After a three-hour trip from Shanghai that includes a train ride and a bus from the Zhejiang Province city of Shaoxing, I finally arrive at Anchang (安昌), a small riverside town criss-crossed with waterways.
Breathing in the heady aromas of baked sweet potatoes and sugar-fried chestnuts (糖炒栗子), I set out in the crisp morning air to discover what sets Anchang apart from the other Chinese “water towns” competing for tourist footfall.
This may seem a slightly strange endeavor, but competition in this sector is hot. At least four towns vie for the title “Venice of China,” including Wuzhen (乌镇), Tongli (同里), Luzhi (甪直) and the famous Zhouzhuang (周庄), all of which are exquisitely beautiful—but mummified by their commercialism.
In keeping with its rivals, Anchang is clean and picturesque, and offers a welcome change of pace from my hectic life in Beijing. Everything is a sedate and wrapped in a certain rustic charm. As I stroll along the riverbank, a man sitting in a black-canopy boat paddles by, a woman washes clothes by the waterside, and visitors take pictures on one of the many stone arch bridges that span the waterways.
But it’s the strings of dried fish and sausage hanging under the eaves of waterside homes that I pick out as quintessentially Anchang. Viewed from the opposite bank, the strings form a series of makeshift curtains that hang in front of each household, offering glimpses of the rooms within.
Outside the door of one home, I catch sight of an old man apparently pulling long strings of noodles apart. Getting closer, I realize he’s actually wielding long waves of sticky sugar (扯白糖)—sugar extracted from sprouts of wheat, which will eventually be cut up and served as a unique local snack.
The process requires no small amount of strength and skill. After heating a full cup of sugar in a wok until it turns to syrup, the man pauses just long enough for the liquid to cool but not solidify. Then, he deftly scoops up the syrup and begins threshing the goo vigorously back and forth. The color of the sugar gradually turns from dark brown to white, while the shape magically transforms in his hands, morphing from a single sheet to a myriad of fine strands. The process is so beautiful that a crowd soon gathers to watch the artist weaving together the silk-like bands, before cutting them into bite-sized candy pieces and offering them up for sale.
For me, visiting Anchang also stirred up some long-dormant memories. As with many such experiences, the recollection was initially triggered by music. Catching the familiar strains of Yue Opera (越剧)—a type of Chinese opera originating in Zhejiang Province— I was instantly transported back to middle school. I spent years as a fan of the form, which features an all-female cast playing all the roles, including those of men, in stories usually involving a talented scholar and a beautiful lady. Drawn by the melody, I traced the notes to an actress singing on an ancient stage. A cluster of old ladies sat quietly in their chairs around the platform.
Despite its old world charm, Anchang remains a deeply vibrant place. In contrast to the other four river towns, whose booming tourist economies have turned them from communities into Disney-fied commercial centers, Anchang remains a real town where real people live. Instead of souvenir shops, there are houses; instead of hawkers there are women washing clothes; and instead of tourists, there are dogs running by the water. Come and catch it before that changes.
Getting there: Take the 118 bus from Shaoxing Train Station
Accommodations: You can easily make a day-trip of Anchang, but if you choose to stay overnight there are several hostels along the water that are as cheap as 40 RMB per night
Eating: Visit any of the homestyle restaurants in Anchang for the local specialty, dried sausage (风腊肠)
Main photo courtesy of 罗宾 Robbin
Read about a Water Town Wedding here!