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Exploring the Water Villages

Centuries-old villages, preserved almost in their original state, are scattered around Suzhou. Bowed bridges span narrow canals, as traditional oared boats paddle by, creating an almost picture-perfect scene of life long past. A trip to one of these villages could well be the photographic highlight of your trip to Eastern China.

Be careful which village you choose, though. The tourist dollars that flow in may have saved these villages from the wrecking ball, but they have also changed their character to differing degrees. Those closest to the larger cities are the most swamped by tour groups. Trekking to an out-of-the-way destination can pay off by letting you find a village that, outside of high season, you might have mostly to yourself.

Zhouzhuang. The most famous of the water villages is undoubtedly Zhouzhuang. Its fame is partly due to its proximity from Suzhou and Shanghai, just 45 minutes and an hour away, respectively. As a result, more than 2.5 million visitors head here each year to catch a glimpse of Old China. Its charm is reduced by the sheer number of tourists who elbow their way through the streets. Next to the "ancient memorial archway," which isn't ancient at all, is a ticket window. The entrance fee of Y100 gets you into the water-village-turned-gift shop. Crowds aside, Zhouzhuang is fun for families. Several residences, some 500 years old, let you see what life was like in the Ming and Qing dynasties. There are several storefronts where you can see brick making, bamboo carving, and basket weaving—traditional crafts that up until recently were in widespread use throughout the countryside. The food is typical country fare, making it a nice break from the fancier cuisine of Suzhou and Shanghai. Braised pork belly, crunchy stir-fried water chestnuts, pickled vegetables, and wild greens abound. For crafts, skip the snuff bottles and teapots and opt for something you probably won't find elsewhere: homemade rice wine, rough-hewn ox-horn combs, and bamboo rice baskets. Buses bound for Zhouzhuang depart from Suzhou's North Bus Station every 20 minutes between 7 and 5. The 90-minute trip costs Y25. Suzhou.

Tongli. The pick of the water villages is Tongli, 30 minutes from Zhouzhuang and 90 minutes from Suzhou. A number of locals still live and work here, lending this village a more authentic atmosphere than Zhouzhuang. The streets are cobbled, and the complete absence of cars makes Tongli feel like it's from a different era, provided you can get away from the crowds. You can still find yourself wandering on quaint side streets or creeping down impossibly narrow alleyways that open onto canals and bridges. Tongli is the largest of the water villages, imminently photographable, and a pleasure to explore. Near the entrance gate are several private homes offering beds, and throughout the village are tea shops and small tables set out in front of the canals. Hiring a boat (Y100 for up to six people) to be punted along the waterways gives a different perspective on the town. The admission fee is Y100. The fastest buses to Tongli leave from Suzhou South Bus Station every 20 minutes between 7 and 5. The journey costs Y12. Most taxis in town will also take you; when you negotiable a fee, aim for about Y150. This is by far the fastest way to get there, and you can take the bus back. Suzhou.

Ancient Chinese Sexual Culture Museum. A favorite spot in Tongli is Tuisi Garden, a slightly smaller version of the private courtyard parks found in Suzhou. Tongli is also home to the Ancient Chinese Sexual Culture Museum, housed in a former girl's school. The controversial exhibition of ancient erotic toys and artworks is the project of a retired university professor. Entrance to town, Suzhou, 215216. 0512/6332–2973. Y20. 8–4:30.

Luzhi. Even farther off the beaten path than Zhouzhuang or Tongli is the water village Luzhi, roughly half an hour from Suzhou. Though it's a popular tourist destination, it remains one of the more peaceful communities in the area. Described as a "museum of bridges," the village has more than 40 in all shapes and styles. Many of the older women in the village preserve traditional customs, wearing folk headdresses and skirts. Luzhi-bound buses leave from Suzhou's North Bus Station every 30 minutes between 6:30 am and 6:30 pm. The 40-minute ride costs Y10. Suzhou. Y100. Baosheng Temple. Luzhi is notable for the spectacular Baosheng Temple, a yellow-walled compound built in 503 that is famous for its breathtaking collection of Buddhist arhats. Arranged on a wall of stone, these clay sculptures are the work of Yang Huizhi, a famous Tang Dynasty sculptor. Made more than 1,000 years ago, they depict Buddhist disciples who have gained enlightenment. The temple also features a well-preserved bell from the end of the Ming Dynasty. Luzhi, 215127. 0512/6501–0011. Free. 8–4:30.

Updated: 2014-01-17

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