Every semester the Inernational Office takes us foreign teachers out on a little trip. In the past we’ve gone to amusement parks and tea schools and in the past, the foreign students and the teachers were invited, making for a large group. But as there are more foreign students the office has broken into two different departments and this year, it was only the teachers that were invited.
Our trip was to Wuzhen, a small ancient canal village a few hours away from our school. Out of the 15 foreign teachers only 2 ended going: Ryan and I. So we didn’t have to deal with a banquet lunch, tour guide, or any of the inconveniences of a large group. It was just the driver, Vicki (the head of the int’l office), Bruce (the student helper), Ryan and I. Score!
Wuzhen is over a thousand years old, and is part of the Grand Canal that runs from Beijing to Shanghai. The ancient city is split into 2 part, one on the east side of town, and one on the west. We started in the east side, and despite going early on a weekday during a non-holiday time, the places was PACKED with Chinese tour groups. I can’t even imagine what it is like during a holiday.
The east city had a lot of ancient charm, and still looks much the same as it did hundreds of years ago (minus all the tourist shops of course…well, I think.) The streets were narrow, and situated around the main canal which you could take a boat down. It is of course a tourist town, but it is also a real place, with any elderly residents. The interiors of the houses are dark, and have no windows aside from the front and back doors, so many houses had the windows and doors thrown open and we could get a peek inside.
Most of the residents were elderly, and apparently even Chinese people think pictures of old people in ancient villages are cool. I saw one old lady shuffle up to her wooden door, just to get a breath of sunshine. Instantly 5 Chinese tourists whipped out their cameras and started taking pictures of her. She clearly felt a little uncomfortable and backed into the dark interior again. As someone who also gets a lot of unwanted attention from Chinese people I felt strong sympathy for them. But it didn’t stop Ryan and I from taking pictures of course….
We spent a short time at the east part, and then took a shuttle across town to the west part. It was almost like a different world. The crowds were thinner, and the town was bigger with more sunshine and variety of buildings. Sometimes you can begin to feel really claustrophobic in these small towns because the streets are so narrow and the buildings so tall. But in the west part if felt much more open, and fresh.
Just like the east part, the town was built on two sides of the canal, and we spent a few hours wandering up one side, and down the other. We had eaten lunch in between visiting the two sections, but we all looked longingly at the absolutely picturesque tea houses and small restaurants lining the canals. The autumn sun played off the water making for a very scenic day.
So while we didn’t have a meal in the old part of Wuzhen, we still managed to stuff our faces. There were plenty of local snacks and specialties that we were happy to try.
We even saw one of the traditional popcorn machines, which I have been dying to see in action for a long time.
Sadly, the guy was at lunch or something, so we didn’t get to see the popcorn machine in action. (But you can check out this video. The popcorn is heated in an sealed pressure container. There is no air, so the popcorn can’t pop, it just gets really, really hot. Then, when he opens the container every kernel pops at once, creating a huge popcorn explosion. So cool. Apparently this is the traditional way to make popcorn, even though it seems insanely complex to me.)
There are also a number of museums in Wuzhen, including ancient libraries, a foot binding museum, a wood carving museum and silk factory in which you can see them working on looms in the old traditional style. In many ways Wuzhen reminded me of a sort of Chinese Old Sturbridge Village.
Sadly, we had to leave after a few hours, but the west part had a ton of small guest houses and I can imagine it is just beautiful at night time. While Wuzhen isn’t as well know as some other canal towns like Suzhou and Xitang I think it is one of the nicest. Next time I’m tired of modern China I’ll come back here and time travel back to ancient China (with thankfully modern plumbing).