This month's World Heritage Site

The Grand Canal, China

By Christophe Totty Posted on Seven Seas


Until this month we’ve been scrupulous about following UNESCO’s official list of World Heritage Sites. But as we searched for a Heritage Site that had a clear relation to this month’s water theme in The Cultured Traveler, none really called out to us.

We did find the Vietnamese city of Hoi An, an ancient port that in its day had seen the Chinese. Dutch, French and English drop anchor there. But travel to Vietnam is still in the category of difficult because the country’s infrastructure lags behind the wonderful reputation it is gaining among serious travelers. We didn’t think Hoi An had quite the appeal yet that it will have five or 10 years from now.

But a thousand miles northeast of Hoi An is a watery site so important in human history that we’re puzzled as to why UNESCO hasn’t yet named it a Heritage Site. So we’re going to stretch our own criteria and act as though the 1,100-mile-long Grand Canal in east-central China is already the World Heritage Site it will most surely someday be.

The canal, almost 2,500 years old, runs from Hangzhou (Hangchow), southwest of Shanghai, north to Tianjin (Tientsin), and then to Beijing. Its route winds through some of China’s most fertile and heavily populated country, making it a vital artery for moving food and goods. But even more importantly, in a country dominated by west-east-flowing rivers, the Grand Canal provides a north-south connection between several river systems. Historically, in a country often divided between its north and south, it has been a significant unifying factor.

No other canal or system of canals on earth rivals it. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway of the U.S. protects ships behind a seawall of barrier islands and allows them to travel 1,200 miles from Key West, FL to Norfolk, VA without ever having to enter the open sea. It’s slightly longer than the Grand Canal, but despite some human interventions, such as dredging and rearranging, it’s not man-made.

The Grand Canal of Venice concentrates more great architecture and brilliant urban design in one small area than can be found along the entire length of the Chinese canal. But far more people who’ve ever lived have depended on the Grand Canal of China for their sustenance than have on the Grand Canal of Venice.

There’s really nothing in the U.S. that compares to it. The Erie Canal once occupied as important an economic role as the Grand Canal, but for nowhere nearly as long. But even as railroads, and later, highways and air routes, made the Erie Canal obsolete and irrelevant, the Grand Canal, too, has been marginalized by new turnpikes and rail routes. Yet it continues as an important local and regional artery, as well as a water diversion ditch, too cheap, useful and attractive to ever completely abandon.

In some ways a journey down the Grand Canal is like riding on Amtrak. U.S. passenger trains often come into cities through the back, bypassing the more modern transportation corridors and commercial sections to travel through older neighborhoods. It can be a gritty experience, seeing the un-spruced-up, behind-the-scenes parts of cities, but astute travelers relish the chance to see outlines and remnants of the past, often with glimpses of architectural masterpieces that have been forgotten by progress.

On the Grand Canal, sections take travelers almost to within touching distance of the ancient houses and buildings that line its banks. These structures long ago settled into a stolid oldness, sagging and worn, but with imbued with the simple beauty that often comes from simply having endured. Sometimes on the canal, as the silhouettes of ultramodern skyscrapers loom against the horizon, the Grand Canal offers a penetrating look into a much older China.

There are dozens of good tour companies that offer trips on the Grand Canal, concentrating on the more historically important sections or meshing a trip with other tours of significant regional towns and monuments. A simple Internet search on Google or Yahoo will turn plenty of good maps, references, and histories.

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