Suzhou - 苏州

by - February 26, 2014

Suzhou canal
Deciding upon having four days in Shanghai was a deliberate overestimate of how long we thought we needed, allowing us to explore at a leisurely pace whilst also heading out into the surrounding area.  The possibility of using the super-fast Chinese bullet train opened up a range of potential day trip locations, including Nanjing, Hangzhou and Suzhou.  We decided upon the latter of these as it was the closest of the three - and therefore the least likely to be visited on a future trip to China.  Suzhou is one the (many - there is even a wikipedia page listing them all) locations known as the ‘Venice of the East’ - a comparison formed around its canal-based transport system, rather than its hoards of tourists and overpriced pizza.  Romanized as 'Soochow’, the city is one of the most important on the Chinese Eastern seaboard with a history stretching back over 2,500 years - making it more dominant than Shanghai for all but the most recent times.  It is about 100km inland from Shanghai - a journey that takes a remarkable 25 minutes (costing £8 for a return ticket).

The Humble Administrator’s Garden
The city itself is an important economic hub and is one of the wealthiest in the whole country.  Expecting to arrive at a provincial-feeling train station, we found ourselves in a brand new, vast structure that was not too dissimilar in scale and appearance to London Stansted airport.  It was at this stage that the massive development of China really hit home as the whole journey had taken place on an infrastructure system far in advance of anything I had experienced back home, or in Europe come to that.  The station sits opposite the northern gate to the old town and we were therefore able to walk to the main area of tourist sights, centered around the best preserved of the old canals.  The city has achieved UNESCO World Heritage status for its preserved canals and gardens and is apparently swamped with tourists in peak season.  Luckily, walking around on a Monday in off peak season was a very laid back experience.  Our first sight was supposedly the most impressive of the gardens of Suzhou, the “Humble Administrator’s Garden”.  Gardens in Asia are very different to their European counterparts.  What they lack in colours and varieties of plants, they make up with placement of trees, water, rocks and structures and result in a general feel that is far less contrived than the regimented paths, fountains and beds of the English country garden.

A side canal
Master of Nets Garden
After aimlessly wandering around the gardens we grabbed some lunch at a pleasant canal-side street stall.  The food was not too dissimilar to the dim sum that we are used to from Hong Kong - a mixture of dumplings and fish dishes that was cheap and genuine seeming.  While the old town contained a range of gardens and temples we felt that its main charm was in the intricate network of canals themselves and we therefore spent the rest of the afternoon ducking in and out of pleasant galleries and shops before coming to the other famous garden - the “Masters of the Nets Garden”.  This wasn’t too dissimilar to the first one but was still worth a visit.  By now we had almost done a total cross-section of the old town, from the north canal to the south canal.  The sky had been grey for most of the day which (perhaps in my overly-optimistic opinion) seemed to be the best way to explore the tranquil gardens and canals.  Unfortunately towards the tail end of the day it started to rain and, having originally planned to stay for dinner, we decided to grab a taxi back to the station and head back to Shanghai.  Anybody with a spare day in Shanghai would definitely enjoy a visit to Suzhou - a place more for quiet wandering and exploring than for rapid sightseeing, particularly if you manage to beat the crowds.
The southern canal

You May Also Like