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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
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