carfree town near Shanghai
- I have just returned from a couple of weeks in China and can offer
the following of interest to the carfree group.
There is at least one and perhaps several small carfree towns in
the "water district" near Shanghai. The one I visited, Zhouzhuang,
bears uncanny similarities to parts of Venice. There are others in
the region I did not get to visit but appear to be of the same ilk:
Xitang, Tong Li, and perhaps Wu Zhen.
The whole region just west of Shanghai has numerous canals and rivers
which have been used for navigation for millenia. Though many are
falling into disuse in China's pell-mell development, vestiges
remain. A few car-free streets along canals may be found in the town
of Shaoxing, which have much the same flavor of their Venetian
counterparts. Life often spills from the small homes onto the street,
and while its residents may long for a new highrise in the modern
parts of town, they at least are free of the wild traffic that
characterizes the modern parts of Chinese cities.
The history of Zhouzhuang is remarkably similar to Venice - first
settled about 900 years ago, it became a prosperous trading center.
It leading citizen at one point became a creditor the the emperor!
Most the the present buildings are about 400 years old. This is
remarkable in a country that, despite 3000+ years of history, has so
few historic buildings still standing.
While Venice has lived shamelessly off tourism for well over a
century, Zhouzhuang's transformation began in the early 1980's when
its beauty was brought to the attention of Deng Xiaoping. Zhouzhuang
has been making up for lost time, and its main streets regrettably
bear closest resemblance to the Lista de Spagna, being lined with
hawkers peddling tripe to the visitors. It has been widely advertised
in nearby cities, with combined populations in the several tens of
millions, so it gets hordes of tourists. Our visit was on the morning
of a cold rainy Monday so the visitor traffic was modest at first,
and one could experience a bit of the ancient flavor.
It has "gondolas" as well, all piloted by women, who emulate their
Latin counterparts by singing opera for their passengers (Chinese
opera of course). The price of a 30-minute rise is a very un-Venetian
Most of the town's 2000 residents live in the very unremarkable
modern section with the usual plain buildings and traffic. The only
permanent denizens of the carfree zone are reportedly old, long term
Unlike Venice, Zhouzhuang accomodates wheeled vehicles, by including
ramps on its bridges. This permits bicycles and hand-carts to be
used. It aso allows motorbikes to invade the ancient town, but these
seem few in number and owners seem to mostly have the civility to
While there is an unfortunate Disneyland effect of all the tourist
development, when visitors are few one can still appreciate its
characteristics as a small, very old but functioning carfree town
with water-based transport.
Though Shanghai has been building roads and freeways like mad, and
now has the smog to show for it, it did make one foray into car-
lessness, by converting its principal shopping street, Nanjing Lu,
into a pedestrian mall in 1999. Its now a bustling commercial street
where one is spared having to dodge the city's frantic traffic,
except at cross-streets.