The Grand Canal, stretching nearly 1,120 miles from Beijing to Hangzhou, is the world's longest and oldest canal and is still a major artery in the eastern part of China. The man-made waterway was started in 486 B.C., with most major construction taking place a millennium later, from 605 to 610.
Along the canal lie a score of cities and towns, big and small. Many of these, especially in the area west of Shanghai, are historical tourist destinations: Suzhou, Zhouzhuang and Tongli are within 65 miles of Shanghai, while only 25 miles farther is Wuxi.
Although the best way to see Wuxi is by a guided tour from Shanghai, I enjoyed the experience of making my own way there by bus and train. It was a challenge to buy tickets at the Shanghai Railway Station, joining queues of Chinese travelers to get tickets. I was often assisted by helpful locals whose English certainly was better than my Chinese.
The express train, which was packed both ways, makes the trip to Wuxi in an hour, while the bus takes two hours.
The city straddles the canal and also borders lovely Taihu Lake, the third-largest freshwater lake in China. The 3.5-mile stretch of the canal through Wuxi is very scenic, especially the eastern part, where a major restoration project is under way to rebuild many of the old houses and other buildings that line the banks. Attractive arched bridges span the narrow waterway, none more spectacular than Qingming Bridge.
Pleasure craft operate tours on the canal, and there are also pathways along the bank, although at present the renovation work makes some sections difficult to negotiate.
There is a large shopping area being completed adjacent to the canal; many of the buildings reflect an older style, with high-pitched roofs giving them a "temple" look.
The colorful, ornate Miaoguang Pagoda of the Nanchang Buddhist Monastery is located here. Nearby is Longguang Pagoda, which was built during the Ming Dynasty. At 105 feet high, the seven-story brick-and-wood structure is the second-largest of its kind in China.
If you step away from the new developments, you are quickly in a maze of narrow streets where family and commercial life seems unchanged from years ago. A busy fruit and vegetable market hums with activity while artisans ply their trades using traditional implements.
Also within the city area is Xihui Park, which contains lovely Jichang Garden (a classical garden of southern China), Huishan Temple and expansive recreational areas. Farther on, Meiyuan Gardens is famous for the more than 5,000 species of plum trees growing there, while Liyuan Garden contains a garden landscape mixed in with small pavilions and tiny bridges.
The western outskirts of Wuxi border the 925-square-mile Taihu Lake, a popular tourist and recreation area in this part of China. The part of the lake close to Wuxi is known as Meiliang Lake and contains a number of attractions. Yuantouzhu Park is an islet so named because a huge rock shaped like a turtle's head juts out into the lake; the best views of the lake are obtained there. There are numerous other islands in this part of the lake, and boat trips are available.
Unveiled in 1997, a 287-foot-high bronze statue of Sakyamuni is the largest likeness of the Buddha in China. It is located on a hillside of the lesser Lingshan Mountains on the outskirts of Wuxi.
Wuxi is a frequent location for TV and film productions, and many famous Chinese films have been made there. For example, Three Kingdoms Town was the location for a TV series based on the Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."
Wuxi is a major industrial city with a population of more than 4.5 million. Arriving by train you notice the outskirts are dominated by huge residential tower blocks with new skyscrapers in various stages of construction. However, Wuxi is also known for its silk weaving, and the nearby town of Yixing is noted for its tea production and for clay teapots.
There are plenty of excellent hotels in Wuxi and also around Lake Taihu, and prices are remarkably reasonable with four-star hotels available for about $100 per night. Excellent choices in the city area include Sheraton, Courtyard, Renaissance, Kempinski and Jin Jiang Grand, and Doubletree by Hilton is well situated lakeside.
For more on travel to Wuxi, visit the China National Tourist Office website at www.cnto.org.