Toilet star rating = 5 star
At the beginning of the 7th century, after centuries of chaos and anarchy, a new imperial dynasty succeeded in re-unifying the many waring states of China. The first Sui emperor had done the nasty business of unifying the country. The second Sui emperor consolidated the state by undertaking massive public works projects, including renovation of some parts of the "Long Wall." He built new, spectacular palaces, rebuilt the capital cities of Xian and Luoyang and built rebuilt the roads. All of these projects and the hardships they caused made him extremely unpopular and he was eventually assassinated after a reign of some thirty years. The Sui dynasty were then replaced by the Tang dynasty, who would govern China through the most magnificent period of its history. Although the Tang would damn the Sui as tyrants, they were forced to admit that they were the fortunate beneficiaries of the Sui's hard work.
Of all the building projects undertaken by the Sui, the greatest is perhaps the least known. It's not a palace or a wall or a city. It's a canal. Called the Grand Canal, it's a network of canals linking China's many river systems and lakes and is the longest canal system in the world. It was originally constructed between 605 and 609AD and is still still in use today, 13 centuries later.
Between the lakes of Hangzhou and the port of Shanghai are a network of picturesque canal towns. There is often very little left of the original towns as most have been 'modernised.' At Xin's recommendation we visited Xitang, a very small canal town who's main claim to fame was to be a setting for the movie Mission Impossible 3. We were able to get a direct bus from Hangzhou at 1.50pm, arriving about 4pm. A crowd of trishaw riders were waiting at the station for us. Xin had said the cost of trishaw into Xitang old town should be no more than 5 yuan (about a dollar). Of course none of the trishaw riders was willing to accept a 'Chinese price' so we walked off. It didn't take long for one of them to bid 10 yuan and we accepted. When we got to the old town we were amazed at the size of the streets. They were barely wide enough for two people walking, let alone the trishaw. It made for an interesting ride.
The trishaw could only take us so far then we had to carry our bags (how rude!). The guest house was little cafe with a couple of rooms out the back. We'd taken the small room for 185 yuan (quite expensive for China). It was well fitted out and very nice but the bed was as solid as rock.
Xitang itself was very, very scenic. It was a photographer and artists' paradise and we took loads of photos.
We ate that night at the restaurant where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had eaten (well there were photos on the wall). The girl at the counter had excellent English. Bar street was filled with bars and clubs, each had bottles hanging from their walls like trophies and was belting out deafening karaoke or live music. We visited two bars but they were empty (it was a Tuesday I guess).
The most extraordinary thing about Xitang was it was filled with police officers. Dozens and dozens of them, all wandering around, doing nothing but texting on their mobile phones (just like so many other Chinese).