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90km (56 miles) W of Shanghai, 66km (41 miles) S of Suzhou, 100km (62 miles) NE of Hangzhou

Of all the many water villages in the upper reaches of the Yangzi River, the Song Dynasty town of Nanxun is, for now, my favorite. Besides having it all -- a charming mix of traditional houses that back right onto flowing streams, ancient stone arched bridges, narrow cobblestone lanes, friendly residents, and some of the most interesting mansions and estates to be found in any Yangzi water village (for their highly unusual mix of Chinese and Western architectural styles) -- Nanxun is, at press time, still comparatively free of the usual tourist glitter. Located at the southern edge of Tai Hu (Lake Tai) on the boundary between Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces (it's officially in the latter), it can be visited as a long day trip from Shanghai or combined with a longer trip to Suzhou or Hangzhou.

Essentials

The easiest way to reach Nanxun (a 2-2 1/2-hour ride from Shanghai) is by car, whether rented as part of an organized private tour, or separately arranged by your hotel concierge. Travel agencies can, of course, arrange private tours with the Jin Jiang Optional Tours Center (Changle Lu 191; tel. 021/6415-1188) charging around ¥2,500 for one person, ¥1,500 each for two. A cheaper alternative is the daily Nanxun tour bus (2 1/2 hr.; ¥150 round-trip, including the ¥100 admission ticket), which leaves the Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center (Gate 25 of the Shanghai Stadium/Shanghai Tiyuguan) at 9am and returns at 5pm. Departure times may change, so call ahead (tel. 021/6426-5555) to confirm.

Entry into the old town is free, but tickets to all the major sights cost ¥100. The ticket office (tel. 0572/391-5115 or 0572/301-6999; www.chinananxun.com) is open daily 8am to 5pm.

Exploring Nanxun

Though a village existed here as early as A.D. 746, Nanxun was officially established around 1252 during the Southern Song Dynasty; the town reached its prominence only later in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today's town is made of a new (1980) urban section to the west and the old town located in the east. Life in the old section, still a haven of relative peace and quiet, is largely clustered around the Gu Yunhe canal in the north, and the small north-south tributary that flows from it. The main streets are Dong Dajie in the north, and the north-south Nanxi Jie and Nandong Jie.

Since the tourist entrance is in the south, start your visit around Jiaye Tang and Xiao Lian Zhuang and slowly meander your way north. Along the way, there are several docks from which you can take a gondola ride (¥13-¥30 per person for a one-way 30-min. ride).

Many of Nanxun's traditional houses and garden estates are from the late Ming (1368-1644) through the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, when the town was a thriving center of trade, first in silk, then later in rice and salt. In fact, the town was so awash in wealth in the 19th century that it had its own list of the 100 richest residents, known as si xiang ba guniu qishier zhi huangjinggou, literally "4 elephants, 8 bulls, and 72 golden retrievers."

The richest animal of them all was a Qing Dynasty merchant named Liu Yong (1826-99) who built his fortune from cotton, silk, salt, and real estate. His legacy is on view in Nanxun's most famous garden, the lovely Xiao Lian Zhuang (Little Lotus Villa), which was built in 1885 as his private garden. The centerpiece here is an immense lotus pond that's especially beautiful in the summer. Anchoring the southeastern end of the pond is a Western-style, two-story red-brick house that was used as a retreat for the women of the house. To the southeast are two striking stone memorial archways (paifang) built to honor Liu Yong's many charitable works as well as the chastity of the Liu womenfolk. Also here is the family ancestral hall.

In 1920, Liu Chenggan, Liu Yong's grandson, built the two-story courtyard-style Jiaye Tang Cangshu Lou (Jiaye Tang Library) in the lot just west of Xiao Lian Zhuang, where he reportedly spent a fortune accumulating up to 600,000 volumes of ancient books, among them rare finds such as the official histories of the Song and Yuan dynasties, as well as block-printed books that were banned by the Qing government. In the 1930s, the family was forced to sell much of its collection, and after 1949, what was left (of the books and the building) was given over to the Zhejiang Library. The rest of the compound is taken up by a sprawling garden with ponds, pavilions, and large clusters of rocks dredged up from Tai Hu (Lake Tai).

East of Xiao Lian Zhuang is one of Nanxun's true treasures, the magnificent Zhang Shiming Jiuzhai. Built in 1905 by businessman Zhang Shiming (the grandson of one of the original four richest men in town), this unusual 4,000-sq.-m (43,056-sq.-ft.) estate features a front section done in a quintessentially Chinese style with beautifully carved stone frames, lattice windows and doors, and traditional Qing Dynasty furniture. The buildings in the back, though, are distinctly Western in style (Zhang did a great deal of business with the French): a rear courtyard, seemingly lifted right out of a New Orleans plantation, down to its abandoned, slightly decrepit air, sports a red-and-gray-brick facade with French windows, wrought-iron banisters, and Roman columns. Inside is an enormous ballroom with wainscoting, chandeliers, and a French mosaic floor. You can almost hear the music and see the waltzing dancers, except, of course, this was during the time when female foot-binding was still the norm, so there wouldn't have been many debutante balls. Don't miss the absolutely gorgeous blue-and-white flower-patterned, stained-glass windows on the second floor, which served as the women's quarters.

A little way up across the main canal from here is another residence worth seeing: Liushi Tihao. Built by Liu Ansheng, third son of Liu Yong, this splendid Hong Fangzi (Red House), designed in a similar Chinese-front/Western-back style, has a massive red-brick rear facade with a second-floor balcony propped up by Greek columns, and deep-set arched French windows concealing dusty, but still beautiful panes of stained glass. The building would look right at home in the West were it not for the unmistakably Chinese-style black-tile roof.

Working your way north, cross the stone arched bridge Tongjin Qiao (rebuilt in 1798) onto Dong Dajie. Depending on the time of day, you should be able to get a pretty picture of the Hongji Qiao (bridge) to the east. Dong Dajie was one of the two busiest thoroughfares in Nanxun's heyday. At the eastern end of the street is Zhang Jingjiang Guju, the former residence of Zhang Jingjiang, a supporter of Sun Yat-sen during the 1911 Republican revolution. Built in 1898, his house is much more traditionally Chinese, with none of the Western flourishes found in the earlier mansions.

The real highlight in this northern section of town, however, is Baijian Lou (One Hundred Rooms), so named for the 100 or so houses that wind along both sides of the Baijianlou He (One Hundred Rooms River). These more than 400-year-old row houses with white walls and black-tiled roofs, attached to each other by a high white wall with a stepped crenellated roof, were reportedly built by Ming Dynasty official Dong Fen for the servants of his female family members, though some find it hard to believe that such beautiful houses would be wasted on the help. Then again, it was a rich town. The front of each house typically has a covered walkway; lined up together, these walkways make for one long corridor running along each side of the canal. Baijian Lou offers one of the best photo opportunities in town -- if you don't mind the modern-day wires, TV antennae, and hanging laundry, that is.

Where to Dine

There are a number of informal restaurants and teahouses along Nanxi Jie, Nandong Jie, and Dong Dajie where you can take a break. The restaurants will serve inexpensive jiachang cai (home-style Chinese cooking), with rice, noodles, and a variety of stir-fries such as yuxiang rousi (garlic pork) or jiachang doufu (home-style tofu). Local snacks include gelatinous candy like juhong gao and gusao bing, which some Westerners have likened to eating flavored chalk. Most of these restaurants are open from 11am to 2pm for lunch and from 5 to 7 or 8pm for dinner, though some are open all day and can easily fry up some meat and vegetables or make a bowl of noodles as long as staff is around and willing.

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.