<A>Suzhou - Sharing the Beauty with Family

Written by Jun 2, 2006 01:06
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A visit from afar

One of the great joys of living in a faraway place like China is having an opportunity to share exciting travel experiences with those you love. Visits by friends and family open new doors of adventure as together you experience the beauty of ancient sights, the distinct cultural differences of an ancient land, and the culinary delights of an ancient cuisine that has become the pride of its people.

Choosing to celebrate the May Labor Day holiday in China, my mother braved a long, exhausting flight across the ocean and arrived to join me in the international gateway city of Shanghai. Shanghai is a well-developed and important commercial base being one of the first cities in China to fully embrace a free-market economy after Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms. To facilitate growth and commerce a system of convenient airport transportation has been built including a high-speed 'Maglev' train that whisks passengers from the city center to Pudong International Airport in just ten minutes. Travelers on a tighter budget with more time to spare can utilize a variety of comfortable shuttle buses which provide frequent service to a number of points within the city. Though Shanghai itself is very interesting with its blend of old and new, Western and Oriental, ultra-modern skyscrapers and countless green parks, our real destination was a short train journey westward to the ancient, picturesque city of Suzhou.

Exploring the beauty of Suzhou

Founded by King Helu of Wu in 514 BC, Suzhou remains one of China's oldest cities. Through the digging of canals and planting of private gardens in ancient times the city came to be firmly established as 'Venice of the East', growing into a lively commercial and cultural center. With its advantageous location on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and a pleasantly mild climate, Suzhou has benefited from many centuries of contact with traders and tourists. For centuries shiploads of silk, grain and imperial riches traversed up and down the Grand Canal with Suzhou serving as an important hub for commerce. The city is surrounded by a wide moat with numerous smaller canals crisscrossing the area providing beautiful views of old bridges spanning the waterways. Within the city boundaries one is also fascinated by many exquisite examples of ancient calligraphy, well-preserved ancient architecture, beautiful carvings, traditional paintings and excellent examples of Chinese horticulture where gardens are filled with rocky spires and quaint arched bridge-ways. With all of this to offer, it is no surprise that Suzhou is home to many of China's greatest poets, writers and artists.

Entering the city from the train station in the north, one of the first sights greeting us was the imposing yellow and reddish-trimmed North Temple Pagoda. Standing 76 meters high it is one of the tallest pagodas south of the Yangtze River and makes a good platform for viewing the rest of the city. Continuing on to our hostel in the southern part of the city we decided to begin our tour of Suzhou's gardens by visiting the smallest residential garden known as the Garden of the Master of Nets. Despite its relatively small 1.5 acre size, the garden actually gives an illusion of largeness through well-planned reflections and distinct views from each different angle. Originally designed during the Song dynasty the garden is a place of serenity with its colorful lilacs set among white stone boulders. In the center a pond reflects the peaked architecture of a small pavilion that can be reached by crossing a narrow bridge. The overall sense as one leisurely walks through the garden is one of peaceful balance and harmony with nature.

In contrast to the small garden, the Humble Administrator's Garden in the northern part of the city is one of Suzhou's crown attractions and the largest of the private gardens. Hailed as one of the four most famous classical gardens across all of China, this garden's poetic charm is clearly evident in the miniature scenes and natural three dimensional paintings skillfully created by the master landscaper. Water covers three-fifths of the garden as graceful willow trees, lotus plants and water lilies add splotches of color to the abundant reflections. At each turn of a corner there are huge jade stones that stand like stately statues carved with care by a divine hand. One section of the garden contains a display of hundreds of bonsai trees of all shapes and sizes set among multi-colored azalea bushes in full bloom for the May holiday. Though the main paths can become congested with sightseers and picture takers, a quick step into the more isolated corners gives one a breath of tranquility and time to reflect on the pure beauty of the scenery.

