Although there are still plenty of the cranes and construction sites that pockmark almost every Chinese city, Yangzhou in Jiangsu province in many ways combines the best bits of nearby tourist hotspots Suzhou and Hangzhou but with relatively fewer crowds. The city’s classical Chinese gardens are pretty enough to rival those of its more visited Jiangsu cousin, while the Slender West Lake really is like an elongated version of the famous expanse of water at the centre of Zhejiang’s provincial capital.
A key location on the Grand Canal (an ancient stretch of the Beijing-Hangzhou waterway still provides a border around one side of the old city), Yangzhou is dotted with classical Chinese gardens and sites of historical interest that owe much to its mercantile past. Ge Yuan (10 Yanfu Dong Lu, near Guangchumen Jie; entry 45RMB) is a prime example. Although gardens were first established on this site in the Ming dynasty, leading salt merchant Huang Zhiyun expanded and transformed them during the Qing dynasty. He renamed the resulting 23 square kilometre space Ge Yuan, having planted bamboo throughout (the Chinese character 个 looks like three bamboo leaves). Today, in addition to bamboo groves, Ge Yuan is comprised of a charming collection of classical pavilions, period rock gardens and koi-filled ponds stretching out from behind Huang’s preserved (but fairly bare) living quarters inside the main entrance.
The Slender West Lake (28 Da Hongqiao Lu, near Liuhu Lu; entry 130RMB; pictured below), in the north of the city, winds its way through a surrounding park that is relatively free of the swarms of tourists who circle Hangzhou’s West Lake. This makes it a pleasant spot to spend a couple of hours wandering through, taking in a number of gardens, pavilion-topped bridges and temples as you snake north toward Daming Temple (1 Pingshantang Dong Lu, near Xihua Lu; entry 30RMB/Dec-Feb, June-Aug; 45RMB/Mar-May, Sept-Nov), where you can climb the Xiling pagoda (entry 20RMB) for views back across the entire site.
The Tomb of Puhaddin (167 Wenchang Zhong Lu, near Jiefang Nan Lu; entry 12RMB), located beside the Old Grand Canal is another site worth a visit. Local tourists rarely come to this series of Ming dynasty tombs, including that of Puhaddin, supposedly a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. There’s not a huge amount to look at, but the gardens and mosque have an interesting mix of classical Chinese architecture and Islamic decoration.
While Yangzhou may not be quite as overrun as some other -zhou cities in the region, it is still susceptible to tourist hordes (especially during national holidays and at other peak times). The spruced-up old town area, a maze of narrow lanes leading off from the central Dongguan Jie, is particularly prone to crowds. But thankfully, in the midst of this area is the tranquil Yangzhou Centre and Residence
(309 Dongguan Jie, near Taizhou Lu, 0514 8799 3333; pictured left). The hotel occupies a sprawling 350 square kilometre site of pavilions, water features and rock gardens that was formerly a Qing dynasty warrior’s residence. Staying at the hotel therefore means you get access to your own near-private section of the old town and you can easily spend a couple of hours strolling around the complex.
With most of the pavilions converted into banquet halls and restaurants for the hotel, guest rooms mainly occupy a series of Ming and Qing dynasty style courtyard-like buildings. The rooms therefore contain few windows and even those that do are largely devoid of scenic views, which seems a missed opportunity, but the facilities are comfortable and the peaceful nature of the surrounding complex is worth a few shortcomings with the rooms. With rates starting from 680RMB/night for a standard room (including breakfast), the hotel is also good value and lifts a stay in Yangzhou from just another city break to something a bit more memorable.
The most convenient way to reach Yangzhou from Shanghai is to take a one hour long gaotie train from Hongqiao Station to Zhenjiang South Station (from 109.5RMB) and then take a 40 minute bus to Yangzhou. Buses leave around every 15 minutes from the long distance bus station located next door to Zhenjiang South Station and cost 17RMB one way.