Looking for a peaceful, cultural retreat for a weekend away from bustling city life? Jiangzu’s Taizhou, the “Phoenix City” is a lush gem a mere few hours trip from the urban crowds of Shanghai and Nanjing.
Built in the 6th year of the reign of Emperor Yuanshou of the Han Dynasty (117 BC), Taizhou has modernized while still remaining true to its roots. A modest (by Chinese standards) collection of skyscrapers overlooks a wealth of ancient and pristine gardens and ancient streets. Waterways snake around and through the city. Of these, the Fengcheng River (“Phoenix City River”) is perhaps the most famous and the most beloved by locals for its centuries spent serving as a major source of sustenance and transportation for the city, nourishing its people and its growth since ancient times.
I arrived in Taizhou on a bus from Changzhou on April 26th. The two-hour trip meant I was still energized for 26 hours of ancient gardens, fresh farm-to-table fare, and a few surprises. My first stop, lunch, was a Su Style feast, populated heavily with seafood thanks to Taizhou’s proximity to fresh and saltwater sources. Delicate fish rested beside crab, shrimp, and a rainbow of fruits and vegetables.
With a satiated stomach, it was a quick hop to Qiao Garden in downtown Taizhou. Qiao Garden is the oldest private garden in northern Jiangsu. In classical style, stone paths meander around fish ponds, pavilions and carefully arranged thickets of bamboo. The tranquility of the garden quickly erases memories of the city without. Here, time stops. It is said that former Chinese president Hu Jintao, a Taizhou native, used to play with his friends in this garden when he was a boy. The famous Beijing Opera actor, Mei Lanfang, yet another famous Taizhou resident, also lived in a tiny pavilion in this garden for a few years.
After wandering through the safe enclosure of Qiao Garden, I headed to the expansive Peach Park (Tao Yuan). Named for the peach trees that color the park with their cheery blossoms during the spring, Peach Park is one of those decorative riverside boardwalks that offers both lovely views of the city and excellent recreation options for strolling or walking. During the day groups of older residents meander along the broad walking paths, chatting and taking in the scenery.
A hop, skip, and a jump away from Peach Park, Mei Yuan is another more intimate classical garden and home to the Mei Lanfang Memorial Museum. Lei Lanfang (1894-1961), is one of Beijing Opera’s most revered figures. He’s also the first Beijing Opera performer to tour internationally, visiting countries like Japan, the U.S. and Russia to introduce foreign audiences to their first taste of the Chinese art form. Interestingly for novices to Beijing Opera, it’s Mei’s talent for playing female characters that earned him such renown.
In Mei Yuan, Qing and Ming style pavilions house museum style displays, telling the story of Mei Lanfang’s life. In the courtyards around these structures, families feed fish and pose for pictures in front of statues of the famed opera artist. More than half a century after his death, this memorial park dedicated to his memory continues to draw young and old fans.
After spending the better part of the day enjoying cultivated gardens and museums, a meal in Taizhou’s “Old Street” was much deserved. Contrary to the name, the renovations to the area were fairly recent, but they were carried out with sensitivity to the Taizhou’s long history and the result is a lovely area to enjoy a good meal, a stroll, or evening dancing.
On April 27th, I greeted the sun with Taizhou’s version of “morning tea.” Unlike breakfast, when one is invited to “morning tea,” it always feels like a bit of an event. Delicacy after delicacy was paraded out in steamer baskets, bowls, cups and plates. Every city in China seems to have its morning specialties and in Taizhou, the crown jewel is a steamed bun filled with crab and pork, oozy golden juices even before the first bite is taken.
Stuffed to the brim, the penultimate stop on my quick tour was the Qinhu National Wetland Park. Qinhu Wetland Park is a nationally ranked 4A tourist attraction, and the first of its kind in Jiangsu Province. There are 153 species of wild plants and 97 species of wild animals that call the park home.
Before you make it to this natural haven, however, tourists must board a colorful boat for a quick trip past a dazzling parade of water floats. Dragon dancers, drummers and other performers shoot by on either side with great fanfare and noise.
After the excitement of the boat trip, the natural atmosphere of the wetlands is especially peaceful. Here, a museum welcomes visitors with a quick educational debriefing about the park and its inhabitants followed by a walk out to a fleet of bamboo boats. If you’re lucky, your boat driver will treat you to a traditional song as you cruise through the forest framed waterways. I never was lucky, but I did get to marvel at the singing wafting out of nearby rafts.
In some sections of the park, there are activities to entertain visitors, ranging from demonstrations of traditional agricultural production and tools – Ever pump water with your feet? It’s harder than it looks—horseback riding, and even a bit of shopping for natural, handmade products. However, it’s the stroll through the forest paths, listening to the twittering and rustling of birds and other animals that makes Qinhu Wetland Park such a treat.
Of course, there are also restaurants in the park, and I sat down at one of these for a final meal of Taizhou dishes before heading back into town to begin my journey home.
While there are many wonderful hotels in Taizhou, on my brief visit, I had the pleasure of staying at the Hotel Nikko Taizhou, a sleek, fashionable international hotel in Taizhou’s New High Tech Development Zone.