Mike's China by Mike Dixon - HTML preview
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The Grand Canal is part of an extensive system of waterways that criss-crosses eastern China and links the four major rivers. Large parts were in place during the Tang Dynasty, a thousand years ago. The ancient towns along the banks are favourite destinations for Chinese tourists but attract few visitors from overseas.
They are picturesque, historically interesting and easy to visit. You can get a travel organisation to arrange a guided tour or you can make your own arrangements.
My preference is for the latter. It's cheaper and you don't have guides breathing down your neck and taking you to places where they will receive a commission if you buy something.
My wife and I recently toured the canals in the Shanghai region. We took trains and stayed in tourist and business hotels, making our bookings on the internet. My rudimentary knowledge of Mandarin was not needed. There's no shortage of people anxious to practise their English.
The canal towns have an aging population. The old buildings are beautiful but do not meet the standards of modernity to which most young people aspire. Rather than let them decay, many municipalities have bought up large sections and developed them for tourism. Those we saw were tasteful and preserved enough of the past to give a good impression of what the towns were once like. After the lunatic destruction of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese are at pains to preserve their cultural heritage.
A good way to see the canals is by boat. This can be done by joining the other tourists and going on a cruise. Or, you can catch one of the regular ferries and join the locals as they go about their daily lives. The latter is far cheaper and far more interesting.
The old houses rise straight up from the sides of the canals. In some places, markets line the banks. In others, there are boat yards, potteries, distilleries and other industrial sites where old crafts are still practised. Ancient bridges span the waterways like the humps of serpents and are still in use for pedestrian traffic. You will see watergates, temples and ancient fortifications.
Don't forget to take your camera.