Stepping out from residential streets and through a pagoda-styled gateway, a flurry of pedestrians converges on a bustling hub. This is the ancient water town of Qibao, only a 20-minute train ride from Shanghai’s central business area.
While Shanghai’s business district is more famous for corporate skyscrapers and remnants of British settlement, Qibao, located in Shanghai’s Minhang District, is a town famed by cricket fighting, street food, waterways and streets dating back to the Northern Song Dynasty. Qibao makes up one of Shanghai’s six ancient water towns and is an easy day-trip option for locals and visitors alike.
The town itself is crowned by a replica of Qibao Temple. The original was built within the Five Dynasties and Ten States period of 907-960. The name Qibao translates to ‘seven treasures’ and local legend claims that the temple housed them all – flying Buddha, Cuanlai Bell, Gold Lotus Sutra, God Tree, Golden Cock, Jade Axe and Jade Chopsticks. A well-respected monk called Jing was also known to study and interpret scripture within Qibao Temple and a record of this was said to be inscribed on the Cuanlai Bell.
Now, visitors can pay a small amount of yuan to climb the staircase of the replica temple and chime its bell. From the top floor, daily domestic life can be seen being played out in nearby rooftop courtyards. These townhouses are grey and elderly yet punctuate the town’s old-fashioned appeal.
At ground level, the crowd veers towards a bridge and siphons across to Qibao Old Street, eager to fill bellies with pre-lunch snacks. The toasty smell of chestnuts draws many into a lengthy queue while nearby vendors spruik qibaogao (glutinous cakes made of rice) and roasted sweet potatoes, or kaohongshu. Some are still not satisfied, and they squeeze further along this narrow street where shopfronts sell fried, whole birds on sticks, lengths of haw (sweets derived from hawthorn fruit), nuts and dried fruits. It’s crowded yet the scene is buzzing from people munching away on street snacks as they pace through the town with carefree ambition. Here, urban China strides at a more leisurely speed.
Shopfronts are announced by bright red doors that are peeled back so the heightened yell of vendors can be heard. They’re also peddling jade trinkets and jewellery, antiques and silk clothing. Gifts can be purchased on Old Street at prices uninfluenced by tourist inflation. English is non-existent and the need to barter isn’t required. Prices are decent so yuan won’t evaporate quickly.
Foot traffic snails further down the street while a handful of visitors explore the Cotton Textile Museum. Solitude and calm are found beyond the museum’s doorway in a lush courtyard; the rambunctious crowd in Old Street is left behind. This is the site of the Songjiang Prefecture, Qibao’s main distribution centre of cotton textiles and products during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In a multi-level house-come-museum, visitors can stroll through the height of Qibao’s cotton history. Cricket Cottage is another avenue for visitors to soak in Qibao’s personality. The town is steeped in the tradition of cricket fighting and Cricket Cottage gives insight into this intriguing game.
As much as Qibao Old Street is about market fanfare and historical significance, the town’s waterway is a chance for visitors to float away on a local boat for 10 Yuan. This is easy viewing of Qibao’s traditional architecture that reflects a Ming and Qing style. Along the banks, chalky red double-storey structures complete with scalloped roofs and shutters over window frames can be seen.
There is 1,000 year-old charm to be discovered in Qibao and this quaint town rewards day-trippers respite from the contemporary hustle of Shanghai’s city area.
Qibao is located about 18 kilometres from Shanghai's central business district. Travellers can take a train to Qibao from People's Square via Subway Line 9 and taking Exit 2 upon arrival at Qibao Station. Train tickets cost about 5 Yuan per adult.