Xitang, Zhejiang Province, China （中国浙江省西塘）
Photo Travel Guide
Main photographic interest: Jiangnan-style architecture, culture and cultural relics
Xitang (西塘) is one of the six major water towns in Jiangnan area. Jiangnan (江南) refers to the southern part of the lowest reaches of the Yangtze River and encompasses the Shanghai municipality, the southern part of Jiangsu Province and the northern part of Zhejiang Province. Intellectual life of Jiangnan has been highly regarded throughout Chinese history and greatly influenced Chinese culture. On top of that, abundant lakes, canals and ponds of the region have shaped distinctive townscapes. All of this makes Jiangnan a very attractive destination for cultural photography.
Located in Jiashan County (嘉善县) and only 115 kilometers from Shanghai, Xitang is arguably the most attractive among the water towns in Jiangnan area. It boasts antique black-and-white houses that line the canals, a number of ancient bridges as well as unique civil residences and halls. If you need more convincing of the town's magisterial splendor, then consider the fact that Mission: Impossible III was partly shot here.
Xitang is fairly easily accessible from Shanghai and overall traveling expenses are very low. Take a train/bus from Shanghai South Railway/Bus Station to Jiashan (嘉善). From Jiashan railway station walk straight to the first crossroad, turn left, walk further and after you cross a bridge there will be a bus station (this is where you will arrive if you take a bus from Shanghai). Buses for Xitang leave every ten minutes and it takes approximately 20 minutes to get to the destination; alternatively, you can take a taxi (RMB30). Xitang entrance ticket is RMB50 (exclusive of entrance to places of historic value inside the town).
If you choose to visit on a weekend you can alternatively consider going on an organised trip from Shanghai Sightseeing Bus Center (上海旅游集散中心; address: Staircase 5, Gate 12, Shanghai Stadium, No. 666 Tianyaoqiao Road; 天钥桥路666号上海体育场12号门5号扶梯下; tel.: +86 (0) 21 6426 5555). The price is RMB158 (inclusive of return bus ride as well as entrance to Xitang and several halls and civil residences) if you return on the same day; if you choose to stay overnight, the price is RMB178 (inclusive of the same items; accommodation has to be arranged and paid for separately). Beware, however, that these organised trips might include visits to other tourist destinations en route to Xitang, which will cut short the time available for photography.
Accommodation and where/what to eat
If you intend to stay overnight (for the reasons outlined below) there are many guesthouses in Xitang and most of them are reasonably clean and comfortable. As of mid-2008, accommodation rates are as follows: weekdays - RMB120/night; weekends - RMB150-180/night depending on location and view; public holidays - at least RMB380/night. If you are going on a weekend or during a public holiday, make sure you make a reservation in advance.
I personally prefer staying at Langqiomeng Guesthouse (浪桥梦客栈; address: No. 28 Chaoxili; 西塘镇朝西隶28号; tel.: 0573 8456 3193; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.xitangly.com/lqmkz.htm). It is located smack in the middle of the town, has two rooms with Chinese style redwood furniture and, on top of that, boasts a very nice bar on the ground floor. The bar is very comfortable, drinks are very reasonably priced and they play decent music - last time I checked the collection was represented by Bob Marley, Eric Clapton and Sade. This particular music may not be your cup of tea but it could - and in so many places in China is - be much worse.
As anywhere else in China, there are many fairly cheap restaurants. One obvious choice is Qingming Shidai (清明食代) as the food there is great; this is also where Tom Cruise had his meal(s) while shooting Mission: Impossible III. I also recommend dropping by YI (懿) Coffee Bar for a cup of gourmet coffee and a homemade cheesecake (address: No. 6, lane 86, Tangdong street; 西塘镇塘东街86弄6号; tel.: 136 2586 2709).
On your first trip I suggest initially taking a walk around to familiarise yourself with the place. Xitang is quite small and it will take approximately half an hour. After that you can concentrate on photographing the subjects and locations that you find of most interest. Do not forget to pay attention to the direction and quality of ambient light as it changes through the day and adjust shooting angles accordingly.
In late autumn, winter and early spring the sun is not so harsh at midday and one can photograph during the entire (albeit somewhat short) day. Due to this, a one day trip is suggested during these seasons.
If you visit in summer, however, I recommend undertaking a two-day expedition. Most importantly, the contrast is too high to take pictures in the hours around noontime and the best idea is to photograph for about three hours before sunset on the first day and then for about three hours after sunrise on the second day. The two-day approach will also allow you to avoid crowds of tourists and commercial activities that one inevitably runs into between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you think the last point is important, you should then consider the two-day approach in seasons other than summer, too.
Best time of the year to visit
Generally, any time of the year is suitable and the main difference is going to be in the quality of ambient light and the hours most suitable for photography. I suggest choosing the time of your visit(s) depending on whether you travel to Shanghai to specifically see all the places of interest in its vicinity or if you live in the city. If you are based in Shanghai then you can travel to the water towns whenever you see fit choosing one or two day approach depending on whether you go in summer or winter. Otherwise, however, you probably will not have the luxury of being able to spend two days in every water town and spending one full day in each or some of them would be a more reasonable tactic. In case of the latter visiting in winter is certainly preferable as ambient light is more suitable to photograph throughout the day.
Sunset and sunrise
I could not find any interesting locations to photograph at sunrise and sunset. The time when the sun is near the horizon is primarily precious for the softer ambient light.
Photo and other gear recommendations
This is a very personal issue. Xitang, however, is a fairly cramped town and you are likely to need a wide-angle lens (zoom or fixed focal length). This being said, you might want to try different approaches to push your creativity as I did in this and this essay. A panoramic camera (or technique) might prove very useful, too. Tripod is a must as in many situations you will be shooting at small apertures to maximize depth of field, which will require using slower shutter speeds.
Issues to be aware of
Xitang is a popular tourist destination; it gets quite crowded (not to mention more expensive) on weekends and literally packed during public holidays. It is highly recommended to visit during weekdays; avoid going during public holidays at all costs.
The six major water towns in Jiangnan area are Xitang (西塘), Zhouzhuang (周庄), Wuzhen (乌镇), Tongli (同理), Nanxun (南浔) and Luzhi (甪直). They are quite similar yet very different and, if possible, I recommend visiting all of them. If, however, time is a factor then I suggest visiting as many as you can/wish in the above sequence (which happens to be my personal ranking of them).
One of the features that differentiate Xitang from the other water towns of Jiangnan is that roofed corridors (长廊) run along the canals thus making it possible to disregard weather conditions and photograph in rain. Keep this in mind for when you would like to go out photographing but the weather does not cooperate.