An ancient water town in the suburbs of Shanghai conjures up a dreamlike vision of purity and simplicity, writes Paul Rush.
Hungry monks once eagerly hooked up their single daily meal from under the famous Setting Fish Free Bridge in Zhujiajiao. Today, polite tourists practice catch and release, but our tour group favours sightseeing in this quaint water town of 100,000 people and 33 bridges, known as the Venice of the East.
The only audible sound in the still, misty air is the gentle lap, lap of water against the bow of the weathered canal boat as we drift under the most ancient bridge in Shanghai. From the deck, subtle nuances of ordinary life are brought into focus in a remarkably intimate way. On a canal-side seat a lady is preparing beans for this evening’s stir fry. An elderly man scrubs a shiny pot lid in the inky smooth water. A greasy food scraps bucket gets a much-needed scour while its contents drift idly away on the current.
Along the canal banks, al fresco cafes and doll’s house-size shops beckon to passers-by on the narrow cobbled laneways. Retired folk sit gracefully on rickety chairs contentedly knitting, fishing or people-watching. An earnest granny waves a crooked finger at a man who is obviously entrusted with the important task of going shopping on his ancient bicycle.
A shop vendor inhales deeply on a strange bulbous pipe, his own personal form of retail therapy.
We slide through one of the archways of Setting Fish Free Bridge and begin to feel the true ambience and timeless tradition of the water town of Zhujiajiao. To visit this tiny microcosm of life in the mighty Yangtze River delta region is like taking a journey back in time to the Ming Dynasty. Incredibly, this part of the rich tapestry of old Shanghai still survives, so close to the headlong rush of traffic and soaring office towers of the modern metropolis of 24 million people.
A monk first purchased the land at Zhujiajiao many centuries ago and built a Buddhist temple. The lower class monks were not allowed to eat meat so the bridge that we have just passed under was an important fishing base.
As we enter the local equivalent of the Grand Canal, a high triangular bridge comes into view. Our gondolier strains hard to turn the massive tiller arm and steer clear of chunky water taxis and sampans, full of smiling Chinese tourists revelling in their proud heritage.
Two colourfully attired cleaning ladies steer a boat with consummate skill, poling upstream to who knows where, sending steel-grey shimmers of rippling water across the placid surface of the canal.
Our thoroughly modern Shanghai guide, Zoe, gleefully leads us off the boat into a labyrinth of stone pathways. We meet a fortune teller and a renowned paper cutter before entering a feng shui-sensitive hidden courtyard bedecked with red rice paper lanterns.
Nearby, a silk embroidery artist is beavering away at a very fine landscape with vivid colours that catch the light brilliantly. Her prices are very attractive with small pictures of birds and flowers starting around 160 yuan (NZ$32). We visit a replica of a traditional teahouse, which has displays of calligraphy and life-size figures in medieval costume, which make very co-operative photographic models.
Zoe tells us that 600 years ago, the explorer Marco Polo was fascinated by the picturesque water towns of Shanghai. There are six open to visitors within an hour and a half drive of the city – Zhouzhuang is the largest and most famous; the others are Wuzen, Luzhi, Tongli and Xitang and Zhujiajiao.
Zhujiajiao is endowed with the elegant nickname “Pearl Stream” and it retains the faded ambience of those bygone days when it was a village on the stream. With its stately old bridges, houses and courtyards, it’s an ageless world where it’s easy to lose yourself in antiquity.