Garden City

Called the ‘Venice of the East,’ Suzhou is more than just the Grand Canal

By: Jennifer Huang

SUZHOU, China Trundling through Suzhou’s tree-lined bike paths clients might encounter a whimsical symbol of the merging of China’s old and new economies: the Ronald McDonald pedicab. The familiar three-wheeled contraptions driver in front, small, canopied carriage behind have all but disappeared in many of China’s bigger cities. But Suzhou, despite a population of 5.7 million, has preserved much of its old-world ambiance. Sure, the hamburger-hawking clown has arrived, but he has to conform to Suzhou’s low-tech, ancient style.

Unlike booming Shanghai, a mere one hour to the west, Suzhou (pronounced “Sue-Joe”) has consciously tried to preserve its historical architecture as it develops. Its lingering traditional flavor, with waterways, gardens and ancient arts, makes the city an ideal destination for travelers in search of a picturesque town with modern amenities.

Some 2,500 years old, Suzhou is often referred to as the “Venice of the East.” Small canals crisscross its neighborhoods, and a larger moat encloses the city center. The nearby Grand Canal, the world’s longest manmade waterway, connects the city with neighboring Wuxi and Hangzhou.

Suzhou is most famous for its gardens, many dating back a thousand years.

“They’re masterpieces of the genre,” said Christina Liadis, sales and operations manager for China Travel Service. “They’ve been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.”

While visiting all of the gardens could take weeks, a few should not be missed. The Garden of the Master of Nets (Wangshi Yuan) is the smallest garden, but connoisseurs consider it the best. To create a relaxing atmosphere in the limited space required the greatest of design skill. Well proportioned structures and visual effects give the illusion of distance, and all of the elements water, stone, buildings and plants are balanced in scenic harmony.

Central to the garden is a koi pond surrounded by tiled roof pavilions, small bridges and carefully cultivated vegetation. Adjacent buildings, with elaborately carved window lattices, offer a picture-perfect vista in every direction. As in all gardens in Suzhou, the Garden of the Master of Nets features curious rock formations from nearby Lake Tai, eroded by the water into intricate natural sculptures.

In the evenings, the garden’s pavilions become stages. Visitors move through the garden to see various traditional Chinese performing arts, including the local Kun style of opera, and enjoy the full moon from the Moon-watching Pavilion.

Another idyllic retreat is Tiger Hill, the symbol of Suzhou. Built in the 10th century as a burial ground for He Lu, the city’s founding father, the park is a sprawling 49 acres. Pathways and bridges meander through its grottos and terraces, all surrounded by a wide canal. According to myth, a white tiger came to protect the grave of He Lu, so locals dubbed it Tiger Hill.

While there are no longer any tigers in residence, the hill is guarded by Cloud Rock Pagoda, a seven-story brick structure that leans 6.5 feet off balance. The tower is about 158 feet high, and has stood in its precarious state since the 10th century. Tourists can no longer enter the pagoda, as it continues to tilt a few centimeters each year.

From the vantage point of the pagoda, one can frequently hear echoes of drums and flutes below. To attract visitors, the park stages performances of traditional music, dance and acrobats. Visitors might see boys playing bamboo wind instruments, stilt walkers dancing in colorful silk costumes and fan dancers executing precise footwork.

Other notable gardens include the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the largest, and the Garden for Lingering In, with inlaid walkways and a 21-foot-high stone from Lake Taihu.

Suzhou is also famous for its silk and embroidery, and most tours include a look at the silk-making industry.

The Suzhou Silk Museum gives a historical overview of silk manufacturing, with exhibits of old tools, rich brocades from the early 1900s and live silk worms busily chewing leaves. There’s even a large cylindrical stone resembling a millstone once used as roller to soften fabric.

To see silk in production, clients may prefer to visit a silk-making factory. The factories provide live demonstrations of the process, from unwrapping the cocoon to weaving the fabric.

The Silk Embroidery Institute is another popular stop.

Embroidery in Suzhou has evolved to a high art, “almost like paintings, [the details] are so minute,” said Liadis.

According to Liadis, some of the artists will actually split a single thread into several fibers, to create shadows and other effects. Another technique involves embroidering different designs on the opposite sides of one piece of silk, so that no knots are visible from either side.

Of course, all of these spots have a showroom, where visitors can buy silk products. Besides clothing, pajamas and scarves, there is also a wide selection of pillowcases, handkerchiefs and quilts. Prices are usually marked dramatically high, so remind clients to bargain hard in such places. Street vendors offer a less expensive alternative but often try to pass polyester off as “pure silk,” so proceed with caution.