Shanghai’s secret ancient town

An old man fishing the canal by long pole

Timing is everything, so the saying goes. Well the timing of our trip to China saw the continuation of our lucky run. As it happened, we were in Shanghai at the same time as Frank, an old mate from Melbourne. Frank was back in his old hometown to share the New Year festivities with his family.

Frank offered to show us one of Shanghai’s hidden gems. Who could refuse an offer like that? So we jumped on the subway and made our way a short way across town. We exited the subway onto a broad commercial boulevard and the anywhere nature of our surrounds led me to question whether we had got off at the wrong stop, but just ten minutes down the road we found the Qibao Ancient Town.

Qibao is an ancient water town hidden in the heart of a metropolis, just eleven kilometres from downtown Shanghai. Crossing the threshold we left the soulless high-rises, neon signs and broad traffic laden roads of modern Shanghai and walked into the bustling cobbled laneways.  It was like stepping back in time. The street was alive with colour and movement, red lanterns were strung up in every doorway and street corner. Multi tiered wooden pagodas and temples with tiled roofs finishing in a flurry of curved flourishes that draw eye and soul skyward. An old man smoked beneath the quaint stone bridge and fished the freezing canal waters by long pole. Shops and street vendors crowded the lanes with their wild and wonderful wares: foods of every kind, fireworks and rice whiskey.

I kept my eye out for one of Mr Wing’s suppliers so I could pick myself up a wholesale Mogwai but unfortunately we didn’t stumble across one. My disappointment was well and truly tapered by the stinky tofu, beer duck and beggars chicken. For the latter, a whole chicken is seasoned with herbs then wrapped in a lotus leaf then slow baked in a clay coating. The legend goes that the cooking method was discovered by a poor man who stole a chicken. He was preparing to cook it on the fire when the landowner happened along. To conceal his crime, he quickly wrapped it in mud and threw it in the fire, later he discovered the succulent cooked chook inside.

We spent a couple of hours wandering the streets reveling in the atmosphere. Then it was time to go. I got myself a porcelain flask of rice whiskey, a box of dumplings and walked back to the subway feeling thoroughly grateful to Frank for having shown us something we would never have otherwise seen.

Beggars chicken for sale at a street vendor

Chinese temple at Qibao Ancient Town

The lanes of Qibao Ancient Town

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