Saturday afternoon. Because of our schedules, we were unable to heed the single most important piece of advice repeated in every forum, brochure and guidebook on the canal towns: Don't go on a weekend. So we arrange at least to arrive later in the day, to avoid day-trippers from Shanghai. But considering the throngs of Chinese tourists packed onto the small cobbled paths here, it hasn't made much difference.

Despite the flurry of tour leaders' pennants waving in my view, though, I actually find myself wishing that we had arrived earlier. There's a reason Chinese tourists come here in droves: Xitang just oozes kitschy charm and old-world scenery. Trinket shops and willow trees line the pathway along the canal; tables and stools for sipping tea and dining crowd the water's edge; and on the other side, centuries-old homes have been turned into guesthouses with back terraces overlooking the canal.

One of the smaller water towns, only a little more than half a square mile in size, Xitang has a historic center that consists of one main thoroughfare along the water, with dozens of tight alleys snaking off it. The town boasts more than 100 of these lanes, the narrowest of which, Shipi Lane, is only three feet wide - not even enough room to stretch out your arms.

To visit these rustic, preserved canal towns is to be transported back into history, but in many ways it's also a chance to experience a Chinese holiday. We notice that nobody speaks a word of English here, and we see only one or two other foreign faces around. In a nation of 1.3 billion people, with an emerging middle class for whom traveling internationally is still both expensive and bureaucratically difficult, spots like these make the perfect domestic getaway. Add to that the nostalgia for a way of life that's fast disappearing beneath jutting skyscrapers and newly paved roads all around the country, and it's easy to understand the lure of the canal town.

As we walk through the alleys, a certain canal-town street fare becomes unavoidably evident. I immediately pick up on the heavy scent of stinky tofu, that fermented street snack that I first sampled in Taiwan and that I now enthusiastically tell people tastes much better than it smells. Naturally, we stop to buy a serving with hot sauce from a woman at a corner who is also selling chicken gizzards and other bits of skewered meat marinating in a spiced soy sauce.

Baskets of broad beans are also a common sight: beans baked in the sun, seasoned with orange peel and aniseed and then stir-fried dry in a wok. And I'm all too happy to find dragon's beard candy here, a treat I associate with trips to Chinatown in my Toronto childhood, when my cousins and I snacked on these powdery dry bundles of wispy spun sugar wound around crushed peanuts. There's something comforting about these snacks, a taste signaling to the Chinese that they're on vacation, just as candied apples or funnel cakes might to an American.

Between mouthfuls of candy, we stop to buy retro Communist postcards at Caiyuntang, a youth-hostel-run shop whose walls and ceiling are covered in postcards and letters handwritten in Chinese. The notebooks and stationery on sale are stamped with slogans that now seem quaint: "Health is a pre-condition of work"; "Men cannot say 'impossible,' and women cannot say 'it doesn't matter.' "

I'm impressed to see that beyond these souvenirs and snacks, Xitang has retained much of its historic environment. The stone slab buildings and shingled roofs have been preserved from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The town almost looks unreal, like a Hollywood stage set or a theme park. In fact, not long ago, Xitang served as one of the backdrops for the movie "Mission Impossible III," a distinction that no doubt contributed to the town's rise in popularity and is now enshrined on a billboard staked at an embankment.

Among the canal towns, Xitang is distinctive for its long covered corridor, which formed over the years as rooftops were connected into one long patchwork of awning to provide shelter from heavy rain. The covering now stretches more than half a mile along the canal, which is part of the much larger Grand Canal, a 1,103-mile waterway that runs from Beijing south to Hangzhou and served for centuries as one of China's main trade arteries.

Even though many sections of the Grand Canal have silted over, remnants of an ancient way of life still linger in these towns. Our hotel owner tells us that her family has lived here for at least five generations and probably more, though no one remembers who was the first descendant to arrive.

As daylight begins to dim, we stop to buy a floating lantern - a tea light set in an origami flower - and release it into the water, which by now has taken on the sky's indigo blue and the lanterns' red glow. Charcoal grills are starting to come out, and glass display cases show that you can get anything grilled on a skewer: squid, beef, chicken wings, lamb, enoki mushrooms, even sprigs of Chinese chives. Nearby, a Chinese opera group has set up in a pagoda to serenade diners.

We decide to skip the boat tour (the canal is starting to look as crowded as the alleys) and head instead to one of the footbridges to take a few photos. About 100 feet away, I stop short at the sight of photography enthusiasts with their tripods and digital SLRs swarming the tiny narrow bridge, a surrealistic scene that calls to mind clowns packed into a circus car.

I realize how futile it is to run from the crowds, so I forge ahead, camera in hand, and squirm my way into the scrum to claim a spot on the bridge. Around me, the amateur photographers jostle and chatter as they eagerly snap away. For a moment, it feels as if all of China is packed into this old town. But who's to say that this is a bad thing? The Chinese have a term for this kind of happy chaos. If you're fortunate enough to be somewhere so "re nao" - so happening, so rowdy - as Xitang on a Saturday night, you're not doing too badly in the world.

It's not until the next morning, in the faint light just after daybreak, that I find Xitang at its prime. Watching the town awaken is worth an overnight stay. The once-packed streets are almost abandoned. Angular shafts of sunlight fall onto the stone-paved lanes. At the side of a path, smoke rises as a man fans a charcoal fire. Out on the water, a trash jetty slowly floats from one end of the canal to the other, steered by a garbage collector fishing out last night's debris with a net, clearing the canal for another day of visitors. Not far from him, a woman squats on the steps leading down to the water, washing her clothes in the canal.

We stop for a breakfast of dumplings, lotus-leaf-wrapped sticky rice and xiao huan tun (wontons with literally a chopstick's smidgen of filling). Then the grandma from our hotel kindly shows us how to get to the bus stop, and we head off to Suzhou, a moderate-size metropolis along the Grand Canal that serves as a good transfer point between the smaller water towns.

On Monday morning, my husband has to head back to Shanghai for work. He asks me what I want to do. I can't resist the urge to see just one more canal town. I tell him to go on without me as I head to the bus station to buy a single ticket for Tongli, my next stop.

Wan is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is www.juliewan.com.

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