Meet age-old China in Xitang – World Meanderings (n°10)
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Born in a glacier of the Tibetan plateau the Yangtze River flows across China from west to east before emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghai. It’s the longest river in Asia and its vast basin is home for one-third of China’s population. For centuries Chinese people used the prosperous Yangtze River Delta for water, farming, transportation, industry and war. This vast area is crisscrossed with rivers and lakes and many “water towns” were built on their banks during the Ming and Qing dynasties from the 14th century till early 20th century, such as Tongli, Wuzhen or Xitang.
If you are staying in frantic and busy Shanghai discovering its Bund and its newly built districts such as Pudong where futuristic skyscrapers grow faster than bamboos you may wonder how China looked like before. The last remaining old districts seem to shrink every year surrounded by high buildings. So don’t hesitate to take off to the countryside for a one-day trip to Xitang that is only 90 km far from Shanghai and see this “water-town” set in quiet and bucolic surroundings.
Xitang suddenly became famous worldwide in 2006 when several scenes of the third instalment of the Impossible Mission Force movies directed by J.J. Abrams were shot in this picturesque village. If many of us followed the adventures of Ethan Hunt in China and saw Tom Cruise running in Xitang’s streets Chinese people actually were not able to see these scenes since their government didn’t approve of the way they depicted “poor” China. Whatever, nowadays Xitang is still renowned for its 104 arch stone bridges, its tilted eaves and its 122 alleys. No les than nine rivers flow through the area and delineate 8 districts crossed by canals where covered boats take tourists for tranquil rides.
With their sloping roofs covered with glazed tiles, their round wooden doors and exquisite gardens most of the traditional Ming and Qing houses are still in very good condition giving the town a true historical and artistic interest. Many banks have eaves from which hang red paper lanterns, giving shelter to the passersby from rain or sunshine and to small tearooms where you can sip a traditional Chinese cup of tea. There are also numerous antique residences and temples open to the public such as the Buddhist Temple of the Seven Masters or the Sheng Tang Temple, the Sage’s Temple.
The Zhongfu House belonged to the prominent Wang family during the Qing dynasty and is furnished with antique beds, tables and armchairs. Other heritage houses have been turned into folk museum: wood and bamboo carvings, decorated tiles and stones and more surprisingly, buttons!
To get a genuine souvenir from Xitang go to see Mr Wang Heng’s tiny shop where he sells his own beautiful ink paintings and woodcut prints. If you happen to be in Xitang in spring or summer don’t miss to visit Chinese style gardens such as Zuiyuan garden or Xiyuan garden meticulously looked after by passionate gardeners.
There are many tiny food shops on the banks displaying unusual and mysterious dishes to foreigner eyes. You can taste them in one of the numerous restaurants, sitting at a table on their terraces while enjoying the view on the canals, bridges, boats or weeping willows of which branches dive into the calm water. Why not try the Fenzheng Rou made with steamed meat wrapped into a rice pastry, or sweet and sour pork or even one of these unidentified dishes if you are daring enough!
A one-hour drive will take you far from the bustling Shanghai metropolis to this lovely little town looking like a traditional Chinese ink painting. It’s not yet too touristic, most tourists are Chinese, and “real” inhabitants still live there a quiet and simple life. You can book a one or two day trip to Xitang before leaving for China and get a glimpse at the way China looked before. It might not last very long!
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny