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New 'Ancient Town' Rises Along the Grand Canal


An overall view of the recreated "ancient town" in Tai'erzhuang of Zaozhuang City, Shandong province.

As China prepares its UNESCO world heritage bid for the Grand Canal of China, some canal cities are sprucing up their old waterways, purifying the water, landscaping the banks and recreating "ancient towns." Yao Minji visits one.

Eighty-five-year-old Zhao Qingyou, a retired farmer, poses for pictures wearing his handmade suo yi, a rustic rain cape and wide-brimmed hat made of woven grass and tree bark.

In the old days, most farmers peeled bark from trees and wove it with dried grasses into suo yi to wear for fieldwork.

It's a shaggy cape made with long, trailing grass - scarecrows today still wear suo yi.

The outfit is waterproof, durable and costs nothing, though it's quite heavy.

Some poor families even wore it outdoors as a substitute for unaffordable fabric clothing.

Today Zhao can certainly afford a light-weight modern raincoat, but he has crafted his own suo yi as a labor of love. It's the "uniform" he wears as a fixture and tourist attraction in a new ancient-town theme park along the Tai'erzhuang section of the Grand Canal of China.

Tai'erzhuang, administered by Zaozhuang City, is an hour's bullet-train ride from Ji'nan, capital of Shandong province.

It's part of the 3,200-kilometer Grand Canal, which dates back 2,500 years. This particular section in Shandong province represents an awesome feat of hydraulic engineering starting in 1593 that bypassed the ever-flooding, silt-bearing, course-changing Yellow River.

Ancient engineers also successfully tackled the complex geography and changing elevations in the Shandong region, stabilizing the key route carrying grain to Beijing in the north.

Theme park

Starting in 1958, the Tai'erzhuang stretch itself was bypassed by an expanded, wider canal system. The big system is still in use, mostly carrying coal, gravel and sand to the south. The older system used to carry grain from Jiangsu province north to Beijing.

The 2km Tai'erzhuang channel is strictly for sightseeing today and is at the heart of a new "ancient town" that recreates in many ways the bustling canal town and transport hub that reached its peak in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. The water comes from surrounding rivers, including branches of the Yellow River.

In 1938, the town was devastated in the famous Battle of Tai'erzhuang during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945). It was an early victory for China.

The town has been completely rebuilt. The ancient town project and canal restoration began in 2006 and are still underway.

"It's so different now, even bigger and better than the old town before the war," says 79-year-old Li Jingshan whose family once ran a famous sweets shop along the canal.

This ancient-town theme park contains around 2 kilometers of renovated ancient canal and covers around 200 hectares. Admission is 160 yuan (US$25.70); more areas will be opened in the future.

The ancient canal flows quietly, only 50 steps from the visitors' center. An ancient-style bridge arcs over the canal and the pavilion atop the bridge is decorated with traditional painting and calligraphy. Willow trees line the banks of the winding canal. This section looks like a southern Chinese water town, such as Suzhou in Jiangsu province.

Behind old Zhao stands the large new visitors' center, built in traditional Chinese style, with dark tiled roofs, upturned eaves and roof carvings of lucky animals. Wooden window frames are also carved and the building is decorated with colored carvings.

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