Suzhou in Brief
There are many reasons to visit the suburban water town of Suzhou. It’s where In 1272, Marco Polo stopped by and added it to his top 5 list of the most beautiful cities in China. This merchant city still holds its place as one of China’s trade and manufacturing centers. This began back before Marco Polo hit its streets. Suzhou hasn’t changed much. It is a bustling merchant city that produces some of the finest silk cloth and is also become China’s largest producers of high-tech products. The factory stacks of the nearby industrial parks push out laptops, pharmaceuticals, and mobile phone parts daily in areas which was built on some of the most fertile farm lands of the Yangtze delta. At least there’s still some places being well taken care of that allow visitors to see what others like Marco Polo have witnessed through the centuries.
I decided that Suzhou was a perfect place to get a break from the busy city of Shanghai since its only a short ride on the High speed rail and is on the UNESCO list. It is a popular tourist destination so going on the train at off-peak times and during the week seemed to be the best thing to do. The city has countless things to see but I chose to make a realistic itinerary and decided on quality over quantity. The three attractions that seemed perfect to see well in a day were the Suzhou Museum, the Humble Administrator’s Garden and Ping Jiang Street area.
Old Suzhou and what is left
The Suzhou Museum is the modern addition to the cities landscape. This modern structure combines the styles of traditional Suzhou with stylistic elements characteristic of Award-winning Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. He was born in Guangzhou and spent summers in Suzhou as a child. He accepted the invitation to design this museum since this enabled him to give back to a city where he had spent some of his youth.
The Suzhou Museum interior has a distinct flow. The elements such as the triangular rock mountain peaks in the traditional garden and the large Chinese window in the Wisteria Tea Room both show his intentions of connecting the ancient and the modern Suzhou and China for that matter. His signature use of light and glass is at it’s best here. The museum alone is a work of art and amazing to see in person.15,000 items are on display almost take second stage to the building itself. The objects inside include ancient paintings, calligraphy filled scrolls, colorful snuff bottles, ceramics and other Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty relics unearthed in China.
Hours: 9am-5pm (no admission after 4pm)
The Humble Administrator’s Garden
Next to the Suzhou Museum lies the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It’s difficult to choose which one of the dozens of pleasant rock and water filled gardens in the area but this one is the largest and is close to Ping Jiang Street.
This large garden is also a World Heritage site. It’s known to the locals as Zhuōzhèng Yuán. The viewing of this garden is best later in the afternoon when the sun sets over the western water gardens and the picturesque octagonal Beisi Pagoda can be viewed clearly through the trees. The tour groups are now on the bus and have hit the road which gives photographers a better chance of getting non-obstructed shots in the warm evening light.
Admission: 50 RMB (Off season) and 70 RMB (Peak season)
Hours: 7am – 5:30pm (put aside a couple of hours to view. Best at dusk)
These two destinations plus a walk or boat ride along the pedestrian street Ping Jiang Lu can fill an entire day.
The Ping Jiang Road District
Ping Jiang District, with its restored white walls and monocle bridges that crisis-cross the canals, gives visitors an idea of what Marco Polo was referring to in his memoirs.
It was just as I imagined it to be. It’s a place where people come to get professional engagement pictures taken. Many couples can be seen wearing traditional and not so traditional costumes and posing for the camera on near by bridges and scenic walkways.
For visitors, the numerous alleyways and streets are perfect for getting lost in and escaping the masses for a bit. Come here to wonder the alleyways and view the Venice of the East from inside a gondola boat if there is time. This is also a lovely spot to grab over-priced drink, people watch and be observed by the locals and their pets. I almost wish we missed our train and had to spend the night.