On our recent trip to Shanghai, we took a trip to Wuzhen (乌镇), one of the famed water towns dotting the outskirts of the city. These water towns are not only ancient and beautiful, but are also known for serving up delicious seafood (we mentioned it a while back in our Shanghai Shrimp Stir Fry post. Some people call old water towns like Wuzhen and Zhou Zhuang (周庄) the “Venice of the East,” and this trip confirmed that perception!
This Wuzhen post is long because we provide many travel details if you ever plan a visit, but if not, then just scroll through and enjoy the photos and short videos!
Wuzhen is near the Tongxiang (桐乡) high-speed rail stop from Shanghai Hongqiao Rail Station. Conveniently, a train goes from Shanghai to Tongxiang every 20-30 minutes. You can buy rail tickets in many ticket offices throughout the city––not just at the train station. The ticket costs about $8.00 one way, and the trip takes about 30 minutes. The high speed trains run at about 180 miles per hour (300 kilometers per hour) which is an experience itself. You can get a sense of how fast they move in this video I shot from the train window!
Wuzhen is divided into East and West scenic zones. Each has its own points of interest, but if time is tight, Judy and I found that West Gate is definitely the must-see. It’s much larger with more to see, and the walkways and attractions are less crowded (most tourist groups visit the East Gate area). Trust us, the last thing you want is to be climbing over crowds of elderly Chinese tour groups! You can see from the map below that the high speed rail station is very close to the Hongqiao airport and accessible via train from Shanghai’s city center.
If you’re planning a trip to Wuzhen, here are a few tips:
- Make sure to keep your entrance tickets handy. You’ll need them to get into some of the exhibits once inside the main gate.
- Definitely try a few snacks from the many vendors, but sit down for a proper lunch and dinner at a restaurant beside the water. Tickets are good for only one entrance, so it’s best to get your lunch within the village.
- Both the East and West scenic zones have a main pathway along the river, so walk in one direction down to the end, cross the bridge, and walk back on the other side. There are attractions on both sides of the river.
- Souvenir prices are definitely inflated, so be prepared to haggle. We actually have a blog post with some handy haggling tips!
- People do live in homes along the main pathways and some sell goods from their homes quietly, but we were told that they are technically illegal, so use your own discretion.
- Watch your step when walking around, or you may end up in the canal or river. There are also plenty of uneven paths and steps!
Here were some of the spots we hit in Wuzhen and some of the things we saw (and ate!):
The picture below shows one of the many restaurants that have open windows to the canal for a cool dining experience.
Indigo Fabric Workshops
Indigo fabric workshops are located in both the East and West scenic areas, since the local blue-dyed fabric is a specialty product made throughout Wuzhen. The workshop features exhibits where you can read about the original methods of fabric dyeing used as far back as the Tang dynasty (618-907).
You can buy fabrics, bags, scarves and other products made in the workshop. (Ignore the extremely creepy children’s mannequins.)
Sanbai distillery workshop (East side)
The Sanbai distillery produces about 200 liters a day of San Baijiu (三白酒) or literally (“three white wines” including bai jiu (55% alc/vol), sticky rice wine (12% alc/vol). and sweet rice wine (4% alc/vol).
I enjoyed walking through the distillery shop and having some sweet fermented rice or jiu niang (酒酿), which is a popular snack and ingredient that goes with sweet rice sesame balls, or tangyuan. It was relatively “young,” with a mellow taste, which I can’t say for the baijiu (白酒) samples they handed out. It was right from the distiller and had a rough kick–we don’t call it white lightning for nothing! But I’m sure it improves over time?
During lunch, we were treated to the sight of fishermen in their boats with their trusty fishing birds. One of his many birds flew off and dove under the water, only to surface upstream in the canal with a fish! The fisherman paddled up to retrieve it, and on they went.
This traditional method of fishing is rapidly disappearing, so it’s a rare sight these days.
Bamboo Acrobatic Show
Near the entrance to the Wuzhen East side, a bamboo pole acrobatic performance happens twice a day. It’s 10 minutes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque stunts–pretty cool if you are wandering by!
Bonus if you grab some of these rice cakes we had while we were waiting for the start of the next performance. They are made from pre-soaked rice and steamed for 1-2 minutes in wooden molds, stacked two high.
You can see how they’re made in this short video:
Yida Silk Workshop (West side)
The Suzhou and Hangzhou surrounding areas are one of the main hotbeds of silk production in China, and Wuzhen is considered one of the centers. We have visited silk factories on previous trips to Suzhou, but this was the first time we were able to see silk weavers in action.
Even though weaving technology was invented in the 1920s, it’s still eye-opening to see it in action today. With one- and two-person weaving machines, it still takes 100 days to finish just a single piece of silk brocade woven fabric!
The silk worms are kept very busy, as are the mulberry farmers who raise the trees and the leaves that the silk worms need to produce silk. Mulberries were surprisingly plentiful in China as a result–we have a recipe for a Mulberry Galette made with mulberries from our old stomping grounds in Beijing.
Here, two women are putting together silk to fill a comforter, a popular souvenir item to take home. One woman sits on the top of the machine, operating it in concert with the lady sitting below. Silk comforters are soft and light–keeping you warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Chinese people also say that they protect your body against “dampness”, a Traditional Chinese Medicine term that you experience when you have certain afflictions, like a runny nose and a cold.
Beyond the silk workshop, we continued our stroll next to the water, shops, and homes, taking in the slower scenes of life in Wuzhen.
