Beauty meets tranquility in towns along Grand Canal

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The Great Wall of China is regarded as one of the wonders of the world, and rightly so. Equally amazing, however, is the country's less-well-known Grand Canal, which stretches more than 1,100 miles from Beijing to Hangzhou.

The Grand Canal was built in stages during three distinct eras, first around 500 B.C., and then during the seventh and 14th centuries.

The waterway is still a vital transport route, and large numbers of barges and open-deck boats laden with goods still ply the canal in both directions.

Situated on the Grand Canal, or on artificial tributaries off of it, are a number of lovely cities and towns where canals form an integral part of daily life.

Close to the Chinese financial capital of Shanghai are a number of places worth seeking out, such as Suzhou and Hangzhou or the smaller towns of Wuzhen, Tong Li and Zhouzhuang. 

There is a Chinese saying, "In heaven there is paradise, on earth Suzhou and Hangzhou," and these towns live up to that billing.

Only 50 miles from Shanghai, Suzhou, one of China's oldest cities, derives its fame and wealth from the production of silk.

Visitors can tour factories where it is produced. The deftness of the women pulling thread from silkworm cocoons or stretching the fibers to make the filling for a quilt is amazing. 

Another traditional craft in Suzhou is embroidery, with unique, double-sided embroidery a special art. Some commissioned works take up to a year to complete.

Suzhou is a city of gardens, and four of them are on UNESCO's World Heritage List. They have very evocative names; the Master of (Fishermen's) Nets Garden, the Humble Administrator's Garden, the Surging Wave Pavilion and the Lingering Garden.

The Master of Nets Garden is a small, exquisite, residential garden. The gardens and pavilions are built around a central pond. In the evenings, a cultural show is held in the different pavilions featuring opera, drama, singing and the playing of traditional instruments.

A favorite is the Humble Administrator's Garden which, despite its "humble" tag, is extensive. There is superb use of water, rocks and buildings (in the form of small pavilions and pagodas) to accentuate the simple lines and the openness in the use of the space.

The local markets are intriguing, and a wander along the narrow city alleys reveals wonderful displays of fresh produce, bags of spices, tiny hardware shops and even stores devoted to selling lollipops.

Farther along the Grand Canal from Suzhou lies Hangzhou, one of China's seven ancient capitals, famous for embroidery, brocades and tea. 

Surrounded by hills, the center of the bustling city is dominated by the freshwater West Lake, a popular recreation area for cruises and visits to lakeside temples and pavilions with exotic names like Six Harmonies Pagoda and Temple of the Soul's Retreat.

The number of people praying and burning incense sticks at temples is notable, especially at Lingyin Temple, one of China's famous Buddhist shrines.

The hillsides around Hangzhou are famous for the production of tea, especially green tea. The same families have been involved in the cultivation and production of tea for many generations, and travelers can visit factories for a tea ceremony.

Smaller in size than Suzhou and Hangzhou but equally attractive are the many "water towns" along the Canal, of which the best known is probably Zhouzhuang.

Its old town center is wonderfully preserved; the houses, many dating back to the 14th century, back onto the canals that bisect it. Fourteen bridges cross the canals, and these are built in all shapes and sizes.

The most famous is the Double Bridge, or Key Bridge, built between 1513 and 1619. Two bridges are at right angles to each other, one with a square opening and the other a round one, creating the effect of a key.

Visitors cruising languidly down a narrow canal lined by ancient stone walls, on a punt propelled like a gondola, could be forgiven for thinking they were in Venice.

Narrow pathways line the canals, and visitors can spy women at work washing clothes or vegetables in the water. They also can buy souvenirs of local arts and crafts (paintings of canal scenes are very popular, as are strings of water pearls), admire colorful bunting and huge lanterns or stop for a delicious meal at the many canalside restaurants.

Ornately carved doorways facing paths along the canals conceal surprisingly large houses. The House of Shen, built in 1742 for a wealthy silk and rice merchant, boasts seven courtyards, five archways and more than 100 rooms.

The intricate carvings of animals and other characters are a tribute to the wonderful craftsmanship of the time.

Another lovely water town is Tong Li, sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the East" although this name could equally apply to other Grand Canal towns.

There, three bridges, out of 49 total, are very close together; they are often used by locals for part of wedding ceremonies, since crossing them is reputed to bring good luck, longevity and prosperity.

A highlight of Tong Li is the superb Tiusi Garden. Approached through a tiny entrance gate and a couple of smaller garden plots, Tiusi is a lovely garden built around a large pond with pavilions, rocks, trees and flowers, all reflected in the calm water. 

It is full of delightful angles for the photographer and very restful after the hustle and bustle outside.

Much closer to Shanghai is Wuzhen, where the old town has been only recently opened to the public; the Chinese authorities are concerned about the commercialization of the other water towns. 

The town is jammed with tiny alleyways, where traditional crafts are still practiced. Narrow canals are busy with all sorts of vessels. Houses with tiled roofs sit at crazy angles. The tourist will also notice friendly looks from inhabitants, who are still getting used to being peered at by Western visitors.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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