Taishun county, in Zhejiang’s deep south, is home to hundreds of ancient covered bridges, many of them dating back to the early Qing dynasty. Some of the more accessible bridges (i.e. those located in the centre of towns and villages) have become tourist sites, but for the most part the wooden structures are dotted throughout the remote, picturesque countryside. The majority remain in daily use and are rarely visited by people other than local villagers, meaning that a fair amount of travelling and negotiation can be involved in tracking them down, but that you often get the sites all to yourself when you do get to them.
You could easily spend a week or more touring around both the bridges and old villages that are spread across the county, but it’s also possible to see some of the prime examples in a three- or four-day trip from Shanghai, perhaps in just two days if you have a private car. It’s well worth having a clear idea of where you’re going before you set out, as rural transport can be unreliable and you may need to rely on renting private drivers or merely flagging down cars on the road. For these reasons, travelling in a group and with someone who can speak Mandarin is strongly advised. Another caveat is that accommodation is often rustic, though the region can make for a pleasant camping trip if you decide to forgo bricks and mortar altogether.
The town of Sixi (泗溪) is one of the easiest to get to in this area and also one of the most tourist-friendly, making it a good base to explore some of the surrounding villages and their bridges. For accommodation, the riverside Sishui Shanzhuang (泗水山庄, 0577 6764 7979) provides basic rooms from 100RMB/night for two beds, and 120RMB/night for three beds in a slightly ramshackle courtyard setting, while the Qiaoxinge Hotel (桥心阁大酒店, 057767648111) has relatively modern rooms from 135RMB/night and is located next door to Beijian Bridge (北涧桥), one of two main bridges in the town itself.
Beijian Bridge is one of the most photogenic in the county (especially as the locals have added a shoal of goldfish to the water beneath) and thus has become something of a tourist site, with a dribble of tacky shops running up one side. Originally constructed in 1674 and renovated around 200 years later, the bridge features bright red colouring and some elaborate design work on the roof, characteristics that it shares with Sixi’s other main bridge, Xidong Bridge (溪东桥), built in 1570.
Around half an hour’s drive southwest of Sixi lies the larger, dustier town of Sankui (三魁) where you’ll find a number of passable business hotels near the bus station if you need to stay the night. The main bridge in Sankui itself, Xuezhai Bridge (薛宅桥) built in 1856, isn’t the most beautiful, but the nearby Liuzhai Bridge
(刘宅桥), which was first constructed in 1666 is well worth a visit. Ask a sanlunche (three-wheeler) to take you to the site and you’ll find the ancient two-storey structure nestled among farmers’ fields. The top level doubles as a temple, with brightly coloured buddhas, drums and flags scattered throughout the space.
Around another half an hour’s drive due west of Sankui is Zhouling (洲岭), home to the pretty Yuwen Bridge (毓文桥). Built in 1839 and recently renovated, the bridge may not be the oldest in the county, but it is one of the most intricately decorated, while a newly laid path up the neighbouring hill affords some great views back onto its tranquil setting. For tranquility, it’s hard to beat the nearby Santiao Bridge (三条桥) however. Located just off the main road between Zhouling and Sankui (you can either hire a car or ask the Zhouling-Sankui bus to drop you nearby if you have a map), the bridge appears out of the wilderness as you descend a stone path into the gorge that it crosses – a spectacular discovery.
To get to Sixi and the surrounding villages, you’ll first need to get to Wenzhou, which is serviced by regular dongche trains (from 175.50RMB) and occasional gaotie trains (from 226RMB) from Hongqiao Railway Station, taking nearly five hours and four hours respectively. Buses from Wenzhou Tourist Bus Station to Sixi go twice a day at 11am and midday costing 134RMB/one way. To make your journey on from Sixi, you’ll need to rely on local buses (often by flagging them down at the side of the road), three-wheelers or by negotiating with private drivers for a lift.)