Older than the Great Wall of China, the world's most famous man-made waterway, the Grand Canal, is a construction marvel that has outshone its rival defensive wonder for more than two millennia; right up to the present day.
Whereas the Great Wall, despite its gigantic scale, failed to repel the Mongol invaders from central Asia, the Grand Canal has functioned as a vital transporation artery for China continually for 26 centuries.
In the mid-15th Century records reveal a half million tons of freight a year being shipped up and down the waterway.
The finished 1,200-mile- long Grand Canal originated as a 260-mile channel linking two of China's main rivers, the Yellow to the Huai in 600 B.C. Then, nearly ten centuries later, during the Sui Dynasty, a labor force of upwards of 6 million toiled for six years to dig by hand the waterway which for the first time would link China's north to its south; from Beijing's port of Tianjin to Hangzhou
The southern terminus, Hangzhou and its sister city Suzhou, one hundred miles downstream, have traditionally been two of the Grand Canal's major ports for the transportation of their tea and silk. Both traditional cities, known for their culture as well as commerce, have been described in a classic Chinese saying as, "Above is Paradise, below are Hangzhou and
In Suzhou, from a modern bridge looking down over the ancient waterway, I saw single cargo barges running low in the water loaded with coal, bagged rice and giant logs. Others plowed along, connected together in a nautical train resembling a twisting, steaming dragon. I was amazed to see one giant vessel with a woman pilot at the wheel navigating the congested, fast-moving waterway. She saw me and adroitly kept her craft on course with one hand on the wheel as she waved to me with the other. As her barge passed beneath me, I spotted her husband at the stern oiling the pulsating engines. I also saw their infant child being attended on deck by its grandmother who completed the three-generational family crew.
In ancient Suzhou itself, 365 mostly moon-shaped bridges are found in the Old Town's six-square-mile area. One span in three is more than 200 years old.
On the outskirts of Suzhou, on other ancient branches of the Grand Canal, you venture into the water life of China Past. Ancient water towns which date to 770 B.C., maintain their historic ways in traditional architecture featuring
black tiled roofs, earthen white-washed walls and quaint moon-shaped bridges accommodating foot traffic over the placid, narrow canals.
The villages' populations are mostly elderly residing in their families' ancestral homes. Their lives are centered on the canals where fishermen with trained cormorant birds fish the abundant waters.
Expert boat girls...many grandmothers...clad in traditional black cotton trousers and indigo smocks, leisurely pole contemporary visitors in their small craft along the canals. On the banks, tea houses and small country-style eateries provide respite from the canal rides and shopping for local handmade bamboo wares, folk pottery and embroidery crafted by village artisans.
But there is a future vision for the Grand Canal as well: totally reversing its flow into the Yangtse, the third largest river in the world in order to send water into China's drought-stricken northern regions. Planners see it as the world's largest construction project of all time.