Visit the water world of Zhouzhuang, China

The green waters in endless canals encircling and entwining the small town of Zhouzhuang have made this traditional water town into something of a tourist trap. Being the closest water town to Shanghai it is a popular daytrip destination drawing busloads of noisy tourists, and yet it still manages to retain much of its charm.

Weeping willows over the canals

Weeping willows over the canals

Dotted about with temples and historic houses all linked together by cobbled streets and simple old circular bridges, it manages to contain the coachloads of people all hoping to capture its picturesque nature. The water has a thick, soupy quality to its steady emerald sheen as it lies flat in endless gulleys, disturbed by locals doing their washing up and the wooden boats that are punted in a circuit around the waterways.

The streets are narrow, paved with stones of grey shading to lilac, and overhung with the slanted wooden eaves of the buildings that line them. Traditional handicrafts are demonstrated for the tourists in open fronted stalls. Two old women sit on wooden stools spinning ecru clumps of cotton wool into fine thread, their hands working instinctively, their minds seemingly elsewhere. An old man sits on his front step carving combs out of shell with a long sharp knife, his eyes shyly focusing on his work as if the cameras weren’t pointed at him at all. A calligrapher sits behind his bench, his paintbrush eeking out effortlessly beautiful black characters dancing across a cream canvas.

Washing up in the canals

Washing up in the canals

Green weeping willows line the edge of the canals, gracefully bowing to the passing boats as they fracture the reflections into swirls of colour that graciously reform as the boat moves on. The bark is a soft, flaking brown and the green of the leaves almost shimmers with the multitude of shades it has to show. They rustle softly in the whispering breeze, brushing against the water with ripples of soft green. Resting in the bow of one of the wooden boats and moving steadily over the water, the bridges are reflected around you forming a complete circle, a hole in the universe which you pass through in peaceful serenity. Above and below you is a complete melding of land and water, a system built to harness the compatibility and co-existence of each.

There may be tourist trinkets in every shop and there may be ever multiplying crowds, but beneath this it is still possible to glimpse the past and imagine what it might have been. It is still lovely, but to imagine just how magical it could have been without the crowds and the undeniable focus on tourism is almost heart breaking. This place has the essence of something very special – a glimpse into a traditional past based around a much simpler way of life.

Floating and boating around Zhouzhuang

Floating and boating around Zhouzhuang

This commercialisation is the cost of tourism – if we want to see it, so will others and that undeniably changes the very nature of the place itself. Our longing to interact, to personally witness the wonders of the world cannot but make them that bit less wondrous. Remote and forgotten sites are precious, but they too are just as vulnerable to the same tragic fate. There has to be control out of respect for the site, the heritage and the history. We must not get caught up in what we alone want, but in what the world needs. Responsible tourism is the only way forward. Treat the world with respect, leave behind only footprints and take only memories. The chance to travel and feel the awe inspired by richly cultured, beautiful, natural and man-made wonders is one of the most rewarding experiences of any human life. It is our duty to safeguard this opportunity for generations to come. They too deserve to feel the awe.

Words and pictures copyright of Bonnie Radcliffe

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