“I could not write down half of what I saw,” wrote Marco Polo, “as I am sure it would not be believed.” The city of Yangzhou was at its pinnacle in the 12th and 13th centuries, as the Song dynasty was followed by the Yuan and Marco Polo arrived and worked for the latter in Yangzhou; buoyed up by its important location, by temporary status as the capital (in 1128) and by generations of salt merchants, this city rose above its neighbours in Jiangsu.
Located just north of the Yangtze River, Yangzhou offers modern comfort, exotic beauty, unique cuisine and historic sites that reflect the rich and deep history typical of China in its key regions, especially on its iconic waterways. It is a paltry 290 kilometers from Shanghai. I made the journey in two and a half hours for a pleasantly rewarding trip, delving into the roots of China and finding much to contrast with the modern and international trappings of Shanghai.
Yangzhou’s story begins 2,400 years ago, but it came to greater prominence during the seventh century when Yang Di, the second emperor of the Sui Dynasty, started building the Grand Canal. The Sui had already unified the country militarily; the Grand Canal would bind the country together economically. The emperor himself documented these aims in his journal about the trips that he took to the city.
Yangzhou is an ancient southern capital where riches from across the empire used to pour in. These riches found their way into extravagant urban gardens built by rich benefactors centuries ago. Yangzhou once had 80 magnificent gardens, I learned, but they were sadly reduced over the centuries to 12. But those that remain are some of the best you’ll find in China. Yangzhou is a city that may not have the international glamour of Shanghai but it has a depth of history that will guarantee you a great family getaway.
Food and Eateries
The best way to begin a busy itinerary is on a full stomach, and where better to begin than the ‘Land of Fish and Rice’. As the name connotes, Yangzhou is the place to experience a range of foods in the Jiangsu gastronomic style. While one dish in particular is reflexively linked to the city, Yangzhou is more than just a place to order fried rice.
Nevertheless, Yángzhōu chǎofàn should be tried: an elemental, accessible dish consisting of rice, eggs and vegetables such as carrots, peas, fried in a wok over a high heat with common additions like shrimps, scallions and Chinese ham. Traditional, richer versions may also incorporate sea cucumbers, crab meat and bamboo shoots. The fried rice has an interesting role in gastronomy, often being served as the penultimate dish in Chinese banquets, just before dessert. Yangzhou’s restaurants, as I discovered, also offer an incredible range of dumplings – we started our day at Ye Chun, restaurant that dates back to 1877 and a perfect early morning dim sum oasis where you will be brought trays of various dumplings of shapes and sizes to feast upon before you explore the city’s walls and waterways. Be prepared to book in advance as this restaurant is extremely well liked and always in demand.
We also enjoyed dazhu gansi, or bean curd cut into long slender strips like noodles, dressed with sesame oil and garnished with cucumber and chili and served in chicken broth. Other specialties include a large ground pork meatball called ‘lion’s head’ served in a tureen of soup and ‘drunken prawns’ – fresh shrimp placed in a bowl of Chinese wine, where they flop about wildly as they succumb to the alcohol.
How does one describe the Yangzhou distinctive taste to the western palate? The easiest way to describe the taste might be to explain what it is not. Situated in a central part of the country, Yangzhou developed a food style that is less savory than Cantonese, less spicy than Sichuanese and lighter in fat and meat than the fare served in Beijing and Hebei.
He Yuan 何园
The archetypal garden here is the He Yuan Garden built during the Qing Dynasty. Poems, reveries and imaginative musings were engraved on stone tablets and the garden is set to be representative of the four seasons. These gardens are like fine wines and can not be drunk quickly – you must swill and sit and absorb ,as the locals do, to get true sense of the fine details that inhabit every nook and cranny.
The mansion encapsulates the regal decadence of the Qing Dynasty in its lattice doors, carved screens, rosewood chandeliers and innovative floor tiles that evoke the senses. An open-air pavilion perched on an island in the middle of a fishpond is the focal point of the massive mansion’s garden. Reached by a narrow zigzag walkway, it offers contemplative views of elaborate rockeries, stands of hydrangea and the soaring finials on surrounding tile roofs.
The urban gardens are not like the conventional European gardens that one would connect with the western ideal of beauty. Vast lawns and flower beds are not what make a garden in the east. These gardens are built around Confucian ideals of order and symmetry and the Daoism concepts of attentive, responsive interaction with natural forces, especially water – the gardens often feature paths and viewing positions that encourage a balanced and structured experience of the layout. Within the gardens we find a window into the ancient Chinese method of using design to teach the mind to connect with nature and the wider universe.
Slender West Lake
The Slender West Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has changed little over the centuries. It represents a serene place to reflect at the close of a day trip, running serenely beside temples and pagodas before becoming the eastern edge of Yangzhou’s downtown.
We took a boat trip along Slender West Lake, formerly Baozhang Lake, covering an area of two square kilometers . In the mid-18th century, the moats hosted on their sides a large number of suburban villas of salt traders. Thanks to the support of the generous Emperor Qianlong and the donations of salt merchants, we find a surrounding garden that is quite splendid in a variety of ways. One can only imagine just how spectacular Yangzhou used to be. The gardens that accompany the lakes are pristinely well kept and unchanged from years before. The location represents a masterpiece in garden layout and also has a children’s playground with a small zoo – this might be of interest a young child who wants to stretch his or her legs, and who might not be in tune with the aesthetic of a contained formal garden or care particularly about the effect of the salt trade on the emergence of Yangzhou.
Dong Guan Street
Once you have spent your day exploring the vast gardens and winding lakes, you surely will be ready to wind down the evening,, as we were. We chose to visit Dong Guan street – crowded with shoppers, foodies and the simply curious, Dong Guan dates from the Qing Dynasty. We escaped the crowds by visiting a quaint teashop where erhu and pipa performances were given by musicians in traditional dress. It allowed my son to have a well-deserved nap and for us to sit and drink tea and absorb the performances. It was very much the antithesis of the throngs of people that walked up and down the shopping area, which was lined with craft shops, antique stores, snack vendors, boutiques and candy makers producing peanut brittle and honeycomb delicacies. Running 1,120 meters down to the old city moon gate, a perfect place to pick up a souvenir and a place where old style handmade toy shops still operate – offering something for smaller members of the family.
The souvenirs here are surprisingly well-made. Women’s hats are also a great buy as are the practical cleavers and cutlery. Dong Guan has to be deserving of a place among the top ten historic and cultural streets in China.
Yangzhou, less well known than Hangzhou or Shanghai, is certainly an indispensable destination for any modern day Marco Polo looking to cover the astounding region formed by the delta of the Yangtze as it makes its way to the sea.