TRAVEL / On the Great Wall of waterways: Stanley Stewart sees a world in transition on a trip along China's 1,300-year-old Grand Canal from the lovers' paradise of Hangzhou to Suzhou

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THE DOCTOR couldn't wait to get out of town. When the passenger gates opened he led the crowds pushing down the stone steps and swarming over the bows of the boats. In his haste he almost elbowed an elderly woman into the canal.

Rusting, disreputable hulks were moored in a row with their front ends tucked in under the corrugated canopy of the quay. Passengers scampered from boat to boat, searching for their cabins, while the music of an upbeat dance band was broadcast over the boats' loudspeakers. Smoke from the galley chimneys enveloped us like bad weather.

The doctor dragged a heavy suitcase up a stairway. 'Don't worry. The boats are really very good,' he whispered, locking himself into his cabin, furtive as a stowaway.

We had both booked a passage from Hangzhou to Suzhou along China's Grand Canal, an overnight journey on a route familiar to Marco Polo. The canals in this part of China reminded him of Venice. Perhaps a little carried away with homesickness, he declared Hangzhou 'the finest and most splendid city in the world'. Naturally the Chinese agree: 'Above is heaven, below are Hangzhou and Suzhou,' says a proverb.

I found Hangzhou a melancholy paradise, beautiful but lonely. The hotel overlooking the West Lake was empty apart from a small group of elderly Taiwanese, dressed in the loud fashions favoured by golfers. The truth was that Hangzhou was for lovers; it was not a place to be alone. In the parks around the lake, between the wild roses and the azaleas, couples were entwined on the benches like vines. In this romantic atmosphere I found myself mooning about the town, in love with half-a- dozen women I had only glimpsed on passing bicycles. It was an unhealthy state and I decided departure was the solution.

I met the doctor in the boat booking office, and he invited me to dinner. We ate on the lakeshore where gas-lit pleasure boats carried lovers out to the islands. The doctor ordered what appeared to be grilled sparrows, which he dealt with in a most unsurgical manner. He crunched the birds whole - feet, heads, beaks, everything - then spat out mouthfuls of broken bones.

He was in a state of considerable agitation. After 10 years, he was abandoning his profession: 'Everything. I leave everything behind. Everything I have worked for.' I worried about him now, locked inside his cabin; it can't have been a suitable place for a depressed man. Mine resembled a 1960s police cell, with Formica walls, a linoleum floor decorated with cigarette burns, and a spittoon. The bunks were built for people under five feet tall and the taps dripped into a stained basin.

In the wheelhouse the pilots lounged with their bare feet hanging out of the windows. In a corner of the windscreen was a dog-eared photograph of Chairman Mao; his image has been reduced to a traveller's talisman, the equivalent of furry dice and a plastic crucifix.

When the pilots finally roused themselves for departure, it was a coup de theatre. Only one boat had an engine; the others were lashed to it, seven abreast. This unwieldy assembly reversed off the quay as one, and turned on itself in a basin that allowed it no more than a foot's clear water. It was like watching an elephant perform a pirouette. Then, under full steam, the boats were dropped astern one by one until they formed a long train.

China's Grand Canal is the Great Wall of waterways. Built 1,300 years ago, it stretches more than 1,000 miles from Peking to Hanghzou, intersecting the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. The story of its construction is largely one of imperial cruelty. Using conscripted labour on a scale only China could muster - 10 million workers - it was completed in six years. The death toll ran into millions.

The Grand Canal has as much in common with English canals as the M25 has with a country lane; the traffic was bumper to bumper. Big freight barges jostled each other, their awnings flapping in the wind, their cargoes overwhelming. A vast pile of bamboo passed with only a chimney stack and a pilot's protruding head signifying the barge beneath. High-rises of bricks sailed by, the barges riding so low that the slightest ripple flooded the wheelhouses. Here and there we passed sunken vessels, the victims of one brick too many.

With Hangzhou safely astern, the doctor reappeared. Unusually tall for a Chinese, he seemed to be composed mainly of limbs. When he moved, his arms and legs flapped. He was relieved we were under way. It made his decision irreversible.

