To make the most out of my trip to North Korea I decided to spend about two weeks in China before and after the trip. I pretty much did your standard touristy stuff, not hugely interesting in the context of this blog, but when I was looking into sights around Shanghai I stumbled on something I’d never heard about and knew I had to head there.
In the suburbs of Shanghai is a district called Songjiang. To promote tourism and attract people out of the centre of the city they embarked upon a project called the Songjiang new city, an ambitious plan to create several villages that are representative of different countries around the world. The first to be planned and built was Thames town, a full village packed with numerous styles of architecture from England, and even a few duplicated buildings.
When the town was complete the homes and buildings sold very fast but were purchased up almost exclusively as second homes for the wealthy leaving almost no permanent population and creating the atmosphere of a well maintained ghost town. The area is now primarily used for young Chinese couples wedding photos (There were 3 separate groups on the day I went, and that was mid-winter) and as a backdrop for fashion shoots (Again 2 separate groups on the day I visited).
Getting to Thames town is slightly tricky compared to sites in the centre of the city but isn’t too bad. Take the light blue number 9 metro line west from the centre of Shanghai to the final stop of Songjiang Xincheng. The Metro system in Shanghai is fantastic, the London tube pales in comparison, all of the ticket machines provided had English language options and were simple to use. On the trains themselves all stations are announced in both Mandarin and English.
Once out of the station at Songjiang Xincheng it is necessary to take a taxi the last stretch to Thames town. I found that the taxi drivers understood the term “Thames town” fine and took me straight there for just a couple of pounds. To find my way back to the station I used a trick I’d read about, before leaving use your digital camera or smartphone to take a picture of the metro station sign to show to the cab driver. This proved very useful in Beijing when having the address of your hotel wasn’t of much use and I had far better luck getting them to drive to the metro station nearest my hotel and then directing them through the last 500m.
Once in Thames town itself I was shocked by the quality of the emulation. The key thing that spoiled the illusion was that streets and squares would contain drastically different types of architecture on each side, usually in combinations you would never actually see in England. For example the central square was looked onto on 4 sides by a replica of Bristol’s Christ Church, a set of West London town houses, what looked liked an 80’s set of council offices and a modern styled shopping centre.
But it was all there, cobbled streets, red phone boxes, the landings and promenades of Chester’s city centre. There was even a waterfront reminiscent of Liverpool’s docks. The whole place was quite creepy as the few people that were there would stop, drop silent, and stare at me as I walked past possibly thinking that, since I was wearing a pea-coat, flat cap and dog tooth bag that I was some kind of London stereotype and was part of the attraction. I made my exit, as there really wasn’t much to do there apart from ogle at the oddity of the place, and headed back to hustle of Shanghai city centre.
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