For hiking, you go to the Great Wall. For adventure, you travel the Silk Road. For cuisine, you eat in Guangdong. For culture, gardens and canals, you go travel to Suzhou.
Now I am not talking your typical back yard type garden, your local neighbourhood garden or even your home city’s best showcase garden. I’m talking about classic gardens hundreds of years old that have been the inspiring China’s greatest poets and scholars for centuries. I’m talking about the classic gardens of Suzhou.
I have to be honest with you. I’m not the garden type and would rather take a trip to the dentist than pull weeds and plant flowers. Suzhou’s gardens though were amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting them and exploring Suzhou.
To help make this post a little more readable, I’ve included links below to indepth destinaton guides of the four classic gardens, Tiger Hill and Zhouzhuang water town.
Clueless Foreigners and Suzou Taxis
The first step was to get to Suzhou which was easy. A three hour train ride from Hangzhou to Suzhou that arrived in Suzhou at around 9pm. With hostel directions carefully memorized, I charged ahead of the crowd, disdained the taxi rank and headed for the street to catch a taxi. Everyone knows that you waste time queuing at taxi ranks. Well apparently not in Suzhou.
20 minutes and a lot of walking later I finally managed to flag down a taxi. The driver told me the hostel was less than a 10 minute walk and gave me instructions to get there by foot. The luck of fools and an honest taxi driver.
New Friends & the Garden of Cultivation
While checking in at the hostel I met Xiao Qie from Liaoning Province who worked at the hostel. We had a chat about Suzhou’s gardens and he invited me to visit Tiger Hill (Suzhou’s top travel spot) the next morning with him and two of friends from Hebei Province . Cool. Great to meet people have some company.
The next morning Xiao Qie heard that Tiger Hill was closed for renovations so we visited the Garden of Cultivation, one of Suzhou’s less famous gardens.
Despite its lack of fame, the Garden of Cultivation was charming, attractive and very cheap at 10rmb.
After leaving the garden we had 3.5rmb noodles for lunch and wandered through the back streets of Suzhou’s old inner city.
That afternoon I said goodbye to Xiao Qie and his friends and visited Lingering Garden and it was amazing. The pond, grounds, trees, plants, rock formations, buildings, performances…… It was all truly awesome. The high light was a performer playing a zither (love that instrument) in a secluded area of the garden with no other tourist around.
Lion Grove Garden
The plan for the next day was sort out bus/train tickets, visit Lion Grove Garden and take the evening bus to Zhouzhuang, China’s most popular water town and right next to Suzhou. Zhouzhuang is very crowded during the day so the best way to see it is it arrive at night, sleep over and see it early in the morning.
Lion Grove Garden is not in the same league as Lingering Garden but still very enjoyable to visit and the rock grottoes/mazes are fascinating.
Clueless Foreigners and Bus Stations
My bus to Zhouzhuang was the last one for the night so I made sure I left Lion Grove Garden with heaps of time to walk to the bus station. I’m a travel pro so I knew exactly what I was doing. Along the way I asked a lady on the street to confirm the direction of the bus station. She pointed in the right direction BUT said it would take 30 minutes to walk there. 30 minutes??? Time to panic. I only 30 minutes at that stage to catch the last bus. All hostels are booked out on a Friday night and if I missed that bus, I’d end up sleeping on a park bench.
Could not see any taxis or bus stops so I started running. Back pack and camera bag bouncing wildly, I pounded the pavements madly racing towards the station. With sweat poring and gasping for breath, I arrived at the bus station with 10 minutes to spare. Slowing down to a more dignified walk and feeling very proud of my self, I casually sauntered up to the ticket counter with ticket in hand.
The ticket inspector inspected the ticket and politely told me I was at the wrong bus station. WRONG BUS STATION???? Nooooo!!!!!! My heart sank. I must have looked pretty pathetic because the inspector immediately asked if I would like to change my ticket for a bus leaving that bus station for Zhouzhuang in 15 minutes. YES YES YES, please change the ticket. So if you catch a bus from Suzhou to Zhouzhuang, don’t rely on a fool’s luck, go to the right bus station.
Welcome to Zhouzhuang, No.1 China Water Town
Zhouzhuang is incredibly charming and gorgeous to look at with centuries old buildings, narrow laneways filled with shops and restaurants, canals and bridges. If you enter Zhouzhuang in the evening, most of the tourists will have left and you can see the charm of Zhouzhuang walking the laneways along the canals at night.
Woke up early the next morning for an early start and set out armed with a map to see all of Zhouzhuang before the tourist hordes arrived. I Had 3 enjoyable hours that morning exploring the laneways in the centre of Zhouzhuang old town and the sites surrounding the old town. Qianfu Temple is incredible and my favourite site outside the old town.
There was one last thing to do before checking out of the hostel and catching a bus back to Suzhou. A boat trip down the canals. The boats seat 6 people and cost 100rmb per trip so best to go with other people. I ended up sharing the boat with a young professional from Guangdong and a family from Suzhou. They were excellent company and gliding down the canals was a great feeling.
The back lanes of Suzhou
I arrived back at the hostel in Suzhou too late to see any of the gardens. In a city 2,500 years old aptly called the Venice of China, there is always something to do so after a rest I walked along the canal and ended up getting enjoyably lost in the old city’s back lanes.
Last day in Suzhou
The last day in Suzhou was busy with two gardens and the famous Tiger Hill to see so hit the road at 7:50 with Tiger Hill being first up.
Tiger Hill is a great place to stroll around, it has lovely grounds, attractive buildings/structures and Tiger Hill Pagoda at the top looking like it is about to fall over is stunning. Ideally you should be at Tiger Hill for half a day to truly appreciate it. I could not be there for more than three hours and would like to have stayed there longer. To help make the most of my time there, I had breakfast in Sun Zu’s pavilion watching a group of elderly ladies practice sword play.
Next stop was Humble Administrator Garden. Humble Administrator Garden (HAG) is Suzhou’s largest garden and the grounds are extensive. Another one of Suzhou’s travel spots that takes half a day to see properly. Even walking quickly and taking photos on the run, I was there for over two hours. A picnic or even a basic packed lunch is the ideal way to enjoy HAG.
Last stop was Master of Nets Garden and by this time garden fatigue was beginning to set in. As fantastic as Suzhou’s classic gardens are, there is a limit to the number of gardens you can see in a short period of time with out garden fatigue setting in. Basically too much of a good thing in a too short period of time dulls your appreciation.
Master of Nets Garden is a very small garden with a nice feel to it. A much more tranquil and peaceful garden than the HAG. After circling the garden twice it was time for tea drinking. The tea house in Master of Nets Garden was land locked with no views of the pond so I negotiated with the manager to drink my tea at the pond and come back for refills. Very relaxing and soothing and a great way to over come garden fatigue.
A goodbye boat ride
After an action packed day it was time to say good bye Suzhou in style with a cruise on the canals. The boats are large enough to hold over 50 people and the best spot is on the back deck in the open.
Tips for Travel in Suzhou
Do not join a tour!!! These classic gardens are designed to encourage contemplation and serenity and to promote relaxation. Their beauty and charm cannot be fully appreciated if you can’t set your own pace. Walking through the gardens in a noisy mob with a tour guide lecturing you with a loud speaker who wants to push you through the garden as fast as they can and get you back on the bus would ruin the experience.
Suzhou is a very travel friendly city so independent travellers will have no problem seeing Suzhou or visiting any of the sites.
Take your time!!! Make sure you don’t cram visits to more than two sites into one day. Take food and drink with you and enjoy meals in these spectuclar environments. The key is to RELAX while enjoying the gardens.