Suzhou is situated on Lake Tai in the Lower Yangtze Basin, just 66 km (41 mi) from Shanghai. It has long been one of China’s richest cities.
The Grand Canal, which starts in Beijing and is 1,700 km long, greatly influenced its development. The construction of the Canal started in 5th century BC, so it can be considered ‘ancient history’.
The Grand Canal runs through the centre of town and there is a network of smaller canals and passageways. It is a wonderful example of a waterside town with whitewashed and black-tiled-roof houses and small bridges.
Parts of Suzhou are 2,500-years old and surprisingly well preserved. The Yunyan Pagoda and Temple Tower, for example, was built in 961. It is seven stories high and is often referred to as the “Leaning Tower of China”.
The Auspicious Light Pagoda was built in 1004 AD. It is 53m high and you can climb up a good ways and view the Panmen Scenic Area Park that surrounds it. Although the park is well cared for, it pales in comparison to the ancient gardens for which the city is so famous.
I went to Suzhou to see the gardens, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These gardens are considered to be masterpieces of Chinese landscape garden design, integrating nature and art and creating an illusion of the universe in a small space. Of particular note are The Humble Administrator’s Garden, The Garden of the Master of Nets, and The Lingering Garden.
Not all of Suzhou is ancient. In fact one very impressive structure (near The Humble Administrator’s Garden) is the Suzhou Museum that was completed in 2006 by the famous Chinese-American architect I.M.Pei. While the museum houses many artifacts, what is most impressive is its architecture — a mix of modern and traditional with the classical footbridge, moon-gate entrances, rockery, and lotus pool. The scene changes at every stop, another important classical design feature.
The museum’s design concept was “Chinese style with innovation, Suzhou style with creativity”. The mantra was “not too high, not too large and not too abrupt”. Light is important.
The train ride from Shanghai to Suzhou is very easy and pleasant. I stayed in the centre of town by the pedestrian-only Guanquin Street. Many of the streets have lanes for bicycles/buses/cars only. The city is organized in a grid pattern and a map in English, readily available, helps a visitor get around. After my stay I arranged with my hotel for a driver to take me to the Shanghai airport.
If I were to do it again I would hire a guide to take me around. There is much to see and getting about by bus can be challenging, taxis are reluctant to pick foreigners up, and you’ll end up walking zillions of miles.
With a guide I could more easily have seen other water towns. I have long wanted to visit the memorial hall of the massacre in Nanjing where in 1937 the Japanese army invaded, locked the gates and for six weeks raped and murdered the occupants. Such excursions can be difficult to do on your own if your stamina is wearing a bit thin.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013