Echoes of another day in Wuzhen

Echoes of another day in Wuzhen
PHOTO: The Nation/ANN

Located south of the Yangtze River in the East of China, Wuzhen brings to mind Zhoungzhuang and other water towns in southern Jiangsu Province. With bridges designed to evoke the full moon, ancient temples, old residences, Ming and Qing-dynasty architecture and a tall pagoda in the distance, Wuzhen is a photogenic "old town".

"People have settled here for thousands of years," says the local guide, as we're approaching the water village.

I couldn't agree more. Xinchun Village in Wuzhen's East Village district has relics from the Neolithic Period, belonging to the Majiabin civilisation, 7,000 years ago.

Old certainly but then so much of China is ancient in some way. Travel through the mainland for long enough and you will always come across artefacts dating back more than a millennium.

Located downstream of Yangtze River, Wuzhen is dissected by the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. Sometimes known as the Venice of China, it's meshed together by narrow paths paved with cobblestones. The stone alleyways are flanked by wooden buildings and workshops embracing all trades from cloth dying to bamboo weaving and tobacco making.

Wuzhen, in many ways, is as old as it is modern.

"A few ramshackle houses were standing along the canal when the government bought up the whole village a decade ago," says the Chinese guide, leading me to wonder if by "bought up" he means "relocated".

The tourism development company stepped in later, and transformed the water town into a tourist town.

China is known for its "art" of re-creation. The tourism development company, a fantasy-monger of sorts, recognises how much tourists love nostalgia and so reinvents it for them, usually adding a pinch of romance along the way..

The picturesque and ramshackle Wuzhen with its stone bridges, courtyards and wooden terraces built over the water, has been "recreated" through the addition of guesthouses, hotels, restaurants and gift shops. In short, Wuzhen was reborn as a tourist theme park that now attracts up to 4,000 people a day. And just like other theme parks, visitors have to buy tickets to get into the water town.

For all that though, strolling through the stone alleyways is like being trapped in a time capsule. The tourists love the ancient cityscape and are happy to wander while munching on the local flat breads and traditional Chinese dough. There are several places worth visiting, among them a wedding exhibition and the Chinese Footbinding Culture Museum.

The museum is fascinating. It tells the history of footbinding in China with examples of the shoes. You're speechless when you see how small the shoes are, and can only imagine the agony of the girls whose feet were forced into such tiny footwear in the name of beauty.

If your feet ache after a visit to the museum, you can jump into a small rowing boat and drift leisurely along Wuzhen's waterways. As the boat passes under picturesque stone bridges through the old town, you'll find plenty of selfie opportunities.

The old town is even more fascinating at night when it is illuminated by lines of orange lamps on the edge of the waterway. On the bridge, a Budweiser in hand, I would have recited Li Bai's famous poem "Quiet Night Thought", had I not been distracted by a high-heeled, hot-panted, sharp-elbowed young women jostling me for space. Like a professional model, she steps in front of the camera, rolls her shoulders and points her leg, smiling seductively with the White Lotus Pagoda as her backdrop.

Like many tourists roaming the old water town, I enjoy Wuzhen but cannot help be amused by the irony.

People are everywhere here yet there is nothing that gives off a sense of human habitation - no power lines, local kids, pets, satellite dishes or even grocery stores. People probably don't live here anymore. But then what is more real than the tourists in Wuzhen?

Shirts hanging from a clothesline, the Budweiser in my hands, the flat bread?

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