When you think of ancient China, cobbled narrow street, hanging red lanterns and kung-fu masters walking down the street appreciating a ray of sunlight or an opening bud, you probably think of a city a lot like Xitang (well, minus the kung-fu masters that is).
Xitang is not very far away from Shanghai, yet a visit there is like going back in time. Not initially though. The bus will drop you off at a dusty, lonely bus stop with rickshaw drivers vying for your attention. The one that caught our attention, or really the one who wouldn’t leave us alone, told us he knew a way to get in for free. The ancient city is such a popular destination you have to pay about $8 to get in.
We paid him $5 to not only pedal us to the old city, but to show us the back door entrance as well. He actually walked us to our hostel, which was a good thing because the city was so small and twisty I’m not sure we could have made it even with a map.
He pedaled us on his rickshaw until we reached a tall stone wall. This was the dividing line between the city old and new. He slipped into a tiny alley, not more than a crack wide, and started walking down it. The wall on either side was incredibly high, about 10-12 feet, and the path was so narrow I had to squeeze my shoulders at some points.
It was also dark, despite being in the middle of the day. Not much light could squeeze into such a tiny place. We walked and walked. At one point I felt a little nervous, I mean, he could have mugged us and escaped into another alley and be long gone by the time we managed to find our way out. But mostly it was fun. We were twisting and turning, going through ancient stone archways.
The town itself is old. Very old. Older than the country in fact. Xitang was settled during the poetically named Spring and Autumn Period, when the country was still broken up into many smaller territories. Of course, it’s not that old a city. In fact, many of the building in the town today were built during the Ming and Qing dynasty. Although considering that was 600 years ago, that’s still pretty impressive.
The town has one main canal running through the center of it, and many smaller canals zigzagging every which way. You don’t walk far without walking over a bridge.
The canals are the lifeblood of the town, with everyone using them for cleaning and washing. Yeah, technically kind of gross, especially as people threw waste water into the river right near someone else washing vegetables, but for a tourist it was fascinating. Because of the narrow alleys there isn’t much light in most of the town, so the sunny rivers edge is valuable real estate for various things drying in the sun.
Speaking of sun, one interesting feature of the town is it has covered walkways. There was an unspoken agreement, back in the day, that every family would build an overhang in front of their house. These overhangs joined and the result was covered walkways. This is so you can walk comfortably in very sunny, or very rainy days. (And we did take advantage of some of the overhangs one rainy day.)
At night, the red lanterns are lit (or technically, turned on, they are all electric these days) and the city transforms. They definitely had some night time lighting expert come in to make the place really shine because it is amazingly picturesque. (We even noticed a what appeared to be a reflection of the rippling water on the bridge, but was actually just a fancy rippling water-esque light stuck to the side of the bridge.)
You can also buy origami in the shape of boats and flowers, with candles in the middle. You are supposed to buy them with your boyfriend/girlfriend, light the candles and send them off down the canal to represent your love. But Ryan and I are cheap bastards so we just waited for other people to send some off into the water and ran to take pictures. (There was barely any wind, and the canal was dead flat, so the flowers didnâ€™t actually float away at all. They just kind of stayed in the area they were placed. So after the couple inevitably grew tired of looking at them, we would run over and pretend they were our flowers.)
Xitang’s ancient beauty hasn’t gone unnoticed by Hollywood. The city was featured in Mission Impossible III, and as you walk around this tiny, ancient town, they don’t let you forget that “Tom Cruise Slept Here.”
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