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River towns of repute

He Garden in Yangzhou is a fine example of a traditional Chinese garden, a marriage of nature and architecture.

No trip to Huai'an is complete without taking a photo of the former residence of late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

The birthplace of some of the nation's most illustrious sons and that of one of its four classic cuisines are just 140 km apart on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal.

The Chinese believe "a great land is propitious for giving birth to great men".

While Huai'an is a small city in northern Jiangsu province, its long list of celebrity natives - including Zho
u Enlai (1898-1976), late Chinese premier, Wu Cheng'en (1500-1582), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) author of the classic Journey to the West, and Guan Tianpei, a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) general - proves this old saying right.

Like many other Chinese tourists to the city, I headed straight to the memorial of Zhou Enlai, which is located on a small lake in Chuzhou district of Huai'an. Built in 1992, it looks rather simple at first sight but has bagged China's top architecture honor - the Lu Ban Award.

One of its highlights is the exhibition on Zhou's life. Thousands of pictures and cultural relics capture the popular leader's childhood, youth, and later political life during and after the founding of New China in 1949.

There are pictures of him as a boy, his score sheet as a high school student in Tianjin from 1914-1917 that shows top marks in writing, chemistry, algebra and calligraphy, and even a touch screen that lets visitors read Zhou's high school essays. 

Inside the memorial sits a replica of Xihuating, Zhou's simple dwelling and workplace inside Zhongnanhai in Beijing.


A 15-minute drive from here will take you to Zhou's childhood residence. Built in the Qing style, the compound, with two courtyards and 32 rooms, was where he spent his first 12 years with his big family. All the rooms have displays detailing Zhou's boyhood and family.

Both the memorial and the residence are open to visitors for free.

With a history of more than 2,200 years, Huai'an, once known as Chuzhou, is located on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, the world's longest ancient canal. Its glory days were in the Ming and Qing dynasties, as a transportation hub on the busiest section of the canal. It is now a famous agricultural by-products center, and increasingly an industrial city, with growing outside investment.

Yangzhou, another tourist attraction located along the Grand Canal, lies about 140 kilometers from Huai'an. The city has retained a number of historic sites and is also known for its gardens.

Ge Garden, named after the shape of a bamboo leaf, is believed to be home to more than 20,000 bamboos of 60 different varieties. It also has four rock gardens, for the four seasons.

The architecture of He Garden is unique with a second-floor corridor overlooking the entire garden. Over time, the garden was adapted into a school.

A stroll through the garden will give visitors an idea about the life and changing fortunes of a senior official in the late Qing period. Both gardens must have cost a fortune to build during the Qing Dynasty, when the city was flushed with money from the thriving salt business.

Another popular scenic site is Shou Xi Hu, or the Thin West Lake, with its many pavilions, trees and flowers, set around a beautiful river. Its island of egrets offers good photo opportunities.

It is also worth taking a walk in the evening along the beautifully illuminated old canal. A copper statue of Emperor Sui Yangdi stands at the site, who directed the construction of the canal. Just opposite the ferry lies the ancient city of Dongguan, lined now with shops and restaurants.

While in Yangzhou, be sure to try Huaiyang cuisine, one of China's four most famous cuisines. Most guides will take you to either the Ye Chun, or Fu Chun Tea Restaurants, which are known for their dim sum breakfast.

On offer are a variety of delicious stuffed buns - including a "soup bun". Other delicacies include dried chicken, marinated mushroom, sauted shelled shrimp, and dried bean curd slices in soup.

The breakfast is best rounded off with a tasty bowl of "spring noodles", cooked in chicken broth, with side dishes of spinach and black fungus.

As in other historical cities, the popular tourist destinations of Yangzhou are probably not the best places to see the true face of the city. For this, take a walk into some ancient hutong.

Yangzhou is also known for offering the country's best back massage, and bath rubs. But to enjoy this, plan for more than the one-day stay that I did.

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