I love Chinese watertowns. Having been to Xitang on my last visit to Shanghai (You can read about it here:- The Ancient Xitang Watertown), I was pretty excited to visit Zhou Zhuang… again. I visited Zhou Zhuang almost 18 years ago when I first traveled to this part of China, but I was with a group tour and we only spent about 2 hours in the old town on a rainy night. I didn’t get to see much of the watertown then, so I knew a re-visit was a must. After all, Zhou Zhuang must really be something to earn the nickname, “China’s No.1 Watertown,” out of the many, many watertowns around the country.
The Ancient Zhouzhuang Watertown (周庄)
What makes Zhou Zhuang really stand out from all the other watertowns is that it is not only the most famous, but also most possibly the oldest watertown in China — which is most likely what the No.1 stands for. Located in the Jiangsu Province; the watertown is about 60 kilometers from Shanghai, and about 30 kilometers from Suzhou. Just like all watertowns, Zhou Zhuang is famed for its quaint bridges, ancient architecture, winding canals, and local arts and crafts. The old town is also surrounded by 4 lakes on each side.
My friends and I made a one day trip to Zhou Zhuang — and with only approximately 5 hours to explore this ancient watertown, I felt like we needed more time to truly immerse ourselves in its beauty and serenity. Zhou Zhuang is indeed popular and extremely crowded with tourists (we were there on a Sunday — and probably the busiest of days); but even then, it was not impossible to find a quiet lane, or a secluded courtyard in this huge watertown.
Getting from Suzhou to ZhouZhuang
We were based in Suzhou, which was only about 45 minutes away from Zhou Zhuang. Buses from the Suzhou Main Bus Station (near the Suzhou Railway Station) run regularly to the watertown — and cost approximately CNY16~US$2.5 per way, running from about 7am to 6pm (please check the schedule at the bus station for exact times).
However, we decided to take a taxi there instead — for convenience, and because we were just too lazy to get on and off buses. The taxi fare to Zhou Zhuang and back to Suzhou (including the waiting time of 5 hours for us to explore the watertown) cost us about CNY400~US$63. A little costly, yes (and we could have probably haggled for less)… but considering the driver’s wait, and when divided between the four of us, we didn’t think that it was too bad.
Exploring the Lanes of ZhouZhuang
Entrance to the watertown of Zhou Zhuang cost CNY100~US$16 — and includes all entries to the museums, temples and old houses in the ancient town. There are many historical spots and buildings within the watertown to explore, like the Shen House and Zhang House, as well as the 900-year-old Taoist Chengxu Temple — but we decided to forgo looking for specific sites and just get lost in the narrow lanes and canals of Zhou Zhuang.
So there was no map in hand, no lookout for signs, and no direction to go. We just strolled. We passed tourist-filled lanes with bridges that looked like it was about to collapse from the weight of the people on it; but also managed to somehow accidentally walk into old peaceful courtyards with white sheets hanging on the lines, and locals sipping tea or sleeping on rocking chairs outside their houses. I’m glad we always found little quiet spots away from the crowds to get a small glimpse into the real side of Zhou Zhuang.
A Cruise Along the Canals
A cruise along the canals was one of the things I really wanted to do during my visit to Zhou Zhuang. The last time I visited a watertown (Xitang), I watched as these ancient wooden boats glided down the stream — with the singing boatmen and visitors in tow. It looked really fun; so this time, I just needed to get on one and experience it myself!
There are several jetties scattered around the watertown to get on these boats, and it costs CNY150~US$24 per boat for an approximately 20-minutes ride through the canals. The boat can fit about 6 people at most, but there were only 4 of us so we had the entire boat to ourselves.
It was a completely different perspective seeing Zhou Zhuang from the waters — it was peaceful and relaxing as our boats passed by the hordes of people, while the crowds watched us float by as if we were a spectacle. During the ride, our boatman offered to sing us a couple of old Chinese songs in return for some tips; and we obliged him. It was a plus that he happened to be a pretty good singer. I was taken for a ride back to the ancient times for that little while.
Lunch and Snacks in the Watertown
Our boatman dropped us off at one of the boat-landing points — and recommended that we have lunch at the restaurant just next to it. We didn’t have any particular restaurant in mind, so we decided to try it out. The food was pretty alright, but most restaurants in the watertown serve almost the same local dishes — an observation I made after looking at some of the menus at the other places.
We ordered some of the watertown specialties — the Shen Wansan’s Foot (pork trotters), the local White Silk Fish, some fried baby prawns, and Apo’s Vegetables (pickled vegetables, which translates to grandma’s vegetables). We paired our meal with a couple of bottles of local beer.
As for snacks — there are lots of it while walking around the many shops in Zhou Zhuang. From Chinese desserts, local biscuits and yellow wine to yogurt and hot coffee; you’ll be just fine if you decide to skip your meal and just munch while you walk!
Shopping in Zhou Zhuang
We didn’t think that we’d be spending much time shopping in Zhou Zhuang, but we underestimated ourselves! There were just so much things to see (and buy, of course) — this watertown is after all, famed for its local arts and crafts. It was interesting to see the locals actually make, sew, cook or even carve out the products themselves.
We ended up buying a couple of jars of yellow wine, some local souvenirs, lots and lots of food snacks, and I even dropped by a calligraphy studio where the in-house ‘sifoo’ created a poem with my name and penned it down in his own unique Chinese calligraphy. I really had a lovely time browsing through the many shops housed within the ancient buildings of Zhou Zhuang.
Wishing I Had More Time
People say that the watertowns of China are like the poor versions of Amsterdam or Venice. But nope. Definitely not poor. They are all so rich in culture, and tradition, and beauty. So lovely that I really I wished I allocated more time to explore the many lanes and winding canals of Zhou Zhuang. With only 5 hours, I felt as if I’ve only seen one tiny part of the vast ancient town — it really wasn’t quite enough.
I can now understand why Zhou Zhuang is called China’s No.1 Watertown. It is commercialised, yes — with the throngs of tourist, noisy tour groups, and prices that are probably more expensive than other watertowns. But the crowds didn’t get to me, as there were times when we wandered off far enough from the usual tourist trails and found that little bit of peace and quiet. So Zhou Zhuang really is a mix of the very busy, and also the laid-back. I much prefer the calm, but sometimes, the hustle and bustle livens up the spirits too.