The Venice of the East

Serene Suzhou continues to inspire poets, artists and travelers

By: Gary Bowerman

As the train pulls into Suzhou station, two things become apparent. First, the swathe of day-trippers disembarking proves I am at the right stop: Suzhou (pronounced SOO-Jo) is just 45 minutes from Shanghai and one of China’s favorite tourism spots. Glancing out the window, tour groups, families, couples and backpackers are streaming toward the exit. Second, a merciless summer sun is beating down on the city. It is hot. Scalding hot.

The long taxi line outside the station is a procession of umbrellas the preferred Chinese method of sunblock. Foreign tourists scrambling for sunscreen are soon approached by enterprising salesmen wielding a colorful array of parasols. I can’t imagine it raining today, but for a $1.50, I smile and say: “When in Rome.”

Yet rather than Rome, Suzhou is often compared to another Italian city: Venice. This famously moated and, until the Communists tore it down, walled city is crisscrossed by a network of canals and humpbacked bridges. Thirteenth-century Venetian adventurer Marco Polo was so enamored by Suzhou’s architecture, landscaping and mercantilist trading that the epithet “Venice of the East” was created. Not surprisingly, the city’s tourism board decided to keep it.

Though many of the smaller canals have since been built over, Suzhou remains one of China’s foremost inland ports, and barges and boats regularly forage its waterways. Although these provide great photo opportunities, Suzhou has much more to offer. It is the regional center for pearls, which gleam and sparkle in storefronts throughout the city. Trips are also possible to nearby pearl farms and the Wei Tang pearl market.

For several centuries, silk has also been a staple industry. This rich history is recaptured by the intriguing (and, thankfully, air-conditioned) Suzhou Silk Museum (on Renmin Lu, opposite the North Temple Pagoda). Along with a store selling everything from silk dresses to cushion covers, the museum features silk garments from as far back as the 12th century and a wriggling display of live (working) silk worms.

But, like the majority of tourists in town, my reason for coming to Suzhou was simple: to visit its classical Chinese gardens. Dating from between the 11th and 19th centuries, China’s Garden City used to boast more than 200 gardens, though this number has dropped to about 25 over the course of time and city planning.

Each garden is an exquisitely and harmoniously landscaped masterpiece, blending open green space with lakes, rockeries, pavilions, trees, forests and blossoms. Even during the busy summer months, Suzhou’s gardens are tranquil retreats for enjoyment and reflection and have inspired generations of artists, writers, poets, philosophers and photographers. The winter gloom apparently adds a stunning natural mysticism.

Like most visitors, I started at the Humble Administrator’s Garden, whose name is derived from an ancient poem that describes a humble man’s work tending a garden. Suzhou’s largest garden is set around a winding central lake stuffed with giant goldfish, which symbolize money and wealth. A profusion of green overhanging trees shelter visitors from the sun, providing a perfectly gentle light for snapping photos of the flowering lotuses on the placid water. The ambience of calm here is so great that simply sitting on a low bench staring into space is a common and strangely hypnotic pastime.

Relaxed and mentally refreshed, I made for Suzhou’s most intimate garden which is also one of the most difficult to find, located behind a narrow market lane at the east end of Shiquan Lu. Despite the heat, the walk was enjoyable taking me along Suzhou’s most architecturally arresting street, whose shops are renovated, whitewashed houses with wooden balconies and slate roofs.

The Master of Nets garden was once owned by a retired court official who longed to be a fisherman and is a scaled-down version of its larger city siblings. Its pavilions house some of China’s finest antique furniture. At night, the lantern lighting gives the whole garden a chocolate-box sumptuousness.

As the power of the late afternoon sun began to recede, I headed south to the Pan Gate, the only remaining part of the original third-century city wall. Covered in well-trimmed foliage, it is a handsome and imposing sight, strikingly redolent of the military necessity for building such a protective fortress.

I climbed the nearly 1,000-foot stretch of wall and surveyed the mixture of history and modernity that the view affords. In front of me, the 1,000-year-old Ruigang Pagoda rose majestically from another garden, while to the far west and east well beyond the slate roofs of the old city a jungle of cranes continues the construction of “new Suzhou’s” skyscrapers.

Back on terra firma, I caught a bus to the railway station. The vehicle itself was brand new and moved smoothly into the traffic flow. The journey wound slowly along the main street, Renmin Lu, which (like most Chinese cities) has ceded to the dubious consumer charms of shopping malls and fast-food chains. Thankfully, the cultural symbolism and historic significance of Suzhou’s magnificent walled gardens are keeping this treasure chest of nature safe from the long march to modernity.


Opened in 1998, the Sheraton Suzhou Hotel & Towers has 407 rooms, including 30 suites. Designed as a tribute to Suzhou’s architectural history, it features pagodas, landscaped gardens and water features. The best rooms offer views of the 1,000-year-old Ruigang Pagoda. Double rooms start at $200.

Sheraton Suzhou Hotel & Towers
259 Xinshi Lu