Fab Day Trip from Shanghai: Zhujiajiao, China’s Venice

April 7, 2010 at 8:39 am | Posted in Asia, China | Leave a comment
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by Indra Chopra

Heading to Expo 2010 in Shanghai this summer or fall? Let me tell you about a great day trip. We didn’t intend to visit the “water town” of Zhujiajiao when in the area in this past summer; instead, we’d planned on a side trip to Suzhou, famous for its silk and embroidery. But that would have meant cutting short our visits to other attractions, so we boarded tourist bus no. 4 at Shanghai Stadium for the one-hour ride to a 1,700-year old Chinese mini-Venice, a magnificent maze of canals and historic buildings.

The drive through rice paddies, waterways and canals to Lake Daishon is a balm to sore eyes blanched by the hustle-bustle of Beijing and Shanghai. The bus dropped us at Zhujiajiao’s new bus station just north of the historic district, with five hours to explore the town before the heading back. Map in hand, we followed our instincts, crossing bridges to what appeared to be a city under construction. This was the new section of Zhujiajiao, which has been developed in the old style in time for the World Expo, which runs May 1 through October.

The fact that Zhujiajiao grew up beside several converging rivers helped it become a hub of rice and textile traders. The merchants then extended the rivers to their warehouses, which is why the city is criss-crossed by canals. Of course, there are also streets and alleys, most of which are lined with whitewashed, tile-roofed two-story buildings, some dating back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). But one building north of the old town center towers above all the others: the five-story edifice topped by a pavilion in Ke Zhi Yuan garden on Xijie Street; designed in 1912 with both European and Chinese influences, this garden is a national landmark.

Bridges, Ancient Bridges

Crossing a few bridges, we finally entered the old town. Zhujiajiao has 36 of these ancient stone bridges, some with marble or wood elements. All 36 are still in use, but the most famous is the Fangsheng over the Cao Gang River, at the northeast edge of town. Erected in 1571, it stretches 230 feet (70 meters) and, unlike any other bridge in the Shanghai area, rests on five arches. Its Dragon Gate Stone depicts eight dragons encircling a shining pearl, a reminder — as if you needed one — that you’re not exactly in Venice.

Our tour bus ticket served as an entrance ticket, so we walked into the maze of stone paths, bridges, wooden boats tied to the shores, and fishing poles hanging from drooping arms, with children and pets playing in dirt and the occasional cyclist trying to weave through narrow passageways Gondolier on canal in Zhujiajiao Chinaand children and pets. This was the Zhujiajiao we were looking for, the traditional town of the Song and Yuan dynasties (960-1368 A.D.). The ups and downs of dynastic rule had long turned this town into a backwater; only in 2000 did Zhujiajiao start inching its way into the tourist map and into Shanghai’s “One City Nine Towns” promotional campaign.

Since Zhujiajiao has more canals than roads, boats are a major means of transport. We took a tourist boat ride, and our “gondolier,” a cheery, middle-aged woman, skillfully glided us through waterways and under bridges through the old and new sections. We didn’t find the empty courtyards of the new section of town particularly fetching or interesting, so we asked her to return to the ancient core. At one point, seeing our bored looks, the gondolier broke into a song. Must be part of the package, we figured, as her lilting melody intermingled with the willows and the deserted canals.

A boy was fishing below one of the bridges, and seeing us approach, made a great show of catching a fish. Wonder if he really did. At another point we saw a man contemplatively washing turtles. Pets or dinner?

Chinese Postcards and Punk Rock

Back on land after our 80-minute ride, we walked along National Street and its arterial stone slab alleys with tea shops, eateries, and curio shops selling handicrafts, embroideries, calligraphy, and other items. A shoemaker almost turned violent when he caught us trying to photograph him, but otherwise, we were swept up in a Shopping street in Zhujiajiao, near Shanghai, Chinacornucopia of art and antiques. At one point we followed a tour group into a nobleman’s house, a maze of courtyards and rooms with wooden furniture and artifacts.

Other attractions include the Memorial Hall of Wang Chang, one of the Seven Scholars of the Qing Dynasty, the No. 1 Tea House, and the Qing Dynasty post office, which displays evocative old postcards. There are also places where ancient culture intermingles with modernity. For example, the Books Tearoom, at 35 Caohe Street, offers traditional teas, 21st-century organic dishes, and thousands of books and DVDs. Zher, at 118 Xijing Street, may be a Chinese beer parlor, but it’s run by a punk rocker, and that’s reflected in the décor and the sound system. FYI, Zher’s owner is not the only bohemian type to have settled hereabouts; quite a few refugees from Shanghai’s rat race have moved here, creating an appealing mix of old-fashioned and avant garde residents.

In addition to old-new hybrids like the Books Tearoom, Zhujiajiao has plenty of traditional eateries where you can enjoy rose-flavored fermented bean curd, dark-rice zongzi dumpling, or roasted soybeans. There are several guesthouses in town, too, such as 1, 2, 3 (yes, that’s its name) and Cao Tang, but we didn’t have time to overnight on this trip. Next time, for sure — but for now, our five hours were up, so we boarded bus No. 4 and headed back to Shanghai.

Photos: Indra Chopra
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What Recession, Comrade? Shanghai Flies High

November 2, 2009 at 9:17 am | Posted in Asia, China | 1 Comment
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by Eric Hiss

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

The booming skyline of Shanghai's Pudong District.