Rising early in the morning to beat the holiday crowds, my mother and I feasted on fresh omelets fried with a crispy wafer in the middle where half the fun is watching the ladies cook breakfast right on the street corner. Suzhou is an easy city to navigate on foot and a morning stroll through the side lanes gives insight into the daily life of the people as farmers ride around on their loaded bicycles selling fresh vegetables, ladies sweep the streets with home-made twig brooms, and workers deftly clean out the canals poling along on their bamboo boats. In a number of parks, morning exercisers practice the ancient art of tai chi, while others play badminton, fly colorful kites, or spin large wooden tops. The older men like to gather together amid wooden bird cages hanging from tree branches discussing the issues of life as their pet birds joyfully usher in a new day with song.

Exploring the shady streets on foot one is continually surprised to find lovely old buildings still standing among brand new structures and to discover beautiful craggy rocks placed along the street medians with potted petunias, pansies, marigolds, and begonias adding color to complete the picture-perfect scene. As a thriving center for the silk trade, no visitor should omit a look inside the Suzhou Silk Museum. Here you can trace the history of the silk trade in China with well-translated English captions throughout the museum. There are numerous models illustrating the development of silk weaving and the different varieties of looms that were built to make the intricate designs in the tapestries. One room contains a live display of silk worms busily munching on mulberry leaves. Of course after taking in all this information about the historical development of silk in China, beautiful silk textiles are readily available for purchase but better bargains may be found by bartering in smaller shops. As the heat of the day settles in, more and more people succumb to the convenience of a ride in the three-wheeled pedicabs that circle the main tourist avenues. With little bells tingling at each bump to advertise their presence, the pedicabs are outfitted with colorful mounted parasols to shade customers and provide a more relaxing journey. For those who prefer to travel by bus a number of distinctive and elegant bus stops have been designed along the roadways which reflect Suzhou's traditional architecture.

The Water Town of Zhouzhuang near Suzhou

Branching out beyond the city limits my mother and I had our sights set on a visit to Tongli which the guide book described as a beautiful water town. However, after searching unsuccessfully for the correct bus to take us there and with only limited Chinese, we were eventually directed to another bus with assurances that this destination would be to our liking. Paying the fare to the CITS guide we took our seats not knowing exactly where the ride would take us, but ready for an adventure in any case. After more than an hour's ride watching blooming red roses and expansive areas of purple clover-like ground cover out the bus window, we ended up in the famous ancient village of Zhouzhuang about 25 kilometers southeast of Suzhou. This beautiful and much touristed village contains many well-presevered ancient houses which were built during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Everywhere you look little bridges arch over the calm waterways and gondolas ferry passengers along the canals. With fourteen stone bridges, elegant views across the canal network and strong local traditions the village is a favorite spot for Chinese tourist groups, but well worth a visit despite the crowds. One of the most famous places in the town is the Twin Bridges in the northeast which are laid out to look like an old-style Chinese key. Inside some of the buildings that are open for viewing one can study beautiful examples of mahogany funiture, jade carving, silk tapestries and a huge painting of many historical scenes from Zhouzhuang.

One thing we found particularly interesting during our visit was the expansive new development that is being undertaken around the ancient town. On the northeastern outskirts of the village large tracts of land have been converted into very nice single family housing units built in a style to complement the look of the old town. Next to the main parking area a huge new shopping mall complex has been established that also mirrors the style of the old town. Incorporating bridges, arches, canals, peaked roofs and white walls the well-planned architecture fits right in with the other historical landmarks and can provide a good shopping experience for those who wish to buy some souvenirs.

All too soon, however, the holiday came to an end with the need to return home and get back to work. Though we only explored a small area right around Suzhou, the rich diversity and natural spendor of the gardens left a deep impression on our minds. Sharing these memories and experiences from traveling in China will be a lasting joy for both of us for many years to come

 More Suzhou Travel Reviews
1. <A> Badabings DONOVANKIERAN Jun 15, 2005 14:06
2. Suzhou PRVNK from IN Feb 22, 2005 14:02
3. My experience on the Emperors Channel ELCABRON Feb 16, 2005 23:02
Comments (2)


Jul 17, 2006 00:18 Reply


Oh well, some cities never get all the credit they deserve.


Jun 2, 2006 03:39 Reply


Good write. But thought Venice was the Suzhou of the West - not the other way round ?!

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