The best-known “water towns” in the Suzhou region—Zhouzhuang and Tongli—are difficult to reach without a car. If you prefer something closer to hand, consider LuZhi, just thirty minutes away by city bus. Buses 18, 52, and 518 all funnel into Jin Ji Hu Road in the Suzhou Industrial Park, and from there continue eastward to LuZhi: quick, easy, and inexpensive!
Water towns are simply country towns in the flat river delta areas south and east of Suzhou. The land is dissected by canals that traditionally provided much more reliable transportation than the boggy roads. The water towns, therefore, look a lot like the Pingjiang Lu area of Suzhou. The canals criss-cross the town, lined with shops and traversed by ancient stone footbridges. The narrow paths along the canals can be beautifully picturesque or, at times, can be crammed with tacky tourist stalls. If the crowds along the main canals tire you, turn randomly into one of the side streets. Perhaps you’ll find an artist’s studio, or a simple stall serving delicious food, or . . . who knows?
LuZhi is small enough that you can just wander without worrying about where you are, and there are plenty of signposts to help you out. The first time you visit, you will probably want to buy an entrance ticket that allows you to enter eight of the town’s special exhibits. If you go back, just enjoy the canals and alleys and shops.
I usually enter through the main gate (see “How to Get There”, below, for details). As you reach the old town there is an open square, with two main streets leading beyond it. Bear to the left. There’s a popular ice cream shop just as the street begins, and a few steps beyond is a taffy shop, where, if you are lucky, you can enjoy listening to the large young taffy-puller singing as he works. A bit farther on, look for the signs pointing to the Bao Sheng Temple. Cross the stone bridge to the left, and you will enter a quiet narrow lane with some interesting craft shops and an artist’s shop that has some beautiful work. At the end of the lane you will see the typical yellow walls of the Buddhist temple. Bao Sheng has been rebuilt and expanded, so much of it is not really very old. The major exception is the arhat hall (arhats are Buddhist saints). Unlike those in other Buddhist temples I have visited, Bao Sheng’s arhats are not freestanding sculptures. Instead, they are rough bas-relief carvings in an entire wall of gray stone. In the dimly-lit room, the arhats lean and loom this way and that in a dreamlike chaos of shifting shapes. Said to be the work of the Tang Dynasty sculptor Yang Huizhi, these arhats alone are worth the trip to LuZhi.
Return to the main street, turn left, and you will find another ticketed attraction, the Shenzhai Residence. If you are familiar with Qing Dynasty mansions, little here will surprise you. Farther along in the same direction, the street ends where a bridge crosses the canal. To the right is a teahouse with very nice views of the canal, both on the ground floor and upstairs. Rather than cross the bridge, turn left, with the canal on your right. This stretch is perhaps the most touristy in LuZhi, but it doesn’t last long, and there are some very nice shops mixed in with the trinkets. Look for the silk-embroidery paintings. Across the canal on your right you will see a large new gate leading into a new development. Continue on, and at the next bridge, cross over to the other side of the canal and turn left. You will see lots of girls in this area having their pictures taken while dressed up in traditional costumes of various kinds. After several antique shops, look for number 15: part bookshop, part hotel, a former school, and a museum of old composition books all in one. The interior is worth exploring, and there’s a beautiful tiny courtyard in the back. If you continue a bit farther, you will reach another ticketed attraction, the Wang Tao Memorial Hall. Wang Tao was quite an interesting fellow, but otherwise the building is, like the Shenzai Residence, typical without being remarkable.
Reverse direction and retrace your steps, with the canal now on your right. Continue past the teahouse to the next bridge. From this intersection you can quickly reach several interesting points. If you continue straight ahead, you will reach one of the main canal-boat docks, and nothing is much more pleasant than 40 minutes in a canal-boat in LuZhi. A few steps away is the Wan Sheng Rice Shop, another ticketed attraction where you can see how rice was grown, harvested, and prepared for sale in the 19th century. If you return to the intersection and turn right, you will begin to leave the old town. Look to the left, just a few steps ahead, and you will see a large gate leading into the Jiangnan Cultural Park. If you enter and bear to the right, you will find the history museum, a small but pleasant interlude featuring air-conditioning and a few interesting exhibits focused on pottery and textiles, including a bilingual video that offers an excellent excuse to sit down for a few minutes. Return the way you came, but turn right when you reach the gate, and you will soon arrive at the costume museum. There you can see some very interesting displays of the traditional clothing worn by peasants in the LuZhi area.
Return now through the gate where you entered, and turn right to arrive again at the same intersection in the old town. Cross the bridge, and look on your left for a lady who is selling a Suzhou staple, “luo2 bo2 si1 bing3,” deep-fried cakes made from shredded white radish. Delicious! To return, walk north with the canal on your right, and you will soon see where you are and find your way. Take time to soak in the atmosphere, which, even today, offers glimpses into a way of life that goes back generations and challenges our modern ideas of what a “good life” might be.
How to Get There
甪直镇, (Lu4 Zhi2 Zhen4)
Take bus 18, 52, or 518, all of which can be caught at various stops along Jin Ji Hu Avenue (jin3 ji1 hu2 da4 dao4). After about a 30-minute ride, get off at Fu Cheng Bei Lu. (Tell the driver, or a friendly fellow passenger, that you want to go to the LuZhi Old Town (甪直老街, Lu4 Zhi2 Lao3 Jie1, which literally means “LuZhi Old Street.”) Walk back (south) 50 meters from the bus stop, and turn left (east) into a walking street. The walking street ends at an intersection with a roundabout. Continue straight ahead to enter the “lao jie.” To return, simply retrace your steps and catch a bus back to Suzhou at the bus stop across the street from the one where you got off.