Xinshi: A forgotten Chinese water town
The town of Xinshi sits next to Hangjia Lake, part of an area in Zhejiang Province known for its abundant fish and rice. It's a mere a two-hour bus ride from Shanghai, but you might as well be in another country.
Although for many Shanghaining, the term “water town” brings to mind tourist groups following flag-bearing dictators, Xishi has been all but forgotten by the camera-toting masses, who usually opt instead for the once-ancient-now-restored town of Wuzhen 30 kilometers east of Xinshi.
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Still relatively unknown, Xinshi is one of the oldest water towns around Shanghai and well worth the trek.
If you take a morning bus from Shanghai (see below for how to get here), you arrive in Xinshi around 12:15 p.m., perfect timing to grab lunch. Due to a local habit of eating lunch early, restaurants might look a bit empty at this hour, but don't worry about going hungry, they might be quiet, but they're still open for business.
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Keep an eye our for the town specialty, Xinshi Lamb (新市羊肉). Here the lamb is mixed with dozens of spices, as well as soy sauce and brown sugar, and simmered in a wok over an open fire overnight. Every local restaurant has its own recipe that has likely been passed down for generations, but no matter the spice combination, it will be delicious.
Although you can sit down at just about any restaurant in town and get their advertised authentic Xinshi Lamb, make a beeline to Zhang Yiping (张一品, 101 Xihekou 西河口101号, +86 057 2782 1977) by Taiping Bridge, which is known as one of the best places in town for this dish.
The buildings built during a number of Chinese dynasties line both sides of the water on Shuijie Street and have been more or less maintained as they were at the end of Qing Dynasty.
Located in the center of Xinshi, Zhang Yiping's building is an example of the area’s historic architecture, which you can take in as you take a seat at one of the eight communal tables. People cram in side-by-side to enjoy the restaurant's offerings. A small portion of Zhang Yipin Lamb (张一品羊肉), which feeds two, costs RMB 38.
Besides lamb, Zhang Yiping and other the local restaurants serve up traditional tea cakes (茶糕), shaomai (烧卖) and Xisha Lamb Tail (细沙羊尾), all dishes that have put Xinshi on the local culinary map.
Tea cakes are similar to the sticky rice cakes you see in other parts of China, and are stuffed with mincemeat. The meat is marinated before being stuffed in the rice. Never eat one of these cold, but when hot, the flavors of the marinade, come out and these stomach-filling cakes are a meat-eater's delight.
For the vegetarian travelers, although it might sound counter intuitive, reach for the Xisha Lamb Tail -- which isn’t lamb, or a tail, at all.
The dish is a well-known Zhejiang Province sweet snack made of bean paste, sticky rice powder and pork grease (OK, don’t tell veggie friends about the grease). It's called a “lamb tail” because of its shape. (Note: prices for tea cakes and Xisha Lamb Tail vary slightly, but they are all around RMB 2 each).
Shaomai are also a town specialty. Here the hand-rolled skins are thin and the shaomai are juicy. Made with a few chives, the local shaomai have a lingering fresh smell, and they’re far less greasy than their dim sum counterparts.
Opposite Zhang Yiping is one of the most famous shaomai places in the town, Linshi Shaomai (林氏烧卖). To get your appetite going, you can watch them make the shaomai before ordering (RMB 6 per portion of six pieces).
Old China tour
According local history documented in the local Xinshi History Museum, the town was originally founded in the Xijin period, and called Xiantan. Walking along the town's Xihekou street, you can still spot a few places marked as “Xiantan” ("仙潭").
Although a number of Xinshi's current roads and alleys town were originally underwater (it was a water town after all), many of the original bridges t have succumbed to industrialization, leaving only a handful for people to admire.
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You can still catch of glimpse of what the town looked like though along some of Xinshi's older streets. Walk along Xihekou Street to get a view of what this ancient town's architecture and see what life were once like here. For many families, little has changed over the generations.
Buildings built during a number of Chinese dynasties line both sides of the water on Shuijie Street and have been more or less maintained as they were at the end of Qing Dynasty. However, due to the lack of conservation efforts, some of the wooden architecture is in disrepair, rotting and crumbling around its residents.
Walk down Zhijie Road, one of the area's older streets, to see some intact late Qing Dynasty carved wood architecture, but lack of preservation -- like on Shuijie Street -- has given the area a feeling of desolation.
Although for many Shanghaining, the term “water town” bring to mind tourist groups following flag-bearing dictators, Xinshi has been all but forgotten by camera-toting masses.
The town's historic buildings were once used for two well-known early People's Republic's films. The Mao Dun novel adopted for the film "Shop of the Lin Family" was shot by the Beijing Film Studio in 1957 and "The Girl Canhua" was shot by Shanghai Tianma Film Studio in 1962. Both films play on the original flavors of the ancient town.
Although most of the settings from the films are now all gone, the local tourist board has marked the places that remain for the few tourists who do happen through.
Walking down Xihekou Street, the ancient river banks, bridges, passages and terraces give you a sense of the scenes used in the film "Shop of the Lin Family."
Most of the outdoor scene from "The Girl Canhua" were filmed around the Immortal Looking Bridge (望仙桥), Immortal Meeting Bridge (会仙桥), Immortal Riding Bridge (驾仙桥) and the Big Mansion (大宅院) area.
According to the locals, event with these attractions, the town rarely has many tourists, not even during the May and National Day holidays, when domestic Chinese attractions are usually overrun with people.
The town of silk
Since tourism isn't exactly the town's main industry, many locals raise silkworms. Small silk duvet workshops are everywhere in Xinshi, selling sheets at a fraction of the price you see in Shanghai.
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A 100-percent silk duvet that would go for RMB 1,000 in a Shanghai department store, sells for a mere RMB 100 here.
During the Qingming Festival, the nearby Hanshan hosts a yearly folk celebration called “Canhua Festival," in honor of the local industry. Silkworm farmers from a hundred miles around the area gather in Hanshan for the Canhua Parade, to celebrate spring flower blossoms and also to bring good luck.
To check out the festival, you can take a 30-minute bus from nearby Nanxun to Hanshan.
Two daily buses to Xinshi depart from Shanghai Long Distance Bus Station at 9:45 a.m and 4:10 p.m. Take Metro Line 3 or line 1 to Shanghai South Railway Station, the bus station is next door. Tickets are RMB 53 each way, with no reservation needed.
There's only one daily direct bus back from Xinshi to Shanghai. The bus leaves Xinshi at 1:45 p.m..
If you miss this bus, you can still catch the bus at the Xinshi Bus Station to Tongxiang, then switch to long-distance bus or fast train to come back to Shanghai. The bus from Xinshi to Tongxiang leaves every hour, takes about 40 minutes and costs RMB 11.
Wandering around the town: Xinshi is small, well marked and everything is within walking distance. If you happen to lose your way, locals are very happy point you in the right direction.
Shopping: Antique shops in Xinshi are crammed with bargains, and they're quietly waiting for people to come snap them up. There's no one store in particular to recommend, just window shop and enjoy the hunt.
Accommodation: Local hotel facilities are not quite up to international standards, especially at some of the very small guesthouses on the old Xinshi streets. Yingdu Guesthouse, which is one of the relatively well-known guesthouse can accommodate groups. If you prefer smarter accommodation, options include towns nearby such as Linping and Tongxiang, which are just a bus-ride away.
Good to know: Because there aren't many shops in Xinshi for tourists, if you can't find a tea house for a rest when you visit, there are many benches along the river. Bring your own water and snacks just in case you can't find anything in town.