A Weekend in Suzhou

Jiangsu Province, China

July 4th/5th, 2015

Suzhou is the second largest city of the Jiangsu Province (after Nanjing). It is located in the Yangtze River Delta Region about 100km northwest of Shanghai.

Some background and history about Suzhou:
Suzhou is one of the great ancient cities of China, having been a major commercial and cultural centre throughout its 2500 year history. During long periods of its history it ranked among the 10 largest cities in the world. Suzhou was established as the capital of the Kingdom of Wu (11th to 5th century BC) in 514 BC. It changed hands several times during the following centuries, but remained an important regional capital during the Warring States period and the Qin Empire. The Grand Canal, which was completed during the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618 AD), provided a major commercial boost to Suzhou as the city was strategically located on the major trade route. The city was ransacked by the Jurchen Jin army in 1130 and again by the Mongols in 1275, but maintained its importance during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Over the last 20 years Suzhou has been growing even faster than the rest of the country and it is now among the highest developed and wealthiest cities in China. Today Suzhou's population is just over 4 million in the city itself and about 10 million including the urban areas surrounding the city. The city is also one of the top tourist destinations in China today, with the Classical Gardens of Suzhou being the main attraction. It is also sometimes referred as the Venice of the East, due to its canals.

My Trip Report:
I spent a couple of days in the office in Shanghai, and then took the train from Shanghai to Suzhou on a Friday evening. Despite having travelled fairly extensively in China this was going to be my first Chinese train experience. (Click here for my notes about my train experience and some tips about the Shanghai train station.)

Saturday, July 4th:
I stayed at the very nice Marriott hotel, which is in one of the highest buildings in the city located to the West and South of the main sights in Suzhou. I took a taxi from the hotel to my first stop the "Humble Administrators Garden", which is the largest and most famous of the Suzhou Gardens. Although an earlier garden was built here during the Southern Song period, the current layout was constructed during the Ming dynasty, and it is widely considered the finest example of a Ming style garden in all of China. It was built by Wang Xiancheng, a retired Imperial Envoy, and construction lasted 16 years from 1510 to 1526.

To say that this is a famous and popular tourist destination, would be an understatement. This place was absolutely packed with mostly Chinese tourists. There were probably several thousand people in this garden, so not much tranquility to be had. The garden itself is absolutely gorgeous with a maze of lakes, canals and islands, criss-crossed by covered walkways and bridges, numerous little pagodas and a few larger buildings, which all had very elegant furniture inside. But it was a bit challenging to try to capture the beauty of the garden in pictures given the number of people here.

In one corner of the Garden is the Bonsai Garden, which probably has a couple of hundred different bonsai trees displayed.

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou were added to the list of Unesco World Heritage sites in 1997. There are nine Gardens which are part of the Unesco Heritage designation. Classical Chinese gardens are meticulously designed and are meant to be miniature representations of natural landscapes (sort or Bonsai landscapes), which reflect the importance natural beauty has always had in Chinese culture. The Gardens in Suzhou are widely recognized as masterpieces of the Classical Chinese Gardens. They range in origin from the 11th to the 19th century. The four most famous among them, the Canglang Pavilion Garden, the Lion Grove Garden, the Humble Administrator's Garden and the Lingering Garden, respectively represent the garden styles of the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Unfortunately many of the gardens were severely damaged during the Japanese invasion in 1937, but have since been beautifully restored.

My next stop was the Shizi Lin (or Lion Grove Garden), which is a short walk from the Humble Administrators Garden. This was already significantly less crowded. Seems not all the Chinese tour buses come to his one. It is a much smaller garden, remarkable mostly for its rock sculptures designed like miniature mountain scenes. It was built in 1342 during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279 to 1368).

From here I walked to the Beisi Ta Pagoda (Song dynasty). Unfortunately it was closed. There was no English sign explaining why, but you could get a good view of the very impressive pagoda from the outside.

I continued walking south for half an hour, which took me through the main and very busy pedestrian shopping area in Suzhou. There was also a street full of food stands with an incredible range of foods available. My next stop were the Twin Pagodas of Shuang Ta, two very elegant and beautiful 1,000 year old pagodas (built in 982, early Song dynasty).

Just south from here is another famous garden, called Wangshi Yuan (or The Master of the Nets Garden). It is actually more of a residential compound than a garden, with a lot more buildings than the other gardens. Although there is a large and beautifully laid out lake to the back of the buildings.

