Friday, September 21, 2007

Xitang 江南古镇西塘 , China 2007

I took a day trip to Xitang during my two week long vacation in China in September. I had been wanting to visit Xitang for a long time now. Xitang is one of the famous water towns between Suzhou and Hengzhou; it's lesser known to foreign tourists and is better preserved in architectures and local culture. The slogan of the town reads, "Xitang is a thousand year old town that still lives."

Xitang is about 50 minutes south of Shanghai and can be reached by train from Shanghai South Train Station. Xitang itself does not have a train station; therefore, most tourists usually join local tour groups from Shanghai, and travel to Xitang by tour buses.

The transportation we took to reach Xitang is more down to earth. Before leaving San Francisco, I did some extensive research on transportation options, and I learned that there are express trains going to a city called Chia Shan. From Chia Shan, there are direct bus lines or taxi to Xitang. Taking public transportation avoided schedule constraint; therefore, this was the best choice to go.

Xitang Old Town is quaint and relaxing. Residents who live next to river canals for generations seemed to have adapt an easygoing way of living. Over the years, Xitang has became more and more touristy; most of the houses in old town are now converted into hostels for people to stay overnight. Although Xitang Old Town mainly derives its revenue from tourism, strangely, it hasn't being commercialized. My friend and I were eager to buy ourselves T-shirts that reads "Xitang" on top but cannot find any. Local handmade goods, food do not bare any mark or indication of their origin "Xitang". After talking to some shopkeepers in the town, we learned that very often, customers dislike the town's name to be part of the souvenirs (strange, isn't it?); therefore, artists and shopkeepers remove Xitang from their products to please customers. One shopkeeper told me that he suspects people who came to Xitang to buy their goods and resale them elsewhere. I have to say this is really a little town that doesn't know how to promote itself. Its neighboring water towns, Zhouzhuang, and Tongli are already world famous and attract tourists from around the world.

To be honest, I love Xitang because of it's lack of tourists. We arrived around noon, and the person who was in charge of Old Town's admission fee was not even there to collect our entry fee. The town was pretty empty; only a few local tourists, shopkeepers, and art students doing still-life drawings. We wondered around in the town for awhile, crossing a number of bridges, walking thru a number of narrow alley ways. Bridges and narrow alleyways are two unique architectural features of ancient water towns in the coast of China. We found a tea house next to the canal to take a break; the interior design of the tea place was trendy; the tea was definitely overpriced; and the table we got wasn't really next to a window. Thinking back, I regret we didn't insist on leaving; we were tired from a day's travel at that time.

Very soon, night started to fall, and we had to catch the last train heading back to Shanghai from Chia Shan. Before we left, we took a boat ride in the canal. Inns, restaurants, and boat keepers started to turn their red lanterns on; all the sudden, the canal is lined with beautiful lanterns. That's one of the most lovely images I have seen in my trip to China. Xitang is known for its view in dusk and dawn. I wish I had extra time to spend here.

On the way heading out of Old Town Xitang, we saw stores starting to close down. This is another thing that really amazed me. Instead of closing up gates and lock doors up, closing up a shop in Xitang is done in a classic way: Shopkeepers moved one wooden board at a time to cover up the entrance, until the entire door is covered by 5 or 6 wooden boards (vertically), and then, they locked the door. Although I was born and raised in Taiwan and read enough classic novels about Chinese culture, this was the first time I saw something like this. Xitang is indeed an ancient town that's alive.