Zhouzhuang water town (near Shanghai)
When we first looked at Shanghai we saw that there were day trips to some ancient water towns. These are all based near a town called Suzhou. But let me tell you, Suzhou is no town… it’s a city with 6 million residents!! However, the smaller water towns are situated a further hours drive away.
There are plenty of tours that take you direct from Shanghai for a day trip. However, we’d read that the beauty of the town is first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Zhouzhuang water town
We decided that we needed a bit of downtime as well, away from city life. So we booked to stay in Zhouzhuang for a few nights.
The ancient town is the no.1 water town in the area. It’s a network of alleyways and bridges and a much smaller version of Venice! There were a number of temples and museums dotted around the town that you can visit.
It costs RMB 100 to visit the ancient town (free if under 1.4m). But if you are staying in the area you can opt to have your photo added to your ticket to make it valid for 3 days. Much more of a bargain! This added option is also free.
Where to stay
The prices obviously increase if you stay in the ancient town area. Therefore, we opted to stay outside the scenic area gates, just 5 minutes walk away!
The place we stayed, booked through Agoda, was a restaurant with rooms above. It wasn’t the best. The beds were hard, the bathroom was adequate as we were joined by a couple of cockroaches. But I suppose for £50 per 3 nights, it wasn’t going to be the Ritz.
The owners didn’t speak English so we were left to our own devices with just a smile every time we walked in or out!
How to get around
The water town was a short walk away along streets lined with restaurants. It was easy to get into and the main ticket office is to the left of the gates.
Once you get inside the water town is like a mini Venice. It’s really lovely. There are lanterns and small shops, as well as plenty of restaurants.
You can also ride the waterways with gondala style boats. These long boats are mainly driven by women who sing a tune and point out the tourist information. Some are good singers, some… but so much! I wonder if you can request a demo 😜
It had a very relaxed feel about the place and in the evenings, when the tourist groups and their loud speakers disappeared it was very tranquil!
We spent another day & evening wandering the streets, taking photos, looking on the shops and generally just shuffling around. It was so lovely to just mooch and know our hotel was only round the corner to crash, cool off and come back out to.
Where to eat
There are restaurants lining the main waterways. However, what surprised me the must was that they all served the same food. Not even an adaptation. It was all the same menu! What makes them stand out from another?!
Either way we stopped at a restaurant one night and deciphered the menu. Unfortunately it was mostly fish (or items which didn’t appeal!) So we were pleased we had some food we could eat!
The favourite dish here is pigs trotters. I’m sure they tasted lovely, but they just didn’t look that appetising. Also, there was turtles on the menu!
As we weren’t overly fussed with the restaurants inside the town we stopped at a place on the main Street, just outside the main gate. It looked like it was some sort of Chinese fast food chain. But boy the food was good and filling. It was all in Chinese so we just took a picture and pointed to the dishes we wanted. We were still slightly unsure what we were ordering but as it was cheap we could afford to get it wrong!
Day trip to Suzhou
We had arranged to meet a local expat family, via the our tribe travels, forum. Laura said she had 2 boys of similar age and if we were in the area could meet up! How fab. My boys are crying out for some crazy kid fun. So when she suggested ice skating on Suzhou the boys nearly bit our hand off!!
We hadn’t realised up until this point exactly how big Suzhou was. We knew there was a bus to Suzhou (1 ½ hours) but the transport within the area was less clear. The bus cost RMB 56 + RMB 11 in a taxi to the bus station.
We arrived a little later than expected and decided the quickest option would be to get a taxi. This was another 30 minute journey! This place is seriously huge!! The taxi was a further RMB 70.
We eventually got there, 15 minutes late and arrived on the top floor for some ice skating fun. We didn’t stop chatting from the moment we arrived to the moment we left. It was great fun and the boys really started to get into their ice skating!! In fact they didn’t want to come off, even for food.
But the idea of a Mexican enticed them and we left to have lunch. We haven’t had much western food and after our ‘not so impressive’ dinner last night we were looking forward to this treat! It was so nice to just catch up and chat about travels and family life. Laura and her boys were so lovely, but they needed to get home as both Isaac & Lucas were back at school tomorrow 😲.
We decided our return journey would be cheaper and easier if we just got a taxi. Laura booked us an Uber and we arrived back in good time and a cheaper price – bonus! Cost was RMB 90. Sometimes it’s just easier to get a taxi, but Uber is cheaper too.
Getting back to the train station
The nearest traint strain is in Suzhou. And as we had ventured into Suzhou only the day before we knew that there was a bit of hoop jumping. This coupled with timing and a forecast of heavy rain meant we made the decision to take a taxi to Suzhou, rather than the bus.
I’m quite glad we did as the heavy rain actually turned out to be a typhoon, which resulted in our train being cancelled!!! The taxi cost RMB 110.
So when we arrived we entered the train station, only we couldn’t find our train number?! We went to the guard and they said ‘train cancelled’. Waahhh!
We then had to leave the train station and go to the manic Ticket desk and find someone who some English. Luckily I spotted a guy trying to negotiate onto another train, and was in the same predicament as us.
Turns out the only alternate train, in a 3rd class sleeper which was leaving in 20 minutes!! After faffing with the guys tickets in front. They then slowly processed ours.. arggghhhhhhh… come on!!!
Grabbed the new tickets and ran, elbows and all, onto the station. Not being able to mandarin it didn’t help heart palpitations when you see your gate in red (usually means closed). I asked a nearby guard with Google translate to which he calmly replied ‘delayed’. Phew… I good have collapsed on the spot. We’d made it – a celebratory McDonald’s was in order 🤣
We actually had a nice chatty train journey, after all the stress, with the same guys (from Germany and Czech republic). I also chatted with a Chinese guy from guilin who worked with exchange students. And finally a little girl who was more than a little intrigued by me.
As you can see 3rd class sleepers are a little more compact too!!
We loved the quaintness of the Zhouzhuang village. It was a top find and definitely beat our expectations. The best time is definitely in the evening and early morning, when everyone else disappears. Plus if you stay over you get more money for your buck.
There were a few guest houses we saw inside the ancient town. I suppose if they are cheap enough I probably would have picked to stay there. So you need to shop around a bit for more comfortable accommodation.