Preserving history in picturesque town of Wuzhen

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The Xishi River in Wuzhen, ChinaWuzhen, which lies about 70 miles southwest of Shanghai, is one of the most famous of the small, so-called "water towns" found along China's ancient Grand Canal, which stretches south from Beijing to the city of Hangzhou.

Established in 872, Wuzhen and its ambience have remained largely unchanged. Most of its current, carefully preserved buildings date from the late 19th century, and its ancient stone bridges are constructed in a variety of shapes and designs. The arched spans are particularly attractive and provide the perfect spot from which to photograph the intriguing scenery along the canals.

I first visited Wuzhen some 10 years ago, when it was a "closed town" and special permission had to be obtained. The town was designated an official tourist attraction in early 2007.

Its rehabilitation into an attraction could have gone awry, but it's been achieved with great vision and care. Wuzhen's characteristic features have been preserved, and traditional activities incorporated into a planned experience in the middle of what is still very much a living town.

There are no modern signs, no glass-fronted shops, and its ancient ways of life seem to have been maintained. I wandered down alleys in the morning, watching the town come to life for its daily quota of visitors. Shopkeepers were opening their "doors," actually a series of planks fitted together like a fence that are removed and stacked against a wall, to be refitted at the close of business.

In one shop, a young woman prepares rice patties. At another, a man makes sweets, drawing out long skeins resembling spaghetti from a sugary mix. There are shops selling colorful lanterns and painted umbrellas, and craftsmen make intricate silverware while ladies work assiduously on traditional embroidery.

Tucked away in an alleyway lies the superb Chinese Footbinding Culture Museum. Practiced for nearly a millennium as a way to afford women higher social status, enabling them to marry into money, footbinding only stopped in 1911. The museum features a collection of 825 pairs of tiny boots and shoes from various regions of China, all beautifully preserved and artistically arranged and displayed together with footbinding tools.

Wuzhen is divided into two main parts: the smaller Dongzha, or eastern part, which is more open and boasts a canal more than 1,200 feet long, and the main Xizha, or western part. The Xizha Scenic Area comprises 12 individual islands surrounded by canals, which are only accessible by boat. The islands are interlinked by 72 stone bridges of various shapes and sizes, with mile-long Xizha Old Street running east to west.

Wuzhen's waterways are undeniably its highlight. In Xizha, along the Xishi River, bridges span the narrow canals and, together with ancient docks and waterside pavilions, are a photographer's delight. A ride in a small boat, propelled like a gondola, also provides many interesting angles and shots.

The most interesting of Wuzhen's bridges are Tongji Bridge and Renji Bridge, two arched spans that form a right angle. While standing beside one bridge, you can see the other through the opening; hence, the two bridges are named the "Bridge in Bridge."

Wuzhen has a number of hotels where checking in seems like stepping back into history. I stayed at the Tongan Hotel, which encompasses an entire island. Its comfortable rooms and suites overlook the town's waterways.

Wuzhen Clubhouse comprises three beautifully restored Ming and Qing Dynasty timber manor houses. Traditional gabled roofs and upturned eaves, intricate wood carvings and striking stonework can be seen at every turn.

Situated next to Wuzhen's historical pharmacy, Heal Town House places a strong emphasis on recuperation and, not surprisingly, healing. It is part of the Leading Hotels of the World portfolio.

Visiting Wuzhen costs 120 yuan, or about $18. The fee includes a canal boat ride.

For more information, visit www.wuzhen.com.cn/wuzhen.eng.

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