My first encounter with the Grand Canal (some 32 years ago) was a slightly creepy overnight trip on a rust-bucket barge. I will never forget our cabin window, half submerged below the murky water line, as we travelled from Hangzhou 杭州 to Suzhou 苏州 (south-west of Shanghai). The water towns of that region are now among my favourites for China travel, but until yesterday I’d never seen the canal at the northern end. The terminus is just 40 minutes from home.
The Grand Canal 大运河 is as monumental as the Great Wall, yet it’s a relatively unknown attraction here in Beijing. For trivia fans, it is also the world’s oldest and longest man-made waterway. An extraordinary 1,800 kilometres in length, it’s worth comparing to the world-renown Suez (193kms) and Panama canals (82kms.). The Grand Canal runs from Hangzhou, north to Tongzhou 通州 on the outskirts of Beijing and from there once went all the way to the Forbidden City via smaller channels.
Work on it began way back in 486BC, but it wasn’t until the Sui Dynasty 隋代 (605AD) that plans became more ambitious. By 984AD, clever engineers invented the earliest-known canal locks – something that did not appear in Europe for another 400 years. Millions toiled for decades on the project, and millions more under an edit by Kublai Khan. On declaring Beijing the capital in 1271, he was quick to understand the canal’s strategic importance, and insisted a more direct route be dug.
China’s first super-highway 漕运 flourished. Water not only flowed freely to the drier north, but crucial food supplies were also assured. Endless bags of rice, wheat, cotton and porcelain plied the extensive network; so too communiqués and news. In fact the canal remained indispensible to successive dynasties up until the late 19th century with the arrival of the train. When inscribing it in the World Heritage List, UNESCO declared the Grand Canal to be “the world’s largest and most extensive civil engineering project, prior to the Industrial Revolution.”
It’s hard to fathom all that history as you stand at the canal’s northern terminus today. Once the venue for 2008 Olympic rowers, suburban Tongzhou 通州is undergoing an urban planning transformation. It’s now a major decentralization project for Beijing. In the shadow of towering skyscrapers, we strolled for miles along the canal’s foreshore.
It was perfect spring weather, although still too early for the parks to look pretty. The most striking monument to modernity is a bridge that spans the ancient waterway. Looking like luxuriant folds of fabric, this masterpiece of engineering speaks to the plans for the city’s reincarnation.
Otherwise, save for a few old fishermen (defying signs not to fish) the historic Grand Canal seemed implausibly languid and calm.