It was the perfect time to take a lunch break under the cover of one of the many riverside restaurants. Lamb noodle soup––you can’t go wrong.
While we were deliberating on which restaurant to sit down at, Judy and I saw huge woks of stewing hong shao pork belly and eggs on the paths outside of many restaurants. “Enticing” doesn’t really fully cover it.
Check out this pot of pork belly and hard boiled eggs bubbling away:
Signs were in English too for foreign visitors which was comforting for me as well! Small workshops with skilled craftsman making wooden buckets, bamboo carvings, baskets, and combs were scattered among the multiple souvenir shops and snack stands.
This guy below was making hair combs out of bull horns, one of the traditional crafts made in the area.
We also saw hand-carved wooden bowls and you see Judy shopping for bowls for use in our delicious recipes!
One of these craftsmen was making hot ginger candy–the candy is pulled like taffy, cut, and bagged to create a spicy yet sweet hard candy, still warm. Ginger candy is a common sight in a lot of ancient villages and water towns in China.
All of the shops had open storefronts that were covered with planks of wood to close up at the end of the day. During working hours, piles of planks were neatly stacked on the side of almost every shop.
Wuzhen waters are regulated and kept clean. “Bai yu,” or white fish swim among the large golden carp. Steamed bai yu is a delicacy and served at most restaurants in Wuzhen as well as at restaurants across the Jiangsu and Zhejiang rivers, which includes Suzhou and Hangzhou. Shanghai-style steamed fish is different from the popular Cantonese style steamed fish dish–stay tuned for a recipe!
Dinner by the water was a wok dangled over a flame full of soup, fish, and vegetables. We also enjoyed Shanghai-style fried belt fish and fresh soybeans cooked in soy sauce.
Xuchang Soy Sauce Workshop
When night fell, we passed by the Xuchang Soy Sauce Workshop. They had over 200 vessels of soybean paste fermenting in the yard, each covered in a silk cloth.
After the sun set, the whole town lit up. The light brightened outdoor decks, shimmered on the water, and set a warm glow on the shops and restaurants. Going from the hustle and buzz of Shanghai to Wuzhen’s quiet canals and alleyways was a welcome change. Needless to say, it was a great stop on our tour of Shanghai!
WUZHEN TRAVEL TIPS
Traveling in China can be a bit intimidating, so we’ve also included some tips and travel details on how to get to Wuzhen from Shanghai! (Planning a trip elsewhere in China? Check out our general China Travel Tips!)
Ancient water towns are plentiful throughout China, so you don’t have to go to Wuzhen. Some of the top-ten most picturesque water towns in China are dotted in the areas surrounding Shanghai (上海), Suzhou (苏州), and Hangzhou (杭州). To name a few: Zhouzhuang (周庄), Wuzhen (乌镇), Dongli (同里), Nanxun (南浔), and Zhujiajiao (朱家角).
Any one of these would be a perfect day trip from Shanghai. With the convenience of modern high speed rail systems in China, traveling to Suzhou, Hangzhou and any of the ancient water towns from Shanghai is just a 2-hour (or less!) train ride away.
The closest water town to Shanghai city proper is Qibao (七宝), small, ancient, and accessible via the Shanghai metro line 9–about 30 minutes from the city center. Get off at the Qibao (七宝) stop, take exit 2, and you’ve arrived! If you have no time for a day trip, visiting Qibao for a few hours is a perfect way to experience a water town’s unique beauty.
But back to Wuzhen! As we mentioned earlier in the post, Wuzhen is near the Tongxiang (桐乡) high-speed rail stop from Shanghai Hongqiao Rail Station. As of this writing, trains depart from Shanghai every 20-30 minutes. One-way high speed railway tickets to/from Tongxiang cost 50.50 RMB (seats are assigned), and you can buy your return ticket to Shanghai at the same time–but remember to bring your passport to get on the train! If you need to adjust plans, changes to your ticket are free based on availability.
Taking the train is a great way to get to Wuzhen but also a great way to experience China’s high speed rail system. The train ride is very smooth and we saw speeds up to 309 km/hour which is pretty fast!
Once you exit the train, find the bus stop, and take the 282 bus from the train station to the Wuzhen scenic area for 5 RMB. The buses are regular city buses, and most people will be heading over to Wuzhen. The bus ride is about 45 minutes with plenty of local stops, so if you don’t get a seat, be prepared to stand for the long ride. Alternatively, you can wait until the next bus leaves to get a seat as they leave every 20 minutes. We were traveling with Judy’s mother, so this came in handy for us. Buses have automated announcements for stops in both Chinese and English.
If you prefer, a taxi costs about 120RMB, but be sure to take an official cab from the stand as there are many enterprising unlicensed or what we call “black” cabs. In a pinch, I have taken these unlicensed black cabs before, but it’s always safer to take official taxis.
After you arrive at the Wuzhen bus station at the corner of Zhi Cai Road (植材路) and Qing Zhen Road (青镇路), you can take the local bus 350 that stops first at the Wuzhen East side and then at the Wuzhen West side.
Tickets to enter the west side of the village are 120RMB and tickets for the east side are 100RMB. The ticket must be used the same day and is good for one entrance only, so you will definitely be eating and snacking in whichever one you choose! If you want to take a scenic boat ride, tickets start at 160RMB.
If we were to do it again, we would definitely stay in a hotel inside the west side of Wuzhen to really enjoy the scenery and surroundings during the morning and the evenings, when the town is free of tourists. I found a great website on Wuzhen that has the most comprehensive information on attractions, hotels, and sites. Hope you get a chance to visit this great village!