The town of
, the regional centre close by the northern shore of the lake, is not particularly attractive, but it's the most convenient place to base yourself for a visit to the main Tai Hu beauty spots. Wuxi was allegedly established more than 3500 years ago as the capital of the Wu Kingdom. It served as the Wu capital for over 600 years until the Han Dynasty, when the neighbouring tin mines were exhausted. At this point, the Wu capital shifted further west to Wuhan (Wuxi means "Without Tin"). It was the construction of the Grand Canal centuries later that brought importance to local trade and industry, as it did for so many other canal towns. The result here is something of a hotchpotch as far as tourists are concerned, with Wuxi surpassed as a lakeside city by Hangzhou, and as a canal town with traditional gardens by Suzhou. In an effort to siphon tourists away from its more famous neighbours, Wuxi boosters have constructed many "instant tourism" sights in the past few years, most notably a slew of theme parks and the
tallest Buddha in the world
, which smack of revenue-minded artificiality. Local Chinese come here in droves to sample the lakeside scenery and marvel at the statue, but foreign travellers will not miss too much if they pass them by.
The old city of Wuxi is roughly oval-shaped, and surrounded by a ring of canals. The main branch of the Grand Canal runs outside this ring (but well inside the modern city) about 1km to the southwest. Inside the canal ring, the ring road, Jiefang Lu, is cut from north to south by Zhongshan Lu, and from east to west by Renmin Lu. The junction of Renmin Lu and Zhongshan Lu forms the approximate centre of downtown Wuxi, a busy, throbbing area of shops and restaurants.
One place in town to pass a few hours amid trees and small paths is
(daily 7am-7pm; E4; bus #2 through town from the train station), west of the centre, north of Huihe Lu, and allegedly once visited by Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The path from the main entrance on Huihe Lu leads directly up to the Dragon Light Pagoda on top of
; more interesting, though, is the
(E25) whose long, slow trajectory links with another peak on neighbouring
. The cable-car ride is definitely worth the panoramic views over to Tai Hu on a clear day, though you'll need a good head for heights. On the way, you'll pass over a small lake surrounded by a group of tiled pavilions and paved stairways which look like the curving ribs of some mammoth skeleton. Here are the remains of the 1500-year-old
(Carefree Garden). Hui Shan itself is the source of a special black clay used for the ugly painted figurines sold all over Wuxi, and which have been made here since at least the Ming dynasty.
Although the historic Grand Canal runs through Wuxi's western suburbs, there are no places of interest along its banks. However, the area along the city's inner moat provides one or two sights for those with time to spare. Just south of the southern tip of the Jiefang Lu ring road, along Xiangyang Jie, is the tenth-century
, of the Nanchang Buddhist Temple; it's worth climbing up for the views. About 1km south of here, along Nanchang Lu, you'll come to
, the best-preserved ancient stone arch bridge in Wuxi.
A bit farther afield, on the Ma Shan peninsula 10km southwest of Wuxi by the shores of Tai Hu, reposes the giddyingly tall
(The Buddha at Ling Mountain). At 88 metres high, this bronze-plated standing giant is the tallest Buddha in the world, outreaching the Dafo (Big Buddha) in Leshan, Sichuan Province (the previous tallest in the world) by over seventeen metres. That said, it's hard to feel this Buddha was built for any reason other than to be put in the record books and to extract yuan from tourists, as the site lacks any significant religious or historical relevance. Lingshan Fo is accessible by public bus #14 directly from the train station (daily 8am-4.30pm; E35).