Much of what you see in Shanghai's hectic downtown area today has only existed for a few decades. Yet, bucking the trend in the middle of this megacity is the historic town of Qibao, where the pace of life meanders along just like the waters of its canals.
Wooden boats float down these tight waterways beneath stone arched bridges, passed ornate pavilions, atmospheric temples and vibrant street markets. As Shanghai accelerated into the future at a startling rate, Qibao was able to retain its culture and character.
In a city renowned for frenetic energy and hyper-modernity, Qibao is a welcome throwback to a simpler way of Chinese life.
I had read about Qibao Ancient Town, a canal-pierced hamlet in the city’s outer suburbs which supposedly boasted some of the grace and serenity of rural Chinese villages. I was sceptical. Over eight previous journeys across China I had become familiar with the country’s so-called “ancient towns”.
In its manic rush to modernise and expand its cities, China has made an unfortunate habit of razing historic neighbourhoods. With the most fascinating sections of cities destroyed, nostalgia is then fed by building faux-ancient towns.
These areas may look similar to the old neighbourhoods, but they have no architectural or cultural heritage and no charm. They are not functioning communities, bearing more in common with theme parks. Even as a foreigner, they can be depressing places – reflecting the manner in which the human race is dangerously obsessed with moving forward.
It was with trepidation, then, that I caught a train on the Shanghai subway to Qibao. First impressions weren’t great.
“Not again,” I thought. But as I wandered down the first alley, my cynicism began to recede. The crowds thinned out and the environment became less touristy. On closer inspection of the structures around me, I recognised they were not just beautiful but also authentic examples of the architecture of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties.
This lane ended at a quaint square, embellished by a majestic teahouse and shady willow trees and bordered by a canal. A timeworn arched stone bridge, its rails decorated with intricately-carved designs, spanned this narrow waterway. “This is more like it,” I said to myself.
By the bridge sat a man in a white singlet and a wide-brimmed hat, dangling his legs above the canal and his fishing line into its murky, slow-moving water. Although he had a firm grip on his rod, his eyes were shut and his shoulders slumped, as if he were napping. A man in no hurry, indicative of the laidback setting I was pleased to have uncovered.
Looking down along the canal I spotted another lovely arched bridge. Beneath it passed a small wooden boat, operated with a single oar by a middle-aged woman wearing a traditional conical hat.
With her free hand she was pointing to the old buildings which lined the river, seemingly offering insight to her two passengers. Intoxicated by my environment I stayed put for almost half an hour, leaning on the bridge railing, thankful for the protection afforded by Willow tree against from the 33-degree heat.
In this time about seven or eight similar boats cruised by, each filled with visitors enjoying the half-hour canal tours of Qibao, which cost about AUD $20. Eventually, I coaxed myself to move on.
Residents knelt before Taoist shrines, incense smoke wafting above their bowed heads. Men gathered in traditional-style courtyards, perched on stone stools as they played Chinese boardgames. Women grouped together on the stoops of buildings, sipping tea as they listened to classical music. Children chased each other through the narrow alleys, past temples, herbal medicine shops, and hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurants.
It no longer felt as though I was in a gargantuan city home to more than 30 million people. I could have been in a far-flung village in Sichuan or Yunnan Province. Qibao revealed itself not to be a theme park-style abomination but a thriving community boasting dozens of historical structures.
For hundreds of years it was an important trading town through which passed many goods being transported to Shanghai from the countryside. It no longer has such a purpose. Yet Qibao may be more relevant now than ever, as a rare reminder of classical Chinese architecture, culture and lifestyles in an ever-Westernising, ever-modernising city.
- Qibao is the closest historic water town to the Shanghai CBD. The easiest way to reach it is by taxi, which takes as little as 25 minutes when traffic is light.
- The historic section of Qibao is quite large and requires at least two hours to properly explore. Row boat operators will take you on half-hour tours for about $20 or can be hired for half a day for about $80.
- The largest of the historic water towns near Shanghai is Zhujiajiao, which has 36 stone bridges, but can take up to 90 minutes to reach by taxi.