Cruising Down the Grand Canal

On Wednesday, April 5, we were to meet Eugenia in front of the Suzhou Railway Station at 9.45 a.m. When the appointed time arrived and she still did not show up, I started to panic. It was uncharacteristic of my friend and guide to be late because she’s one of the most punctual persons I know. So off I went in search of her but she was nowhere to be seen.

I had thought of phoning her husband but didn’t have the sense to bring her telephone no. with me.

Just as I was about to have a cardiac arrrest, I caught sight of my friend, waving frantically from across the station. She had been waiting there since 9.30 a.m. and was beginning to wonder what had happened to me and my other friends. Suddenly it dawned on me that the boat pier was on the other side of the railway station and we should have gone over there to wait. Ah well… we’re all human, aren’t we?

The boat was quite comfortable since our group consisted of only six people, including Eugenia. Comfortable bootAs soon as it left the pier, the cameras went click, click, click. Anyone watching from a distance would have taken us for a crew of cameramen from some television channels. Tiger Hill was to be our destination of this one hour’s boat ride.

We took it all in. The canal looked romantic and quite picturesque with waves lapping upon its shores. However, one should have to try and relax and not breathe in too much of the foul smell that whiffed from the badly polluted waters.

Suzhou is crossed by a network of canals. Seven of them run from south to north and eight from east to west, forming three horizontal and three vertical lines intersecting one another. Today, the total length of canals has been reduced to 35 km. from 56 km. in the years of the Republic.

The most striking features along the canals are the traditional Suzhou houses, densely built along the two banks with streets and lanes running in parallel with the waterways. Houses along the canalsThese houses have white washed walls and gray roofs with upturned eaves. They are of varying heights and widths, depending on the meandering of the waterways. As far as we could see, all of them have their backyards towards the waters while the fronts are lined with narrow streets, lanes and alleyways. Potted plants and exotic flowers were displayed on some of the balconies.

A glimpse into the courtyards was rewarded with more trees and shrubs. Weeping willows seem to be a permanent fixture along the banks, which are protected from erosion by stone rails. Once upon a time, watching the passing by boats from the balconies must have been a favorite pastime of the house owners along the canal.

According to Eugenia these houses are about sixty to a hundred years old. Not that old by Chinese or any other standards. However, considering the ancient methods employed, they seem to be in a reasonably good condition. The building materials used were granites and the foundation was built on the river edges, which are based on stones.

It was useful to have the house backyards facing the canal. Since the inhabitants had no other means of transport, their every day shopping was carried out in the floating market. Money and goods were passed through the backyard windows that also served as ventilation.

Most dwellings have their own piers for mooring. Before the age of roads and highways, the only form of transport was by the waterways. Even today, the canals are very busy and always thronged with various kinds of boats and barges, plying up and down, carrying rice, cement, vegetables, sand and building materials.

As we turned into another smaller and narrower canal, we saw houses perching on the banks, which are connected with each other by covered stone bridges. On the balustrades there were potted plants and flowers.

Bridges in Suzhou could be traced as far back as the Three Kingdoms Period and as recent as the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Typical stone bridge in SuzhouDuring the Tang Dynasty bridges are said to be built out of wood. Only after the Song Dynasty did they begin to be built out of stone. The arch bridges we saw are reminiscent of the ones in Venice of the Florentine Renaissance Period. According to some reference books, Souzhou bridges were made out of high quality stones.

We spotted a yellow temple building on the right bank. Warriors as well as Goddess of Mercy (Guan Yin) are worshipped by the locals, who implore the heavenly spirits to protect them from danger of water elements. On the left bank there is a wholesale market. Huge baskets of fresh vegetables were being loaded and unloaded onto the waiting boats. Above the din of the boat engine, we could hear voices drifting from that direction. Passing through an arch bridge, we came into a small canal. It was so narrow that the boatman had to use a pole to help steer the boat away from the treacherous stone banks.

A woman was doing her laundry on a flight of stone stairs, leading into the canal while the other was scrubbing what appeared to be her “honey pot” of the previous night. Clothes were hung out to dry on a balcony of a wooden house, which Eugenia said, is about 400 years old. Naturally, it must have been renovated several times to be able to withstand the severe climatic conditions of winds and waters. Solar energy has been installed in some of the houses, which in my view, is very high tech indeed. A few houses have aluminum windows put in, giving quite a startling and contrasting effect. We overtook a barge, which was loaded to the brim with bricks before going under an overhead road and railway bridge.

As soon as we left the small canal, we came out into the Grand Canal, passing the tombs of five martyrs, who sacrificed their lives during the liberation.

The Grand Canal is 1790 km. long and is the largest manmade canal in the world. Along the Grand CanalDuring the Sui Dynasty, it was decreed by Emperor Yangti that canals be dug in the southern Yangtze River to facilitate the transportation of goods. They were to link up with what is now known as the Grand Canal, which passed by Xuguan to Maple Bridge, then forked off into two directions. One went eastwards to Changmen Gate and further down to the Southern Canal. The other flew eastwards from Caiyun Bridge to Xujiang River, joining the outer moat of Suzhou at Tairang Bridge and further down to Panmen Gate and Midu Bridge to link with the southern section of the Grand Canal at Wujiang County.

Having passed the tombs and some farm houses, we arrived at the pier of the Tiger Hill.