China's cities show off unique charms. Wuxi: Venice of the Orient

FISHING junks and roving sampans navigate through the mist here on Lake Tai between islet sanctuaries of trees and flowers, bridges and pavilions. You expect otherworldliness in this semitropical land of fish and rice, and get it with the simple, mystical beauty of water, horizon, and sky. Literally half of municipal Wuxi is water - two lakes, 72 islands, and a vast labyrinth of canals that have earned this pre-modern industrial city of 800,000 the nickname ``Venice of China.''

Having been to Venice, I can agree with one guidebook that says Wuxi outdoes Venice for sheer human interest. Venice may offer more beauty, romance, and architectural elegance, but Wuxi has more gritty realism - human-propelled ferryboats, barges of produce, swimmers, junks, and houseboats. And there's hardly any taint of tourism here, though word has it that the canalside dwellers had their quaint houses whitewashed at government expense to help attract tourists.

Much of Wuxi is very poor, but it wasn't always so. It was on the grand canal here in AD 610 that the first emperors are said to have sailed on imperial barges, escorted by flotillas of dragon boats with retinues of eunuchs and concubines. The grand canal, which cuts through the center of the metropolis and branches in so many ways that one can easily get lost, was part of a project begun 2,400 years ago. Successive dynasties linked lakes and rivers across China's eastern flatlands to create one single canal from Hangzhou in the south, across the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers to Changan and Peking.

Since the advent of China's open-door policy, tourist authorities have organized canal excursions ranging from half-day to a seven-day cruises that include Suzhou, Wuxi, Changzhou, Zhenjiang, and the Yangtze River port of Yangzhou.

What you see today on the canal represents the very lifeblood of the community. All manner of craft motor through its arteries, loaded with watermelons, live ducks, bricks, reeds. An occasional fisherman wields captive cormorants, which dive beneath the surface for fish while secured by leashes that keep them captive and prevent them from swallowing their catch.

There are ghettoes of houseboats at many turns of the canal, with young children and senior citizens asleep in the shade. Steps lead down to the water, where the people swim, brush their teeth and bathe, do their laundry, and go fishing. And the Wuxiites do all this without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.

The city was originally named ``Youxi,'' meaning ``with tin.'' When the tin was depleted during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), the name was changed to ``Wuxi,'' meaning ``without tin.'' The city remains a largely unrenovated, light industrial center known for silk and its location as a transportation center. Wuxi has some gorgeous boulevards, bordered by willows and elms. Streets are chaotic with bicycle traffic, though not nearly so crowded as nearby Shanghai and Nanking.

This city is about three hours from Shanghai - close enough for a hectic day trip. Those interested should contact the Shanghai branch of China Travel Service (CTS), located in the Huaqiao Hotel. For a reasonable fee (negotiable at about $35 a day per person, not including meals or accommodations), CTS will take care of all the details and secure a guide in Wuxi.

On the trip CTS arranged for us, we rode through rolling landscape on a 60-year-old German train, replete with ceiling fans, doilied armrests, and scalding Chinese tea served in oversize cups from thermos bottles. Our CTS guide met us at Wuxi Station, and we were off on a full itinerary of tourist stops.

Tops on the list is Turtle Head Island in Lake Tai, one of the largest islands in a lake whose depth doesn't exceed 10 feet. The ride and the scenery are the focus of the trip. We walked the serpentine pathways over arched bridges where Chinese girls were scraping snails off lagoon walls and collecting them in overflowing wicker baskets. The main attraction is the ``head'' of the turtle, on which stands a small lighthouse and a stone inscribed with the island's name.

Another highlight was Li Garden, one of three most famous in Wuxi, distinguished by promenades, bridges, and ornate rock formations - as well as a variety of flora with lots of willows and elms, and the sound of cicada.

We had dinner and spent the night at the Shuixiu Hotel, next to the gardens on Lake Li. We were disappointed, though, with the food (as we were with nearly every medium-cost meal throughout our 10-day China trip). The typical meal was heavier and greasier than those in Chinese restaurants in the US, and sauces were less savory. Cuts of meat are uniformly bigger, less wieldy, and less appetizing. Package tours usually include meals in which the diner has no choice of entrees. Meals all have great variety and quantity, however.

The main tourist hotels offer nightly attractions that range from traditional Chinese entertainment to discos. Our evening's entertainment at the Shuixiu was first rate. It included performances on ancient and modern musical instruments and singing and dancing. It ranged from crowd-pleasing tourist fare to more experimental avant-garde performances. One Chinese pop singer, dressed in a three-piece Western suit, crooned an Italian song that might have been heard in Venice.

Early the next morning we visited Wuxi's other main attractions - the Huishan Clay Figure Workshop and the Wuxi No. 1 Silk Filature. At the clay workshop, tourists can discover the modern-day counterparts to pottery fashioned in the Ming era. They will also learn that the pottery factory was renovated in 1954 and employs 600 people, 60 percent of whom are women.

At the Silk Filature, you'll get a tour that explains everything you ever wanted to know about silk - from how the worm reproduces to how its cocoon is softened, put on spools, and then turned into fabric. Factory workrooms are dark, with bare floors and bare-bulb lighting.

Wuxi offers one Friendship store, at 8 Chaoyang Road, and silk products are sold at No. 1 Department Store on Zhongshan Road. But the city is not known for its shopping.

On our way out of town we discovered my favorite spot in all of Wuxi: Xi Kui Park, which boasts the oldest male ginkgo tree in town (600 years), a 900-year-old spring, pavilions, walkways, and pools on a steep hillside. Ancient poets and emperors left their poems inscribed on various walls. China's Red Guards left their mark during the Cultural Revolution, too: They destroyed the feet of one beautiful dragon.

Our guide saw us all the way back to our train door, and a CTS escort accompanied us back to Shanghai. Along the way he noted that Wuxi's grand canal ranks with China's Great Wall as an outstanding engineering feat and enduring attraction. We didn't need any convincing.

Practical information

For information about excursions by train to Wuxi and travel on its grand canal, write to The China National Tourist Office, 60 E. 42nd St., Suite 465, New York, NY, 10165, or telephone (212) 867-0271. Your local travel agent may offer information on group tours to China that include Wuxi in their itinerary.

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