Finding untouched destinations in China is becoming harder than swallowing a shot of three-kuai baijiu these days. It's easy to go where tour groups have conquered and crowds have consumed. But if you're willing to put up with a rough bus ride every now and then, you might end up somewhere more worth your while. Most people who go to Shanghai see what every standard guidebook writes about: the Bund, some museums, and maybe a temple or two. But just beyond the massive metropolis lies a collection of forgotten fishing villages that take you back to a time when China didn't have a KFC on every other block.
The buses from Shanghai take no more than two hours to reach a number of remote countryside villages. And if you choose to go on a quick daytrip to Xitang (西塘), Zhouzhuang (周庄), or Jiading District (嘉定区) you'll discover the serene river life seen in all of those painting scrolls that you bought for a bargain price at that one market last year. Most of these villages date back to the Ming Dynasty when local bureaucrats built waterways to divert flooding.
Over the years, mazes of alleys, canals, and small shopping lanes developed in each of the villages, connected only by arched stone bridges and rundown riverboats. There's no real checklist of sights to see within these hidden features of China's ancient past; the villages are best visited simply by getting lost and wandering through the side streets that expose the charm of Chinese rural life. Take some time to walk around and visit some of the ancient temples and courtyards down the cobblestone lanes of the towns. During the afternoon, you can hop on one of the wooden gondolas to go on a breezy ride down the calm waterways. The views from on the river are spectacular. Then in the evening, wait for the hanging red lanterns on the shops and boats to slowly bring a warm glow to the water as you sit back and enjoy your fresh fish with a beer. Not to worry if you've missed the last bus back to the city: Stop by any one of the numerous teahouses and use a smile along with some basic Chinese to stay in one of their comfortable rooms upstairs where the soothing sounds of the running river will lull you to pleasant dreams.
The next time you find yourself in Shanghai, think about skipping out of town for the day to enjoy the quaint fishing villages in the peaceful countryside nearby. It'll be well worth your while.
Villages like Xitang have yet to be discovered by the masses of tourists. And unlike Shanghai, where KFC is on every corner, in these villages you're more likely to find your chicken walking about someone's yard. From Shanghai, most buses leave in the morning every half hour from the Shanghai Stadium (上海体育场).
Flight from Chengdu to Shanghai: 2.5 hours, RMB600 to 1,000
Bus from Shanghai to Zhouzhuang: 2 hours, RMB150
This article of the "Roads Less Traveled: the planet's not so lonely anymore" series was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 22 ("China"). Photos and text by Paul