Wenzhou, China: Undiscovered by Western Tourists

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

ASIA China
No matter where you go in Wenzhou (pronounced Win-joe) City, the Chinese paparazzi will accompany you. It isn’t because they think you are famous, but rather because you are a Westerner. This city of 9 million doesn’t have a lot of Western tourists. That and its mild weather are its charm.
Surrounded by mountains and the East China Sea, the locals consider it a “small” city. Compared to Shanghai’s over 24 million locals, it is.

Bordered by water, you will be on a boat at least once. I would recommend a night river cruise. It boards at Nantong Street. The river looks almost magical as its bridges and restaurants and hotels along its shore are aglow with lights. It kind of reminds me of the Fort Lauderdale’s inland waterway.
A five-minute ferry boat ride across the Ou River goes to Jiangxin (Ge-onshin) Island. Two pagodas rise above the isle’s verdant landscape. Both were once used as lighthouses. The square one was built during the Tang Dynasty (869 A.D.) and the round one (969 A.D.) is a Song Dynasty creation. Because the latter tilts, the locals often refer to it as the “leaning tower of Wenzhou.”
No one lives on the island. It is a nice getaway from the bustling city. Flowers, greenery and ancient trees border its paths. Jiangxin Temple, rebuilt in 1789, has a bell from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). What surprised me was the small Wenzhou Revolutionary History Museum. It has pictures of Mao and some primitive tools used by farmers.
A most interesting venue is the Wenzhou Intangible Cultural Heritage Museum. Exhibits include a picture made with embroidered human hair and a dragon made from grain. Visitors can also watch artisans demonstrate their skills such as paper cutting, embroidery, plus wood and shell carving. I am amazed with the delicacy of their work. Not only does it take skill and excellent eyesight, but very good finger dexterity.
When our group is taken shopping, I expect to find some of these crafts. Not. Instead, the Chinese Paparazzi are out in full force on the pedestrian-only shopping area on the south side of the city. Five Horses street sells mostly clothing, jewelry and shoes.
The Wenzhou people are known for their cobbler skills. It is said that the area got its name from a shoemaker. Legend has it that five horses lived inside the rock he used to pound the grass to make fabric for his shoes. At night, people would hear hoof beats. Even after the horses ran away, the street retained its name.
To escape from the shops and cameras, a quiet day in the Yongjia County of Wenzhou Province is revitalizing. It starts with an easy, two-hour hiking path that borders the Nanxi (pronounced nan-shi) River. The steep Shiwei Rock seems to sprout from the ground and lush greenery.
The day in the country also includes a visit to Cangpo Village. Chinese chess originated here. The village dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Although hundreds of years have passed, the walls, houses, paths, pavilions, temples and pools in the village still retain their ancient style and maintain much of their original layout. The hamlet looks exactly like one would imagine a remote Chinese village would look.
Later, lunch is at Baijyun Home (means white cloud) in Lingshang Renjia village (pop. 2,400). The complex, built alongside a river on the side of a hill houses many restaurants. All of them feature farm-to-table food. And as in most Chinese restaurants, numerous entrees are served on a large lazy Susan in the middle of the table. Often, it quickly revolves to the other side of the table. Diners need to be alert before their chosen entrée passes them. After lunch, there is a tour of the town. As is usually the case, this tiny village has a venue for Chinese opera.
The best part of the day is saved for last - a Bamboo rafting trip. Each raft is about 15 feet long with four two-seat benches on them. The rower uses a bamboo stick to move the raft. Gliding on the water while watching the sun set behind the mountain is paradise. Alongside the shore is a Chinese musician playing a flute. Some ducks surround a fisherman’s boat. He throws them some fish but they can’t swallow them because there is a ring around each of their necks. After the tourists leaves he removes the ring but the next day he does the same thing again for the next rafting tourists.
Wenzhou is not yet on most tourists’ radar. The area is working on that as we speak.

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