For the past five years his life had been confined to a village near Hangzhou where he worked in a rural clinic as a barefoot doctor, an appointment that he had taken up straight from medical school. His salary was modest, but he had enjoyed the work and the people until he began to realise that he would spend the rest of his life there without the possibility of change or advancement. The world of the village was to be his world. A wife would have to be found from among the farm girls. His future was defined by mud lanes and damp rooms.

Through his brother-in-law, who worked in a foreign hotel in Suzhou, he had now secured a job as a bartender. His salary was going to be three times that of a doctor. Such inequities are a feature of the market-driven economic revolution that has given China the highest growth rate in the world. Taxi drivers make more than engineers, water- melon stallholders more than uni-

versity professors.

Evening was falling across the fields, and with it came a soft rain, pattering on to the water of the canal. Along the banks the huge colonies of moored barges were a confusion of domestic and maritime concerns. Among the grappling hooks, the ropes and engine parts were lines of laundry, bowls of washing-up and television aerials. In the wheelhouses, families brandishing chopsticks were settling down to dinner. On the banks cyclists in rain capes made their way home along avenues of dripping trees. A steam train burst across a bridge ahead, showering sparks into the wet night.

On our boat the Chinese were all tucked inside their cabins. The slap of mah-jongg tiles murmured up and down the gangways from behind closed doors. The doctor and I retired to a narrow room beside the galley where the cooks, who were scraping out their woks, sold beer.

The doctor grew talkative. He was between two worlds and sought to soften his unease with explanation. 'The generation of my parents had faith,' he said. 'They believed in the Party. It was like a religion. They sacrificed themselves to build a better China. But the corruption of the Party, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square have given that kind of idealism a bad name. Now people want only to better themselves and the lives of their families.'

We sat looking out into the night where the lighted doorways of barges floated past. A chorus of baritone frogs rose from the banks. 'It is inevitable, I suppose,' the doctor said. 'It is like growing up. The loss of idealism. But I envy my parents those early years of faith.'

In the morning we woke to the rush-hour. Barges, tugs, sampans and fishing boats were all charging past each other in a manner reminiscent of the chariot race in Ben Hur. Husbands, inevitably, were at the wheel while their wives stood at the bow covering up for their mistakes. They waved white flags in a frantic semaphore, tried to stave off disaster with barge poles, or cushion it with tyre buffers. All this mayhem went on while everyone concerned was distracted by breakfast.

At Suzhou the passengers surged ashore, piling into waiting buses, taxis and rickshaws. The doctor emerged from his cabin with a brave face. He had put on a new shirt to greet his new life, a floral effort which made him look like an impostor. We shook hands at the bottom of the gangway.

'Good luck,' I said.

He looked about himself uncertainly, blinking in the bright sun, unsettled by his destination. The barge journey was a rite of passage. Departure may have been a moment of release; arrival was another matter.-


GETTING THERE: China Travel Service (071-836 9911) offers London- Peking flights from about pounds 490 return, continuing to Hangzhou from about pounds 138 return. There is also a daily Hangzhou service from Hong Kong, from about pounds 280 return, bookable through China Travel Service. Trailfinders (071-938 3366) offers return flights, London-Peking with Swiss Air, from pounds 578. Trailfinders can also book return flights Peking-Shanghai, pounds 133, and Shanghai-Hangzhou, pounds 27.

TOUR OPERATORS: China Travel Service's 20-day Paradise Found tour follows the length of the Grand Canal in the opposite direction to Stanley Stewart, starting in Peking and travelling via Xian, Nanking, Yangzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Guilin, finishing in Hong Kong, from pounds 1,590 including flights. Trailfinders 15-day tour, from pounds 1,416 excluding flights, starts in Peking, then goes to Nanking, Wuxi, Suzhou, Shanghai, Xian, Guilin and Guangzhou, Hong Kong. Regent Holidays (0272 211711) offers tailormade itineraries. A sample two-week holiday starting in Peking, travelling via Xian, Nanking, Wuxi, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Canton, and Hong Kong from pounds 1,200, excluding flights (flights about pounds 680 extra).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Visa needed, plus vaccinations against typhoid and yellow fever. China National Tourist Office, 4 Glentworth Street, London NW1 (0891 200273).