My day trip to Zhujiajiao was a personal victory. This picturesque ancient Chinese water town, nicknamed the “Venice of Shanghai” for its canals, was awesome – but it didn’t start out that way. As a solo traveler who does not speak Mandarin Chinese, I encountered some difficulties in my visit to Zhujiajiao – the kinds of difficulties I’ve also encountered in Shanghai during my time here the past three weeks. However, I understand that travel is not always perfect and neat and easy. Sometimes it’s confusing and difficult and scary. And that’s part of the deal. I’ve discovered that whether my experience is positive or negative, it allows me to grow as I learn about other cultures and the world in general. Let me take you through some highs and lows of my visit to explain how I ended up #winning in Zhujiajiao.
The Great [Language Barrier] of China. Of course you know about the Great Wall of China. You may know about the Great “Firewall” of China – the one that blocks tons of sites, like Google, Facebook, and Instagram. But let me talk about what I’ll dub the Great Language Barrier of China, which may be the greatest one of all because it can be so difficult to scale. Getting by with English is tough in China and sometimes simply impossible. In many cases, you have to resort to hand gestures, pointing, and translation apps to communicate. I mean I get it – if I had about 900 million other fellow native speakers of my mother tongue, I probably wouldn’t have an urgent need to learn a foreign language either. Unlike in other parts of the world, English does not really function well as the lingua franca between native Chinese people and foreign tourists. This has been frustrating for me at times, since English has served me so well across Europe, South America, Morocco, the UAE, and even in Japan. I never had any really drastic language barrier problems in these countries; in China, however, I do face these problems.
Upon arriving to the Zhujiajiao bus station, I needed to walk for about 15 minutes to get to the old town. Although there were some signs in English on the street, I still felt like I had to rely on myself for navigation, since I could not count on someone speaking English to help. I started imagining getting lost and not being able to communicate with anyone about how to get back to the bus station at the end of the day. This daunting situation left me feeling vulnerable in a way I had never felt before – and I have done quite a bit of solo travel around the world. When I arrived at the town, I tried to get to some of the main sites using a map provided at the tourist center – yes, it had the names of sites in English, which was a relief. But, the sites were hard to find. As I looked for the Kezhi Garden, for example, I kept walking up and down the same street with no luck. After asking around a few times by pointing at the Chinese name of the garden on the map, people led me in the generally correct direction, but there was no clear signage outside the garden. I finally found it, feeling a bit exasperated.
Throughout the day, I grew more accustomed to the lack of English. I was able to communicate at the basic level to get what I wanted, and that sufficed. Although there were no signs in English at the bus station when I returned to catch the bus back to Shanghai, the driver spoke enough English to assure me that I was on the right bus. All in all, I scaled the Great Language Barrier of China, and I was proud.
UFOs: Unidentified [Food] Objects. I love interesting and exotic foods, but China takes it to a new level. I arrived to Zhujiajiao pretty hungry and ready for some street food. My experiences with street food in Shanghai had been good, so I was ready to rock ‘n’ roll in Zhujiajiao. Problem was, I didn’t really know what anything was, and – you guessed it – it was difficult to ask due to the language barrier. After roaming a few streets in town, I didn’t find anything that tickled my fancy, which was a bummer. I was getting #hangry. Luckily, my sights soon set on a kind-looking elderly Chinese woman, who was frying up some vegetable dumplings. They looked tasty, and I couldn’t resist the woman’s sweet smile. Recharged from the food and my interaction with this woman, I was ready to take on Zhujiajiao again.
Venice = Visitors. China is a huge country, so it is only natural that any tourist destination, especially one that hails as the “Venice of Shanghai,” is full of Chinese and foreign visitors alike. I purposefully visited Zhujiajiao on a Friday afternoon to avoid the crowds. There were no large tourist groups roaming the streets when I visited the town, but there were enough visitors to make me feel like the amount of people was interfering with the idyllic tranquility of Zhujiajiao’s canals. Since I was already feeling overwhelmed by the language barrier and the lack of food options, this situation didn’t ameliorate my unease. However, later in the afternoon, the crowds dissipated and it became much easier to appreciate the charming nature of this pleasant water town.
Catching a break in Kezhi Garden. A respite from the busier thoroughfares of town, Kezhi Garden is a tranquil complex of pavilions, ponds, bridges, and vegetation. It was very pleasant to wander through the peaceful grounds. The garden was built in 1912 and actually took 15 years to complete!
Street strolling on quaint, cozy streets. I discovered Caohe Street and Xihu Street later in the day, and this area ended up being my favorite part of town. These picturesque streets are lined with pleasant little shops and cafés where you can grab food, coffee, or a beer. Importantly, these cafés are pretty Western-friendly and usually have English menus or signs. The best part about these cafés is that most sit right on the canal, giving patrons a wonderful view as they enjoy their food or beverages. As I walked through this charming part of town, I especially enjoyed discovering bridges tucked between the canalside structures. The idea here is just to crisscross through the area, traversing the bridges and roaming the streets. By this time of the day, I was really enjoying Zhujiajiao and feeling so glad I came.
A brew with a view. I do enjoy a good brew, and I definitely enjoy a good view, so sipping a Tsingtao canalside was a sweet deal. I picked a café in just the right spot along Caohe Street: I could see the water, the surrounding restaurants, Zhongguanyin Bridge, and Xieliang Pavilion all from my cozy couch on the outdoor terrace. Obviously, at this point of my visit I was #winning.
Late afternoon, less people. By around 4 PM, most tourists had started heading home, but Zhujiajiao was by no means a ghost town at this point. I actually think the town came alive in a different way as the evening progressed. I no longer felt overwhelmed with the chatter of people and could instead focus on taking in the natural, tranquil beauty that characterizes a water town.
#Allofthelights. Zhujiajiao was a sight to be seen at twilight. As soon as I saw Fangsheng Bridge all lit up along with the structures that line the central waterway, I headed to the bridge for a view of the sunset – and wow. The sight of the sun fading over the river was absolutely amazing. I made sure to take photos at different stages of nightfall to capture the beautiful lighting of the town as the sun set and darkness fell. At night, the town has a cool vibe – people are eating dinner on the canal as lanterns and lights illuminate the water. As I headed back to the bus station to leave for Shanghai, I was completely enamored of Zhujiajiao.
Zhujiajiao is undoubtedly a worthwhile trip, especially if you’re in Shanghai, as it is a relatively easy, cheap one-hour bus ride away. Ultimately, this really was a victory for me: I got myself safely to and from Zhujiajiao, overcame an initial sense of unease, and got to explore a truly unique and beautiful ancient Chinese water town.
Below are my photos, taken chronologically from the beginning to the end of my visit.