Towards the end of our stay in Shanghai, we were done with the electronic lights and the posh interiors and were looking for more of the old. My nest of contacts suggested Zhaojialou and Zhujiajiao (yes, I had gotten the two names mixed up on more than one occasion).
Actually located within Shanghai, and the recommendation of a cousin of mine who had resigned herself to the nearby countryside after real estate battles (everyone in China is involved in one somehow). People basically go there to eat and meander the corridors and shout really loudly. I actually found myself, after several days in China, shouting very loudly at everything. My husband was not so amused.
And the Chinese do what they do best in those tight quarters, they eat!
The girls there were grilling meat skewers, flipping and flopping them amidst the flames, with only their faces emerging out of the smoke filled tents. The next stalls over were selling local flavored sticky rice in lotus leaves (zongzi), fresh from the steamer. Stinky tofu is the main attraction at Zhaojialou, different types with all you can scoop toppings of various hot sauce of the region. But what I can't stop thinking about even now were the deep fried radish cakes, golden browned to a crunchy crisp exterior with that gooey goodness inside. Noodles, meat rolls, vegetarian rolls that were even better than the meat ones, they were all there. Do not attempt to eat beforehand.
Zhaojialou took me a good few hours to traverse through. The map is quite generous, with a bit of scenery here and there. The way back to the metro, walking the peaceful countryside streets bearing signs of change but not quite yet, is still one of the most resounding memories I have.
Zhujiajiao ( 朱家角)
To be perfectly frank, if you do want to visit an old water town, this would be the one over Zhaojialou. It had the same fare of twisting corridors and old rooftops, but on a much bigger scale. It also featured a nearby park that was constructed in the footprints of the famous novel, Dream of Red Chamber.
The ancient town of Zhujiajiao boasted a lot of small shops offering independently designed goods. We wandered through merchants selling traditional wares, your usual 14th century bowls and ceramics and courtesan combs. There were endless options of coffee shops with charming decor as usual, small eateries, unique merchandise and novelties like cosplaying as a tang dynasty noblewoman strolling along the waterway as two teenage staff rushed after you taking photos. But most of all, the ride up and down the canal in the gondola was a refreshing delight.
We ended up that night, on a second floor restaurant with simple yet tasty food, overseeing the lights of the town as they went on one by one at night. A perfect way to end a day trip.