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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
carvings of animals and other characters are a tribute to the
wonderful craftsmanship of the time.
water town is Tong Li, sometimes referred to as the "Venice of the
East" although this name could equally apply to other Grand Canal
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].