There has always been a level of elegance, grace and romance in Suzhou that few cities can rival, and its many gardens and canals lend Suzhou air unmatched sophistication.
For more than 2,500 years, old Suzhou’ s architecture and scenery has impressed visitors enchanting them with moonlit walks along the canals through the perfume of osmanthus flowers. Time and progress haven’ t erased that past. During the Tang dynasty, the Grand Canal linked Suzhou to the rest of the empire. The canal continues to feed an enormous network of smaller canals that penetrate every part of the city.
Water physically and culturally defines Suzhou. The seemingly infinite maze of canals gave rise to an efficient transportation network, a wealth of picturesque scenery and architecture typical of the eastern Chinese Jiangnan style. Nearby rivers and lakes yielded a bounty of fish and shellfish that still dominate the local cuisine. Aquatic images abound in the city’ s art, and if you travel the canals by boat, your guide may treat you to a rowing song that has remained unchanged for centuries.
A large part of Suzhou’ s prosperity and renown comes from its beautiful and ingenious arts and handicrafts, especially the most prized of Chinese treasures, silk Suzhou was an early center of silk production and remains so to this day. The city and surrounding countryside are still thick with the mulberry trees that feed the silkworms. The silk trade brought wealth, but Suzhou’ s real mark was made by its embroidery. Suzhou silk embroidery is a true marvel – on screen of sheer silk , artists using silk thread finer than a human hair create detailed images on both sides of the fabric, deftly hiding all the knots between the painstaking work being done in many local shops. The Suzhou silk Museum is also a good place to learn more about silk production and they have interesting displays detailing each step of the silk making process.
SUZHOU’ S LEGENDARY GARDENS
The abundance of water made possible the development of one of Suzhou’ s crowning glories. Its many magnificent gardens. Streams, waterfalls, pools and lakes provide the central design element in a style that came to be emulated across China. These gardens are not the arrays of closely ordered flowers and pruned shrubbery to which Westerners are accustomed; they’ re more like miniature parks than gardens in the Western sense. The garden of Suzhou, exquisitely built, were created to piece of nature, in miniature form, into the home. Most gardens were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and even then, space was scarce. The gardens are ingeniously designed to maximize the feeling of a large space in confined quarters. Winding pathways and strategically placed walls with portrait windows provide legendary landscape views.
Suzhou has long been famed as a home of distinguished scholars. After retiring from imperial service, they returned to their home cities and used their wealth to build gardens in which they could shut out the world and devote themselves to study and contemplation. These gardens were places to worship nature and paintings. Here the scholar – officials pursued their romances and dreamt their poems, passing the languid days, sipping delicate teas and fragrant wines while their companions played chess. This sublime atmosphere still pervades Suzhou, though at times it may be hard to find serenity when throngs of people are all searching for their own corner of inspiration.
The gardens of Suzhou have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as major repositories of cultural achievement. Perhaps the lord of them all is the Humble Administrator’ s Garden, the largest of Suzhou’ s gardens. If you can only see one garden while in Suzhou, this one is highly recommended. About 60% of its area is water and there is an extensive network of paths and bridges following streams that culminate in a magnificent scenic lake. There are many pavilions for resting and taking in the striking views and a lovely home that features the Mandarin Duck Hall. There is an excellent collection of bonsai trees at one end of the garden. The lingering Garden is quite large and lovely. It excels in architecture and stunning views. The Surging Waves Pavilion is smaller and less dramatic but boasts an abundance of fine stone and wood carvings. Similarly, The Master of Nets Garden is quite small and relatively simple, but may appeal to those limited in time or mobility. Its major benefits include its proximity to the major tourist area at Shiquan Jie and its evening musical, acrobatic and theatrical performances during the warmer months.
While not strictly a garden. Tiger hill is another famed spot for historic natural and man – made scenery. Legend holds that some of its structures date back to He Lu was renowned for the quality of the swords he commissioned; supposedly, he was buried with 3,000 of them. Later rulers, not wanting to pass up on some freebies, excavated his tomb in search of the swords. In addition to a garden. Tiger hill features a number of ancient tombs and historic sites. Its top is crowned by the ancient Yunyan Pagoda , which happens to be slightly off centered.
In Suzhou’ s southwest is Pan Gate , the only remaining city gate. The gate dates back to the 12th century and is built over Suzhou’ s former moat. Good photo opportunities abound from the top of the gate.
The Other Fun Places
Shiquan Jie and Guanqian Jie offers up a lot of handicrafts, arts and antique shopping opportunities. Many fine restaurants can also be found here. This street has become very popular with resident foreigners in Suzhou as well as many of the more upscale locals. It’ s a bustling and busy place. At night it becomes something of a lively district with its many popular dance clubs booming techno music into the street. Shiquan Jie has a lot to offer for many different tastes, but do be sure to step back into one of the small lanes that intersect it during the daytime and head toward the canal. If you pick the right spots you will find some very picturesque scenes of the old houses fronting the canal.
About 12.4 miles (20km)from Suzhou is the quiet village of Tongli. If Suzhou is too large for your tastes. Tongli is a great place to relax. A typical water village, Tongli’ s architecture is a mix of Ming and Qing styles. Set on the rich Yangtze River basin. Tongli is the realization of rustic villages criss-crossed with canals and bridges. This charming village features over 40 arched bridges and numerous temples and preserved homes.
Taihu , one of China’ s largest freshwater lakes, is a short hop away from Suzhou. The lake has blessed the area around Suzhou with fertile land and water-agriculture and aquaculture have been major industries for centuries. Surrounding the lake are 72 statuesque peaks; the best place to see them up close is at Xi Shan Scenic Area. During the early spring the hills are covered with plum blossoms that cover the ground with their light pedals. Over at Shigong is where the craggy Taihu rocks are gathered. These rocks are featured in every self-respecting Chinese garden and have been exported as far as the Forbidden City in Beijing.