Travel Time – Xitang

I’ll bet you didn’t know that Tom Cruise and I have something in common. We have both walked the covered corridors of the ancient river town, Xitang (pronounced she-tan). Well, actually, he ran. You know, in Mission Impossible III. No, it wasn’t a set but a real place. Originally built on the southern Yangtze River thousands of years ago, Xitang became a strategically important boundary during the Warring States Period (770-221 BC). During the Yuan (you-wan) Dynasty (1271-1368), it developed into a prosperous town. With its well preserved ancient houses, buildings, lanes and corridors that date back to the Ming and Qing (ching) Dynasties (1368-1911 AD), it was known as an important town for commerce and handicrafts in South China.

Xitang is located just 3 ½ hours outside of Shanghai near the city of Suzhou (sue-joe). Xitang has endured over the years to become a favourite tourist spot and a much sought after site for movies and TV.

If you flew over Xitang you would see 8 distinct glistening waterways interwoven everywhere flowing under 104 exquisite stone bridges each creatively different, kissing the steps leading to the ancient houses and shops that line the riverbanks. On the black tiled roofs of some old houses in Xitang, the grass is about one chi (about 13 inches) tall. It is said that the spirit of the former owner of the house joins with the grass, making it flourish and brings a blessing of peace and gives permanence to the house as well as prosperity to the entire town.

Unlike other water towns, Xitang has a covered corridor that attracts visitors from all over the world. The corridor has a unique charm and is more than 1,000 meters (about 1094 yards) long. Most of this corridor is tile-roofed and built along the riverside, providing a comfortable shelter for people avoiding either the hot sun or the rain. High-back davenports and wooden benches have been placed at intervals along one side of the covered corridor where passersby can rest. You will feel drawn into the past just walking along the corridor, watching the boats in the river. And speaking of boats, be sure to take a ride down the river in a single oared boat.

The 102 lanes are like ropes connecting the whole town. They are long and short, wide and narrow. Among all the different lanes, the narrowest is about 80cm (about 31 inches) wide and provides space for only one person to pass through at a time. The lanes are paved with stone tiles and are highly polished by the feet of the many visitors and weathered hundreds of years. The charm of the lanes is reflected in the culture and beauty of the houses themselves, decorated with cultural relics, woodcarvings or eave tiles collected by the house owner. To this day, there are exhibitions of ancient rare books passed down from generation to generation or rubbings from a stone inscription of a famous calligrapher as well as tree root carvings by a well known artist who fell in love with Xitang. The villagers also sell specialized food such as the famous stinky tofu that has become a must-have while walking the lanes and corridors of Xitang.

These ancient and historical water towns are disappearing quickly and should be enjoyed before the modern world encroaches. An advisor from the UNESCO World Heritage Center spoke highly of Xitang. "Xitang is like the limpid and melodious music of a flute," he said. "People need to appreciate it with their heart."

TerryLynn Saunders lives in Nanaimo.