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Suzhou Canals

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Dubbed “Venice of the East,” the ancient city of Suzhou, located in the Yangtze River Delta, teems with enchanting canals and winding waterways. Complemented by waterside gardens, sacred landmarks and historic dwellings, Suzhou’s dynamic thoroughfare of narrow water passages are among the oldest and most charming in the world. Here is a look at some favorite Suzhou waterways.

The Grand Canal

The Suzhou Grand Canal, like the Great Wall, is one of China’s most magnificent and astounding creations. Approximately 1,200 miles (1,776 km) from tip-to-tip, the Grand Canal is the longest man-made waterway in the world. Officially known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, its route runs from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south, connecting to various river systems along the way.

The origins of the Grand Canal can be traced as far back as 495 B.C., making it more than 2,000 years old. With fifty-eight historically significant sites along its route, the entire Grand Canal has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From ancient dynasties to the present day, the Grand Canal continues to bolster Suzhou’s economy and industry, quite literally putting Suzhou on the map.

While much of the Grand Canal is no longer in use, various sections running through Suzhou can still be toured. More than 50 miles (80 km) of scenery and wonder flank the waterway, including hundreds of old-world river dwellings, ten ancient city gates, twenty-plus stone bridges and two of Suzhou’s crown jewels, Hanshan Temple and West Garden Temple. For an added treat, consider an evening boat tour to see the sights illuminated along its historic stretch.

Downtown Suzhou

Widely considered downtown Suzhou or the old city center, a portion of the Gusu District (once the Canglang, Pingjiang and part of the Jinchang districts) is entirely bound by a large, rectangular canal. Known as the Weichang River or City Moat, nine east-west canals and 12 north-south canals exist within its boundaries. Along each passage lies a bounty of Suzhou’s rich culture and history.

On foot, enjoy the sights and sounds of Pingjiang Street as you watch traditional Chinese boats pass by and hear melodic Pingtan music echoing from each teahouse. Gaze at the architectural stylings of the Ming and Qing dynasties and adore the magnificent Master of the Nets Garden with a voyage down Shiquan Street. Stretching northwest from Changmen Gate to Tiger Hill, Shantang Street abounds with historic temples, ancestral halls and memorial arches — specifically Old Shantang Street, a 395-yard (361 m) slice often referred to as “old Suzhou’s miniature.”

For a rare vantage of the ancient city and its labyrinth of canals, take a boat tour on the Weichang River (Hu Cheng He), or City Moat as it’s also known. From the arresting Panmen Gate — once the city wall of Suzhou — to the amorous landscapes of the Couple’s Retreat Garden, so much can be seen from this below-street-level perspective.

Water Towns

While Suzhou’s old town boasts an eclectic mix of aquatic channels and river systems, its sophisticated water towns showcase a spellbinding array of waterways. For a real local experience in the countryside, take a lazy stroll along a tree-shaded path or spend hours sipping herbal tea at a waterside teahouse. After all, it is the “Suzhou way of life.”

Set sail for a relaxed cruise through the meandering canals of Luzhi, best known for its Buddhist sanctuary, Shen Temple. Or opt for a romantic gondola ride alongside the whitewashed homes, lush hills and outstretched gardens of Mudu. Head to Zhouzhuang to spend time at its five lakes, or explore a sundry of water lanes to see the famed Twin Bridges, Shen Residence and Zhang Residence. Tongli, in Suzhou’s Wujiang District, boasts fifteen brooks and a staggering forty-seven bridges, the most celebrated bridges being Taiping (peace), Jili (luck), and Changing (celebration). If you’re lucky, you may even catch a couple of newlyweds walking over one of these bridges — it’s believed to bring peace, fortune and happiness to their union.