24 hours in Suzhou

North Temple Pagoda.
North Temple Pagoda.

This past weekend I took the high-speed train down to Suzhou with a friend. She’d never been and wanted to get one last trip in before she leaves China at the end of the month, and I hadn’t been back since the family vacation tour of 2002. At that time I was a rebellious American teenager shying away from the Chinese part of me, and so what I remember of Suzhou was the canals and relative tranquility of a quaint Chinese town compared to the bustle and modernity of Beijing and Shanghai. Now Suzhou is in the throes of development, which of course means more people and construction everywhere, but it still retains its charm (for now).

Suzhou is located on the southern bank of the Yangtze River, just an hour upstream from Shanghai. From Beijing, it’s five hours south on the high-speed train. The old part of the city was built on a system of canals, and thus it is often compared to Venice. It is also the home of many (many) classical Chinese gardens, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and really, if you want to see a Chinese garden at its best, go to any of them in Suzhou. Unfortunately, they all close at 5 p.m., so because it took us so long to settle into our hotel, we only managed to visit two of them on our first day, the North Temple Pagoda (北寺塔, Beisi Ta) and the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园, Zhuo Zheng Yuan). The Humble Administrator’s Garden is one of the four most famous gardens in all of China, as well as the largest in Suzhou, but I’ve never heard of it. It’s also an AAAAA-rated (the highest) tourist spot. This means that the admission price is more expensive and there will be lots of people, including tour groups that crowd around and block everything. I know this is just a fact of China, but it’s especially unfortunate because the gardens are supposed to be quiet, restful places for meditation and harmony with nature.

Fortunately, there are still many parts of Suzhou where the crowds are smaller, or even non-existent. We rented bikes from our hotel and rode through many quiet residential streets and narrow cobblestone paths along the canal banks. It was a great way to see parts of the city that may otherwise be missed. As all the gardens had closed, we just make a loop around the perimeter of the old city, including the park along the southern canal. We then stopped for dinner at Guanqian Street (观前街), a pedestrian street filled with restaurants and shops in the center of the city. It’s also crowded and not necessarily the best place for food, so the only reason to go is for its historical value.

A Suzhou street.
A Suzhou street.

A better place to go at night is the famous Shantang Street (七里山塘), a maze of old-style houses lining the canals just outside the old Chang Gate on the west side of town. It’s also a major tourist attraction, but it’s still a lovely place, with a lot of cute cafes and bars, especially at night when shops are all lit up. It’s what I wish Houhai in Beijing could be. We parked our bikes and proceeded to get lost in the maze of homes behind the shops and bars. In the midst of the dead ends and narrow alley ways, I saw a man taking a shower in a dark corner and dozens of shoes stacked up outside a window.

Shantang Street at night.
Shantang Street at night.

The next day, we took the bikes out again to the West Garden Temple (西园寺, Xiyuan Si), Lingering Garden (留园, Liu Yuan) and the Garden of the Master of Nets (网师园, Wang Shi Yuan). The West Garden Temple was recommended by the taxi driver who took us to our hotel who said it encompassed Suzhou’s Buddhist culture. There is a Buddhist temple inside, as well as a lake and garden. Though it is large, it’s nothing grand; its value is that it is less touristy and more “local” — I saw several local people praying and making offerings. On the other hand, the Lingering Garden is another AAAAA tourist attraction. It was part of the tour I went on, but 11 years ago, as I remember it, it wasn’t so crowded. Development!

West Garden Temple and Lingering Garden.

West Garden Temple and Lingering Garden.
West Garden Temple and Lingering Garden.

We made one final stop at the Garden of the Master of Nets, which my friend’s friends wanted to see. It is a much smaller garden than the Lingering Garden and Humble Administrator’s Garden, and perhaps because the entrance is somewhat tucked away in a maze of houses, there were fewer people. We could actually enjoy the garden, the shade it offered, and its beauty. The pond around which the garden is built also seemed cleaner and the water clearer. The best part was learning that two artist-brothers used to live in the garden, one of whom kept a pet tiger there that he used as a painting subject.

Garden of the Master of Nets.
Garden of the Master of Nets.

After soaking in the garden’s serenity, it was time to head back to the hotel. We stopped for a much-needed drink in a cafe on Shantang Street, our last bit of Suzhou before going back to Beijing. Little did we know, we had another adventure waiting for us. We thought an hour was ample time to catch a taxi to take us to the railway station. But alas, when we asked the hotel staff to help us get a taxi, we were told that taxis were very hard to get, so they don’t even try to get one for their guests anymore. I then asked about alternative ways to get to the train station and was told that there aren’t any. Because the hotel staff was evidently unconcerned about our predicament, we went outside to wait for a taxi. Not even five minutes later, this fat Chinese guy pulls over on his electric scooter and asks us where we’re going. In Beijing, it’s not unusual for black cabs or rickshaw drivers to do this, but a random guy on a scooter? This was brand new. I dismissed him as I usually do to random people offering me rides, but also as usual, the guy persisted. I slowly began to respond to his questions and assertion that taxis are practically impossible to get where we were: How can you take two people with luggage on that scooter all the way to the railway station? If we can’t get a taxi here, where would it be easier to get one?

After about five minutes of back and forth, my friend and I decided to hop on for a ride to the main railway station, from where we could take a cab to the north railway station. But riding a scooter with two other people and luggage actually wasn’t so uncomfortable, and hitching a ride with a stranger didn’t seem so risky on a scooter. So at the point where we had to turn for the north railway station, when the driver asked us if we wanted him to take us straight there, we changed our minds. After making sure he wanted money and not, say, sex or our other possessions, I even managed to negotiate a cheaper price than what we would have paid for a taxi (OK, so it was cheaper by 6 kuai, but every little bit counts!). It was a half-hour journey to the very edge of town, and I was sitting in the back on the metal rack, where every bump in the road (and yes, there were plenty) was acutely felt. But we just made our train with some time to spare, even after our driver went a bit paranoid at the end of the journey. He was supposed to stop in front of the station to let us off, but there was a car following us, apparently. I didn’t see what he was talking about, but it seems he dodged a potential fine for hauling us to the train station. For a few minutes, though, I did wonder whether he was going to try something sinister.

More pictures to be posted in the photo section.

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