FOR those attracted to the beauty and tranquility of traditional water towns, it's hard to beat Qibao Ancient Town in the Minhang District.
Only a 20-minute drive from downtown Shanghai, the town is a picture postcard of bridges, canals, traditional houses, cobblestone pathways, street peddlers, arty shops and colorful teahouses.
Qibao Ancient Town has become a hot tourist destination in Shanghai, but even amid its hustle and bustle, a most enjoyable day's outing awaits visitors.
Qibao is believed to have been founded in the 10th century. The famous temple there was built to commemorate the brothers Lu Ji and Lu Yun, two writers killed in AD 303 by a warlord named Sima Yin.
Qi bao literally means "seven treasures."
Legend has it that the ancient town was home to seven rare items: a Buddha statue, a bell, Buddhist scripture written in gold, a magic tree, a golden cockerel, a jade axe and a pair of jade chopsticks.
There are more than 200,000 people now living in Qibao Ancient Town. While many are old-timers who can trace their ancestry back for generations, others are newcomers who have moved into recent housing development projects.
The spirit of the past
Standing in the middle of Qibao Ancient Town, one is enveloped by a sense of time stopping and the spirit of the past taking hold.
And where better to enjoy spirits than a visit to the Qibao Distillery on the South Street? The eye-catching building gives visitors a glimpse of how the traditional Chinese white liquor called "Qibao daqu" is made.
Unlike most distilleries, often hidden down deep lanes, the 55-year-old Qibao Distillery is sited in one of the busiest quarters of the old town.
Inside the gate, you can see a master distiller pouring fermented sorghum into a huge vat to steam. He is so intent on his work that he seems oblivious to the noise of street hawkers outside the gates.
The aroma of the yard where he works is quite pungent.
Visitors who want to buy a souvenir bottle of the liquor won't have far to look.
Wandering further, one may come across the Mingyun Four Treasures Hall, which showcases the old town's cultural heritage. Inside are implements of calligraphy: penholders, writing brushes, Chinese art paper and inkstones.
Not far away is the Minghu House, hidden down a small, inconspicuous lane. Surrounded by trees, it is a place easy to miss. The trees shield the venue from the noise of the streets and offer visitors a moment of quiet respite.
Inside the house are exhibited paintings, calligraphy works and antiques, including traditional red stoneware.
Tea has been a national beverage of China for centuries. It's more than a drink. The culture of tea reflects the deep-seated philosophy of the Chinese people.
Qibao is not a tea-producing area, but tea is still an important daily commodity here.
In ancient times, local people would gather in teahouses to exchange information and share gossip. Today, in the old town's teahouses, you will find strangers talking to strangers sometimes. A teahouse brings people together.
Some of the teahouse feature traditional folk entertainment, such as storytelling.
Qibao Ancient Town embodies a strong Buddhism spirit.
To take a short Buddhism-oriented trip around the ancient town, one can start at Puhuitang Bridge.
Along the small road leading toward Kangle Bridge on the west, there's a poem inscribed on the pier of the bridge.
It's impossible to read the poem in full because the last two characters have been eroded by time and water.
Walking east, Anping Bridge lies at the juncture of the Puhuitang and Hengligang rivers. On the other side of Hengligang River, an ancient pavilion and bell can be found inside the Qibao Temple and Pagoda.
The temple was relocated here early in the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279), and history records that Qibao Town took its name from the temple.
The temple has undergone extensive renovation. It features piles of tiles recording names and auspicious words in red. The tiles were left by pilgrims praying for happiness and peace.
One of the biggest attractions of Qibao Ancient Town is its diversity of snacks.
Here you will find specialties from around China and also the traditional foods of Qibao, like gaotuan, a pastry made of sticky rice.
Many people will tell you that a trip to Qibao is incomplete without sinking your teeth into this scrumptious rice cake.
The most famous version of gaotuan is called yi pin fang gao, literally meaning first class square cakes.
Legends have grown up about gaotuan. Fan Zhongyan, a famous scholar of the Song Dynasty, is said to have grown up in poverty as a child, with little to eat except thin porridge. He froze his porridge in winter and cut it into cubes, eating a cube when hunger interrupted his studies.
A friend named Shi Haiqing heard about Fan's plight and cooked sticky rice cakes to send to the scholar every day until he passed the imperial exams at the provincial level.
Other popular snacks include fresh zongzi, or meat dumplings, and steamed dumplings.
It's best to take some of the snacks home with you.
But eating too much may impair the pleasure of strolling around and seeing everything Qibao Ancient Town has to offer.Sites you shouldn't miss
Qibao Temple and Pagoda
It is an ancient temple in the architectural styles of the Han (206 BC-AD 220) and Tang (AD618-907) dynasties. Relocated and renovated in 2000, it is a prosperous temple, always exuding the strong scent of incense.
Address: 1205 Xinzhen Rd
Located southwest of the Qibao Temple and Pagoda, the garden is famed for its beautiful scenery. Standing at the confluence of the Puhuitang and Henglijing rivers, the garden is filled with green trees and flowering plants. The pavilions and terraces in the garden feature dedicate carvings.
Address: Southeast of Qibao Ancient Town
The bridge is one of the treasures of Qibao Ancient Town. Built in 1518, it has survived the vicissitudes of centuries, even modern warfare, to become the iconic symbol of the old town.
Shanghai's first distillery that offers an insight into how sorghum is made into traditional Chinese white liquor. Also on display are famous alcoholic beverages from across the nation.
Address: 21 South Str
The owner of Minghu House is Zhou Xuguang, a nationally recognized red stoneware collector and connoisseur. It features a distinctive style in its hideaway location.
Address: 38 Fuqiang Str
Mingyun Four Treasures Hall
The four treasures of study sold here were transported from Anhui Province.
Address: 35 Fuqiang Str
A nostalgic place evoking memories of Old Shanghai. It features a traditional kitchen and baxian zhuo, or old-fashioned square tables seating eight people. The busiest time of day in the old teahouse starts at 12:30pm, when traditional storytelling is presented.
Address: 9 South Str
This is a modern version of a traditional teahouse, offering coffee and Western-style pasties in addition to tea and snacks. Every afternoon on weekends, customers can enjoy pingtan, an art form of storytelling and ballad singing in Suzhou dialect, if they order teas and snacks valued at 10 yuan (US$1.6) or more.
Address: 28 Northeast Str
FOODS TO TEMPT THE PALATE
Yi pin fang gao bean-filled pastry
A popular snack that can create lines of customers having to wait more than 30 minutes. The pastry is made from sticky rice powder and has a tender sweetness.
Address: 27 Nandajie St
Baoyuan rice cakes
These cakes are made from sesame seeds, banana chips, sunflower seeds, osmanthus and the skin of apricot kernel. Inside is rice mixed with various nutmeats.
Address: 94 Beidajie St
Steamed dumplings, Qibao-style
A unique snack of Qibao. The dumpling skin is handmade using rice and sticky rice. The most popular filling-in is herb shepherd's purse.