From here I walked further south to the Canglang Ting (Blue Wave Pavilion Garden). This is the oldest of the Suzhou gardens with its origins during the Northern Song era (906 to 1127). This garden is a bit different than the others, with high trees making it quite shady and fewer water features. But also lots of rock sculpturing. 

The Suzhou Confucian Temple is just across the Street. It is a very tranquil place with a large statue of the Great Sage himself in the center of the courtyard. The large temple building at the end was boarded up and looked to be under renovation. Even though the temple, which was founded in 1035 AD, still occupies a large area, it is now only one sixth compared to its previous size, when it also housed a large temple school, which administered the imperial examination for future government officials. (If you want to learn more about Confucius and his enduring impact on every aspect of life China, I can recommend a very good recent book by Michael Schuman.)

My last stop for the day was the Pan Men Scenic Area, which is another 20 min walk from the Confucius Temple. This seemed to be the other main sight, where the Chinese tourist groups are bused to. The place was swarming with huge tour groups each of them led by a tour guide with a megaphone, which for some reason are always set to a volume so that deaf people could here it too. But the park is quite large so it didn't seem as crowded as the Humble Administrators Garden this morning.

It is a beautifully laid out park, with large lakes and canals, all swarming with thousands of little goldfish. Although the park and most of the buildings look quite modern, it contains some amazing historical features, in particular the ancient Pan Gate, which was originally built during the Warring States Period, which makes it 2500 years old.

The other main site is the Ruiguang Pagoda, right at the entrance to the park. It is the oldest pagoda in Suzhou, first built in 247 BC, constructed mainly using brick and wood. Although badly damaged and often restored over the course of the last 2000 years, the brick core of the building is still the original. 

Despite the warning I read on Wikitravel, that taxis are hard to come by on a weekend, I had no trouble finding a taxi near the Pan Men area that took me back to the hotel. (No taxi driver speaks any English here by the way, so make sure you always have a card from the hotel on you).

Sunday, July 5th
I checked out of the hotel in the morning, but I still had most of the day for more sightseeing before I had to get to the train station for my late afternoon train back to Shanghai. My first stop was Tiger Hill, which is a short taxi ride from the Marriott hotel. This is where King Helü of Wu, the founder of the city was buried in the 5th century BC. The hill has been a tourist destination for over a thousand years. On top of the hill is the Yunyan Pagoda, which was built in 961 and is famous for tilting very noticeably to one side. It is sometimes referred to as the "Leaning Tower of China". It is apparently a beautiful building, however it was completely covered in scaffolding at the moment.

I walked down from Tiger Hill, exited through the South Gate and walked along the Shantang Canal towards the famous Shantang Street. The canal was built in the 8th and 9th century to connect the city with Tiger Hill.

Shantang Street is a 3.2 km long ancient pedestrian street alongside the canal. The street has a history of more than 1,100 years. The street is flanked on each side by 2 to 3 story buildings, which all have shops or galleries on the ground floor. Most of the buildings on the canal side have boat access to the water. There are also several temples, memorial halls and guilds along the way. The architecture, style and atmosphere of Shantang Street (including the red lanterns) reminded me very much of the main street along the river in Hoi An, Vietnam (see my blog entry here).

In the 19th century they built a replica of Shantang Street inside the Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing. It is called Suzhou Street. and was built just for the amusement of the Empress Dowager Cixi, who apparently really liked Shantang Street.

From here I walked about 20 min to the last of the famous four gardens I still had to visit, the Lingering Garden. It is the youngest of the four and an example of early Qing (1644 to 1912) garden design. It is another exquisitely laid out miniature landscape of lakes, hills and walkways interspersed with a few elegant buildings and temples.

A short walk from the Lingering garden is the Xiyuan Temple, which is the main and largest Buddhist temple in Suzhou. It was built during the Yuan Dynasty (1279 to 1368).

Another 20 min walk took me back to the hotel. I took a taxi to the train station, for my 30 min train ride back to Shanghai to catch my late night flight back to Hong Kong. I had a really great time in Suzhou. It certainly deserves to be a major tourist destination, and I would recommend it to anyone, who visits Shanghai, to take a couple of extra days and take the train out to Suzhou.

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