The over-quoted Chinese saying, "In heaven there is paradise, on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou" (shang you tiantang, xia you suhang), promises more than today's reality can deliver, but it nevertheless calls deserved attention to two famous destinations within an easy day trip of Shanghai: Suzhou, to the northwest, with its famous gardens and canals; and Hangzhou, to the southwest, renowned for beautiful West Lake and the surrounding tea plantations. Sandwiched in between are a host of water villages of the Yangzi River delta, with their arched bridges, narrow canals, and Chinese garden estates all spruced up for mass tourism. It's worth visiting at least one of these pastoral towns, though picking one can be difficult. The most famous, and perhaps most complete water village, Zhou Zhuang, has unfortunately become a nightmarish tourist trap, and has been replaced in our recommendations by the villages of Nanxun and Tongli, which are not only less commercial, but boast unique features not found elsewhere.
Many travelers to these destinations book a group tour with an English-speaking guide to smooth the way. The main drawback to such an arrangement is that you will have but a short time to explore the sites, the duration dictated by the tour company's schedule rather than your interest (or lack of it) at any point. Alternatives are to hire a driver and car yourself, with the assistance of your hotel concierge, or to use public transportation (trains and buses), which is more grueling, but is also the cheapest and most fun way to experience this beautiful corner of China.
A Quick Getaway
For visitors eager to glimpse a Yangzi River delta water village, but who are unable to spare an entire day, the ancient water town of Qibao (information tel. 021/6461-5308) located in Minhang District a scant 18km (11 miles) southwest of downtown Shanghai, makes for an acceptable if not terribly exciting alternative.
Like many water towns in the area, Qibao was built in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), but only came into its own in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Local lore has it that Qibao (literally, "seven treasures") was once home to seven treasures including, among other exotica, a Ming Dynasty bronze bell and a Lotus sutra, both the only artifacts remaining today. Opened as a tourist attraction in 2002, the "old town" (many of the structures are newly built to look old) spans about 2 sq. km (3/4 sq. mile) and has the usual narrow alleyways, arched bridges, and canals. Unfortunately, it's also surrounded by a new town and many ugly, modern concrete structures.
There are no must-sees here, but structures of note include the Catholic Church (Tianzhu Jiaotang) in the southern part, with its whitewashed interiors; the completely rebuilt Qibao Temple (Qibao Jiao Si); the Opera House, where shadow plays are occasionally still performed; a cotton spinning workshop (Mianzhi Fang); and a distillery workshop (Laojiu Fang), where you can sample some of the freshly distilled wine for which the town is famous. You can also take the de rigueur canal boat ride. There is the usual gauntlet of shops proffering all the same souvenirs you've likely seen elsewhere, but of more interest may be the many local snacks, the most famous of which is qibao fangzheng gao, a steamed pastry made of glutinous rice with sweet bean paste, best eaten when it's just a few minutes out of the steamer.
Both a blessing and a curse, Qibao's proximity to downtown Shanghai means that it can be easily reached, but it is also overrun with tourists, making a relaxed leisurely visit (the ideal way to see a water town) all but impossible. To get here, take Metro Line 9 to Qibao Station; from there, follow directions to the old town, just a short walk from the station. A taxi from downtown Shanghai will cost around ¥90. There is no admission fee to wander the old town, but if you wish to visit any of the designated sights, you can either pay separate admission fees (¥5-¥10) at each place or purchase a ¥45 ticket that will gain you entry into eight sights.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.