Our first few minutes in Xitang were somewhat surreal, and looked like Xitang was going to be a major disappointment.
We enter via a large brand new, but old-fashioned gateway into a clean, shiny plaza overlooking a lifeless lake and sterile-looking buildings. We walk past rows of long, empty brand-new but old-fashioned looking buildings and our hearts sink. We're not sure what we expected, but we were not expecting "ancient chinese water-town kingdom" in Disneyworld...
...and then we round another corner, cross a bridge over the river and we're suddenly brushing past someone's laundry hanging out to dry, and we're almost run-over by a motorcycle; and Xitang has become bustling and human and a lot more interesting. The entrance, with its massive parking lot full of buses, the "Foot Massage Garden" and the pristine well-appointed loos are just reminders that they've taken a sizable and ancient town and started charging admission to visit it. Unless presumably you live there, and it turns out that many people do live in Xitang and have done so for many generations. The new lifeless stuff near the entrance is to cash in on the hordes of (Chinese) tourists, and more modest numbers of western tourist who pour into the place where they incidentally filmed Mission Impossible 3.
Most of the town consists of 100s of narrow laneways lined with ancient ramshackle buildings, with narrow covered walkway (with no handrails of course) edging the rivers and canals and scores of bridges. Most of the waterfront building have become shops and restaurants, but it's also very clear that few of these building have been modernized in any way and are probably mostly unchanged from how they appeared a century or two ago.
It's also very clear that you are walking through someone's front yard, and the fact that there are several thousand people bustling around won't stop one of the inhabitants from putting out their laundry, washing something in the river or laying out a few dozen bok-choy on the path to dry in the sun.And they'll also take the opportunity to sell you a flask of suspicious wine, a ball of brown-rice-molasses taffy, some dumplings, crayfish and river snails while they're living their peaceful uncomplicated lives.
In case it wasn't clear from this description, we really liked Xitang. It was a beautiful day, the canals are amazingly picturesque, and we had a very pleasant
lunch under the gourd-vine strung pergola in the back garden of one of the tumbledown miniature restaurants. Compared with Shanghai it was quiet and peaceful. ...Even if Perrin did get mobbed any time we stopped for a minute or she smiled endearingly.
The only sour note was the strained strains of Chinese opera being performed in an open area near one of the canals. Apparently Chinese opera's strident and discordant style was developed specifically to allow the sound to carry over the noise of a typical Chinese street. According to Jon's colleague Xun (who had kindly driven us to Xitang) the sound of Chinese opera is not appreciated by a lot of Chinese people either.