Wuxi residents may be upset to hear me say this, but I had kind of low expectations of the town for my first visit last Friday. I just didn’t want to get my hopes up about a place that’s home to China’s third largest lake and ninth largest Buddha statue, in case I found it all a bit underwhelming and was left wondering whether I shouldn’t actually be visiting the eighth largest Buddha statue instead. Wherever that is.
But as it turns out, Wuxi is quite wonderful in an understated sort of way, in the way only a city that doesn’t rely on tourism can be, just by being itself. I didn’t even see the lake (third biggest in China) or the fairly big Buddha, but I still had a great time thanks to Wuxi-ren Unbravegirl who took time off from her frantic Bloggie-winning schedule (Best Asian Blog, by the way) to show me around the place in her new role as the Wuxi Tourism Board’s Ambassador and incoming President of the Wuxi Visitor Hosting Programme.
I hope they’re paying her a lot because she is really a very good host. And here are four things I didn’t expect to find in Wuxi:
1. Excellent blue sky
Wuxi really outdid itself with the weather on Friday, turning on a very nice blue sky dotted with clouds and a day so warm I could have left my coat at home. I finally felt a breath of hope that spring might come this year after all.
(Note to Shanghai: I haven’t seen a blue sky for thirty-two days. Grey drizzle is not attractive for thirty-two days in a row so you need to pick up your game because if Wuxi can do it, so can you.)
2. A very pretty temple
Wuxi’s Nanchang Temple has everything – monks in saffron robes, a multi-story pagoda you can climb, flags, lanterns, and a lot of incense. And because it’s called Nanchang Temple I really had to visit, although it felt awkward to point out to my Wuxi Ambassador that Nanchang Lu’s Nanchang (南昌) is different from the Nanchang Temple’s Nanchang（南长), so I didn’t. And it was still very lovely.
I’m not going to call Wuxi ‘The Venice of the East’, in fact I’m not even going to call it ‘The Venice of Wuxi’, but there is no denying that a few well-placed canals lined with whitewashed houses hung with lanterns add enormously to the atmosphere of a place. The factory spewing smoke in the background probably needs to go, but add in a curved stone bridge or two, and you’re done.
4. Street foods I’ve never seen before
I’ve now seen and eaten a lot of Chinese street foods. A lot. But Wuxi had a whole variety of specialised Chinese street sweets I’d never seen before, in quite unique colours. I’ve grown quite wary of Chinese sweets with their occasionally jarring flavour combinations (pork floss doughnuts come to mind) and these were no exception, a timely reminder that taro and custard should never go together.
The small pretty buns with the spiral pattern were small and pretty, but best left untouched. The strange purple filling was like stale bread mixed with food colouring.
I did quite enjoy the honeycomb texture of the Chinese canoli, a fried perforated potato slice wrapped around a filling of sweetened pale purple taro paste. I would eat these again if I was close to starving, but not under any other circumstances.
5. Unexpectedly great noodles
Hurrying to catch lunch before the departure of my afternoon train, and having failed to fill up enough on Wuxi’s sweets, my Wuxi Ambassador and I picked a small noodle restaurant at random based on the fact that it was open and looked like it could serve a meal in quick time. For reasons of haste there was no photograph taken to record what was a stupendous steaming bowl of noodles.
The scorching hot earthenware bowl was filled to the brim with spiced broth, fine wheat noodles, sour pickles, a tiny wobbling poached quail’s egg, lettuce (delicious and silky soft when cooked), and salty smoked slices of bacon. It was amazing.
All I can remember, aside from the blockbuster taste, was the restaurant’s orange formica stools and tables. If you need the address for your next trip to Wuxi (the one you’re now planning) you can contact your Wuxi Visitor Host for details.
Where is Wuxi?
It’s halfway between Shanghai and Nanjing, about 45 minutes by super-fast G train from either Hongqiao Station or Shanghai Station. Trains run every half hour.