Travel: The Grand Canal 

Rice paddies and silk farms along China’s ancient waterway are giving way to heavy industry

click to enlarge The Grand Canal in Suzhou
  • The Grand Canal in Suzhou

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In Hangzhou, the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, we joined a happy throng of vacationing locals for a tour of West Lake. Surrounded by forested hills this small lake in the very centre of town has been described as “a landscape composed by a painter.” A classic Chinese pagoda stands atop one of the hills and, from the lake the busy streets of Hangzhou are screened by parkland. After our boat tour we followed a broad walkway along the shore past temples and pavilions to a small open-air teahouse, where we sat and watched a wedding party. As a honeymoon destination Hangzhou is China’s answer to Niagara Falls. Its reputation goes back to the Song Dynasty when Marco Polo described it as a place “where so many pleasures may be found that one fancies oneself to be in paradise”.

From Hangzcou to Suzhou the Grand Canal crosses the very heartland of China’s “rice bowl.” The channel is crowded with barges laden with bricks, scrap metal, and other raw material for the factories lining its banks. The land is flat and laced with a labyrinth of channels, ponds and levees — rice paddies, fish farms, market gardens, and large ponds where fresh-water-oysters are grown for their exotic pearls. The highway, only two years old, winds back and forth across the canal and through a succession of “water-towns” where old neighbourhoods are giving way to apartment complexes and sprawling industrial development. The canal and its network of waterways opened China’s “rice bowl” to the country and provided the basis of a unified national economy. But it brought with it urban expansion and industrial pollution.

As we approach Suzhou the farms become smaller and fewer, the factories bigger and more numerous. Clusters of attractive houses, the new homes of farmers displaced from their fields, sprawl across the landscape. Our local guide explains that the farmers have been well paid for their land and are happy with their new homes. However, stories of protest against the expropriation of land are rampant and a recent study estimates that 10 per cent of China’s arable land has already been fouled by industrial and urban waste.

Despite the encroachment of industrial blight, Suzhou remains one of the greenest and most beautiful cities in China. The moated city of Old Suzhou is now a protected historic district. With an area of 15 square kilometres it is one of the few places in China where high rises and factories are excluded. We spent an entire morning exploring its classic gardens and scenic waterways before moving on to the Museum of Suzhou Embroidery. It was silk, not gardens that first put Suzhou on the map of China. For centuries its artisans have excelled in the art of silk production and embroidery. And it was access to silk, no less than to rice, that inspired Emperor Yangdi to dig the Grand Canal.

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