Secrets of Shanghai: China's holiday gem

Known as the Pearl of the Orient, Shanghai has always been a sophisticated and elegant city. Today, it sizzles with style, blending East and West, modern and colonial under a spectacular scifi skyline

Few outsiders are privy to the delights that await them just beyond the city boundaries. Here, four charming little towns — Wuzhen, Suzhou, Tongli, and Hangzhou — reveal some of the wonders of Chinese civilisation. They're famous for their ancient lake gardens, pavilions, waterways and wooden bridges, and have changed little since they were built during imperial times. Today, one is even known as the "Venice of the East".
What you'll find: a cosy little town whose charms lie in stepped stone bridges, ancient docks, waterside pavilions and fine architectural detailing. Also look out for lion and dragon bronze door knockers, intricately carved wooden screens and women navigating the flat-bottomed punts along the canals, often dressed in tunics and conical straw hats.
More than 80 per cent of the town has remained unchanged since the 17th century. Some areas originated in the Song Dynasty (960-1279); the rest was built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Though tradionally famous for its distinctive blue-and-white patterned textiles — which the locals dye and weave in workshops — today, visitors also come to visit the traditional herbal pharmacies, a wonderful museum of Chinese carved mahogany beds (some the size of modern bedrooms) and beautifully preserved ancient houses full of antiques.
Like Wuzhen, it also has a Grand Canal (completed during the Sui Dynasty between 589-618) and a network of lakes and waterways.
The gardens originated when officials from the imperial court retired here in a bid to shun worldly affairs. Their ideal was to create vistas that would open up like landscape scrolls. Today, Suzhou is a microcosm of ancient imperial China — a living museum that still lives up to the phrase: "There is heaven above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below".
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it was popular among scholars and poets from the imperial court. One poet wrote:
"The town is a world of water and the views are like paint;
The roads of the town are made up of water,
The rivers of the town are made up of water,
And the gardens of the town are also made up of water."
You soon get the idea when you arrive. Don't miss the Tulsi Garden, where ancient wooden houses and elegant pavilions with peaked roofs surround a lake of water lilies, bordered by shrubs and graceful trees.
Besides the bridges and water gardens, the local sights include teahouses, shops and ancient meeting halls with carved wooden beams.
Imagine hazy hills rising above willow-lined banks forming crinkled silhouettes punctuated by solitary pagodas and tiny boats floating on glassy reflections. The gardens are imperial, the landscape quintessentially Chinese, and there's more than enough walking, cycling and green spaces to keep everyone leisurely occupied.
The gardens are at their most atmospheric during the early morning or late in the afternoon, especially if you're lucky enough to see them emerge from a light mist. They've charmed generations of emperors and still work their magic today.
China toursAustralia's leading China holiday specialist, Helen Wong's Tours (tel: 02 9267 7833 and 1300 788328; www.helenwongstours.com) can arrange itineraries to Shanghai, Wuzhen, Tongli, Suzhou and Hangzhou.
The company also has a 14-day China Highlights tour. Beginning in Shanghai, it encompasses Guilin with its inspiring limestone peaks; Xian, home of the ancient Terracotta Warriors, and Beijing, host of the 2008 Olympics and location of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. Priced from $5930 per person, twin share, flying Qantas from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide. And a 18-day Supreme China tour that includes the China Highlights tour, plus a cruise on the Yangtze River. Priced from $7165 per person, twin share, flying Qantas from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide.

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