The Gondolas of Zhujiajiao

Zhujiajiao is an old river village about an hour from downtown Shanghai near Dianshan Lake. It was once a prosperous trading center for rice and textiles. Now, it’s a popular place to take a leisurely boat ride through a maze of ancient canals.

There are kiosks all over Zhujiajiao selling tickets for gondola rides (short ride for up to 6 people: 65 yuan. Long ride: 125 yuan.), but Frank Hu, my Shanghai landlord and sometime travel companion, negotiated directly with a boatman for a better price.

The gondolas are square-bowed, with roofs, and shades that can be pulled down to keep out the sun, the rain, or prying eyes. They’re decorated with red lanterns that set the canals aglow at night.

Traditional gondolas, yours to hire. Be sure to take a turn at the oar!

As the boatman pushed us away from the quay, Frank slumped onto the bench and sighed contentedly. He’s a hardworking businessman who goes to Zhujiajiao to escape the stress of Shanghai.

While Frank blissed out, I took a turn rowing the gondola. A long, angled oar extends from the stern of the boat, its butt end attached to a rope. I did my best to propel us without ramming any oncoming watercraft, but my awkward strokes didn’t impress the boatman, who laughed merrily until I gave up.

A residential canal in Zhujiajiao

There are 36 bridges in Zhujiajiao, the largest being the five-arch Fangsheng, which straddles the Caogang River and dates to 1571. Booking the longer boat trip will take you down some smaller canals, where laundry hangs from balconies and townspeople cross little stone and wooden spans. If you’d rather cruise the lake, head for #60 Dongjing Street. Here you can book an hour or half-hour trip on a large lake boat for 40 to 60 yuan per person.

Great North Street

After our gondola ride, we hit the heart of the old town for some shopping and food. The main drag, North Street, is a kilometer long and contains over a thousand shops, with architecture going back to the Ming dynasty. There are teahouses, bakeries, waterside restaurants, antique and craft stores, even a century-old pickle emporium.

Shanghai Daytrip

Busy North Street, jammed with shops of every description

We ate in a cafe overlooking the river. The specialty in Zhujiajiao is red pork wrapped in bamboo leaves. It’s delicious, and you’ll see it displayed in windows all along North Street. Frank sipped his tea and watched the boats pass up and down the river. He told me that all of Shanghai’s suburbs used to look like Zhujiajiao, before the developers moved in.

Bamboo-wrapped pork in North Street, a local delicacy

Zhujiajiao, while incredibly well-preserved, isn’t entirely immune to modernization. Malls and entertainment centers are springing up at the edge of the old town. They’re easy to ignore, however, when you consider the wealth of historic sights on offer. For small ticket fees you can visit the Kezhi Gardens (1912), Yuanjin Monastery (1341), Town God Temple (look for the famous 100-year-old Gingko tree), and a Qing-Dynasty Post Office (1903).

Tongli

Frank wanted to show me one more water village before heading home. Tongli, once the home of poets, scholars, and government ministers, is 50 miles from Shanghai, close to Suzhou. We had to park quite a distance outside the old town, so be prepared to do some walking if you drive.

Since we’d already taken a boat ride in Zhujiajiao, we decided to focus on land-based attractions in Tongli. For 100 yuan you can purchase a ticket that will get you into 9 different historic sites, which are open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Tuisi Garden

Suzhou gets most of the attention when it comes to classical gardens, but there’s a wonderful UNESCO heritage example right in Tongli. The Tuisi Garden (Retreat and Reflection Garden) was designed by the renowned painter Yuan Long in 1885. It contains a residential area and a garden with two courtyards. My favorite section was the Garden Floating on Water, with its scenic lake and countless colorful carp.

Tuisi Garden, a Tongli UNESCO heritage site that rivals the finest gardens in Suzhou

Pearl Tower

Frank said I had to see the great Tongli Pearl Tower. I followed him all the way to the far end of the old town to a property with a charming pond and garden. It was a fine estate, but, try as I might, I couldn’t spot any towers, pearl or otherwise. Frank, grinning, led me into one of the buildings and up to the second floor. There, in a glass case, was a model of a black pagoda, trimmed with tiny white pearls. The Pearl Tower. Frank nearly ruptured his spleen laughing at my perplexed expression. Clearly, I wasn’t the first victim of the old Pearl Tower gag.

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Home of the miniature Pearl Tower

Walking Tongli

In Zhujiajiao we’d passed beneath many bridges in our gondola. Now, in Tongli, we were walking over them. There are 49 bridges in the old town, each providing a unique perspective on the canals and the dwellings that line them. The three most famous bridges, Taiping, Jili, and Changqing, are said to bring good luck to all who cross them.

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Jili Bridge, engraved with couplets describing the beautiful view

We stopped for tea at a small cafe on one of the less traveled waterways. Trees formed a canopy over the patio. Except for a light breeze rustling the leaves over our heads, everything was quiet. Frank leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. It was hard to believe we were only 50 miles from the urban clamor of Shanghai.

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A waterside cafe, tranquility defined

After sampling some sweet cake made from local gorgon fruit, we continued our walk, stopping to visit two ancient halls (Jiayin and Chongben). The halls were once owned by wealthy merchants and were built by expert craftsmen using the finest materials. The intricate relief carvings in Chongben Hall depict scenes from Chinese drama and opera. Don’t miss the Monkey King!

Tongli’s ancient halls are filled with intricate woodwork

If You Stay

While it’s easy to do both of these water villages on a daytrip from Shanghai, you might want to spend a night in one of them to fully absorb the tranquil atmosphere. After the daytrippers head home in the evening, the villages become transcendently peaceful.

There are a number of small, affordable inns in Tongli and Zhujiajiao. The Easy Life Emotional Inn (105 Xinzhen Street, rooms from 55 USD) is close to Tongli’s Tuisi Garden, and right on the water.

The Tile Guesthouse (Lane 29, Xijing Road, rooms from 30 USD) is in Zhujiajiao’s old town, not far from the entrance. It features a courtyard, a patio, and a kitchen, where you can make your own breakfast.

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View from one of Tongli’s many historic bridges

Transportation

If you don’t have a car, regular bus service is available between Shanghai and the villages. For Tongli, go to the Tourist Center outside Shanghai Stadium. A direct bus (2 hour travel time) leaves daily at approximately 8:30 a.m. and returns at 4:30 p.m. Cost is around 150 yuan and includes admission to Tongli’s attractions.

Buses to Zhujiajiao leave from Pu’an Road near the Shanghai Concert Hall and People’s Square. The buses are usually pink and the line is called Hùzhū Gāosù Kuàixiàn. Expect to pay 20 yuan for the hour-long trip. The last return bus from Zhujiajiao leaves at 7:30 p.m.

Taxis are also an option for Zhujiajiao and shouldn’t cost more than 200 yuan.

If you’d prefer to go with a guide, Frank Hu will take you for 15 USD per hour or 120 USD per day. Group rates are also available. Find him on Viator.