Recently back from China’s largest metropolis, my head’s still spinning — while many world cities are still in a slump, Shanghai buzzes 24/7. Orbs, obelisks, rectangles and other geometries take form hundreds of feet above ground while billboards proclaim in Chinglish: “Shanghai: With Luck and Brilliancy.” After sundown, things turn even more electric, as tour boats plying the Huangpu River and shimmering towers create a neon nightscape as brash as any Vegas strip.

Gearing up for next May’s World Expo, it seems all 22 million denizens are seeing this not only as a coming-out party for Shanghai, but a point of national pride — like the Olympics, a defining moment for China’s arrival as a superpower (another billboard: “Greeting the Expo with Civilization!”). Certainly the raw materials are present: superb cuisine and hotels, cool nightlife, and seemingly unlimited shopping. A shortlist to help you dive in:

A dramatic 950-room pair of towers, the Pudong Shangri-La (from 1550 RMB/$227 double):  delivers five-star service and amenities like an award-winning spa. One tower features chandeliers, original Chinese oils, and Queen Anne-style furnishings, the other sleek, contemporary, high-gloss rosewood, leather, and silk. Floor-to-ceiling windows over the river afford among the best views in town.

As China’s first carbon-neutral property, the 26-room Urbn Hotel Shanghai (from 1,300 RMB/$190),  right next to the French Concession (see below), offers luxury with a conscience, plus minimalist-mod sunken lounges, slate-lined bathrooms, raised platform beds, and rooftop garden.

Finally, for affordability and historic appeal, 12-room Old House (from 720 RMB/US$103) is an excellent, central choice in the charming French Concession neighborhood.

Foodwise, FU 1039, in a grand former residence off shopping thoroughfare Yuyuan Lu, is the real Shanghainese deal: oily, sweet and savory dishes like chilled jellyfish with spring onion oil, sweet lotus root, and slow-cooked sweet river eel in soy sauce. It’s tricky to find (down a long, unmarked lane), the antique furnishings are a tad musty, and few staffers speak English. But it’ll be one of your visit’s most memorable meals.

M On The Bund is a Deco-era gem on the historic riverside Bund promenade where you can tap into the romanticized Shanghai of the 1920’s over excellent European and North African specialties. Fantastic views across the Huangpu River and of neighboring buildings with swirling Deco adornments.

Haute Japanese is on the menu at the Shanghai outpost of Tokyo’s famed Nadaman. A striking minimalist decor of granite, natural woods and modernist lanterns set the backdrop for impeccable fare served by kimono-clad staff. The traditional kaiseki meals are especially memorable.

After dinner, hit Bar Rouge, another Bund spot that evokes retro Shanghai — albeit with decidedly modern twists: recessed red lights, sleek surfaces and a party-ready crowd of expats and locals. The scene’s pretty high-octane, but for a true Shanghai experience, head out to the expansive open-air patio and take in the glittering lights of the city and river below.

While Bar Rouge is predominately peopled by expats, the two-story JZ Club is where a bohemian, mostly local bunch sips moderately-priced cocktails and takes in live jazz. A neighborhood vibe predominates, fusing boho-chic with neighborhood-bar ambiance. Weekends are popular; go early to get a good seat (especially the cozy tables upstairs).

Now for shopping. Though America created consumerism, China plays the game as well or better — and always more cheaply. To not shop here would be like missing Paris’ Louvre or a Hawaii sunset. While the quality (and prices) of housewares, silk-lined jackets, leather furnishings and other merch at sleek boutique Shanghai Tang of match New York’s or London’s, at the “South Bund Soft Spinning Fabric Market” south of Old Shanghai, they’re as wide as the China/U.S. trade deficit. For the savvy, it’s a shopping nirvana where you can score $100 custom-made wool suits and $70 tailored silk cheongsams. With hundreds of stalls, the four-floor complex can be daunting, so stick to the first two, which have the best outlets. (Tip: local hotels like the Pudong Shangri-La can arrange for a tailor to escort you, negotiate the best deal, then tailor your design. In my case, I spotted a mandarin-style leather jacket in Shanghai Tang for US$1,000. I later described it to a shop owner and tailor in the Fabric Market who had it ready for me the next day, perfectly executed, for all of 1,000 RMB — about US$130).

In contrast to the concrete, steel and glass of most of the city, the historic French Concession, the 19th-century French merchant quarter, is an inviting respite. Among tree-lined streets and Continental-style brick-and-stone manses, shops both quirky and trendy purvey everything from hip fashion to vintage Mao-mentos. Fashionistas should check out eno on Changle Lu with its designs by young locals, while Madame Mao’s Dowry is filled with wry riffs on Mao gear and propaganda. (Note: while bartering is expected at the Fabric Market, most of these shops are no-haggle zones.)

Final note: love ‘em or hate ‘em, counterfeit goods are a reality; you can’t avoid ’em. More than a few expats and visitors were spotted recently at the A.P Shopping Center (aka the “Fake Market”) near the Shanghai Science Museum, where copies of name-brand bags, watches and luggage are on display, and Da Gu Lu (aka “DVD Street”), where knockoffs of every category are sold at dirt-cheap prices.

More info: Meet-in-Shanghai.net.

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