Lake Tai (太湖, Tài Hú, literally "Grand Lake") is a large and scenic lake in China, on the border of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. The lake area gets many visitors from the nearby major cities — Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing — as well from as the ones around the lake. It provides the main somewhat rural getaway for East China.
This is flat Yangtze Delta country; there are no mountains anywhere near the lake, though there are some hills, and the lake's average depth is only 2 meters, about 7 feet. Lake Tai is the third largest freshwater lake in China at 2,250 km² (about 870 mi²). It contains about 90 islands of sizes anywhere from tiny to several square km.
The main cities located near the lake are:
- Suzhou on the east (population in the 2010 census 10.6 million)
- Wujiang, administratively a district of Suzhou
- Wuxi on the northeast (6.4 million)
- Huzhou on the southwest (2.9 million)
- Yixing on the west (1.25 million)
All these cities have existed for centuries and all have some historical importance and some interesting older buildings. Suzhou in particular is an important city in history and one of China's top destinations for domestic tourism.
The lake produces fish and crabs and the surrounding countryside is flat and fertile. The region has been inhabited since prehistoric times, always fairly densely by the standards of the era. It has been a major producer of silk and tea for centuries, and has recently become quite highly developed in terms of modern industry; in particular, Suzhou and Wuxi are major centers of China's booming hi-tech sector.
In the third millennium BCE the lake area was the center of the Liangzhu Culture, a Neolithic (late Stone Age) group now known mainly by the high-quality jade artifacts they left behind. In some ways they were quite advanced for the time period, with extensive irrigation and some cities.
The Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) conquered the lake region and the cultures of the Yangtze and Yellow River basins became integrated, forming the core of modern Chinese civilisation. Late in the Zhou period a distinctive Wu culture developed, centered in the area around the lake. In the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 CE) the Wu Kingdom was one of the three, both independent and important; its capital was Suzhou. The language of the area is still called Wu.
Today the whole lake region, especially around Suzhou and Wuxi, has well-developed tourist facilities. There are good roads, many parks, some beaches, hotels from large luxury resorts to fairly small and mundane, and restaurants over a similar range.
Industrialisation has created some quite severe pollution in the lake. The government claim to have cleaned up most of it and to be hard at work on the rest. Critics say very little has actually been done.
The Wu language, originating in this area, is still widely spoken. Today it is often called "Shanghai dialect" or "Shanghainese", but a Suzhou accent remains the most prestigious.
Any of the cities around the lake are well-connected by highway to all the main cities of East China; all are easily reached by bus.
Suzhou and Wuxi are also on the main Shanghai-Nanjing rail line, easily reached by fast convenient bullet trains. Suzhou also has a stop on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line. On the other side of the lake, Yixing and Huzhou are on the Nanjing-Hangzhou bullet train line. For most travellers, one or another of these trains will be the most convenient way to reach the lake region.
Wuxi has a minor airport with mainly domestic flights and a few to nearby Asian countries, but the other cities around the lake have no airports. Nearby cities, however, have airports which offer many flights. Shanghai's Pudong Airport is a major international hub while Hangzhou, Nanjing and the other Shanghai airport, Hongqiao, all have excellent connections within China and some beyond.
There are good roads all around the lake, multi-lane divided highways in some areas and plain two-lane blacktop in others. The main cities are all also on high-speed rail lines; see the previous section.
Two parks in Wuxi, Xuhui Park (錫惠公園) and Huishan National Forest Park (惠山国家森林公园), offer good views of the lake and various other attractions. They are adjacent to each other and connected by cable car. For details, see the Wuxi article.
- Yuantouzhu. This is a park on a peninsula north of Wuxi, popular with (mainly Chinese) tourists all year but especially in the Spring when it has a fine display of cherry blossoms.
- Sanshan Dao (take a boat from Yuantouzhu Park). These are three islands (san shan dao means "three hills islands") in the lake near Wuxi. They were once a hideout for bandits but are now a national park. Attractions include temples and Buddha statues; one statue is 88 m (289 feet) tall.
Wuxi also has a ferris wheel called Star of Lake Tai, 115 m (almost 400 feet) high with a view over the lake.
The region around the lake produces much of China's best silk. Hangzhou and Suzhou are both famous for silk, mainly finished products including some amazing embroidery work. Nanjing also has fine silk embroidery. Huzhou is the center of a major silk-growing area that provides much of the Hangzhou silk industry's raw material.
There is also much pottery produced in the area. In particular, Yixing produces much fine stoneware with teapots a traditional specialty.
The Anji area near Huzhou has enormous bamboo groves (600 square km, about 235 square miles), a museum devoted to the plant, and various bamboo handicraft items.
As in other tourist areas, you often need to bargain to get reasonable prices.
The lake produces fish and crabs, and both are common in local cuisine.
The region produces a number of fine teas, mainly green teas. Along with China's most famous green tea, dragon well tea from nearby Hangzhou, these are exported all over the world and are especially popular in Japan.
The region has no particular hazards, but as anywhere else in China (or indeed most of Asia), bottled water is safer than tap water and travellers should exercise routine caution with regard to pickpockets and tourist scams.
The lake gets a lot of migratory birds so there is some risk of bird flu. The disease spreads by contact with dead birds or the wastes of live ones; avoid those and you should be quite safe.