Travel to the Venice of China – Suzhou
Suzhou is famous for canals and waterways, stone bridges, pagodas and exquisite classical gardens. Over 42% of the city is covered in water and the Great Canal from Shanghai to Hangzhou bisects Suzhou so Suzhou has the well deserved reputation as the Venice of China. Suzhou has a history dating back 2500 years and is also famous for its ancient temples and pagodas. In recognition of their beauty and classical nature, the gardens of Suzhou were listed as UNESCO world heritage sites in 1997.
Suzhou is a major city the south east of Jiangsu province and only100 kilometers west of Shanghai. Suzhou’s strategic location in the Yangtze River delta and proximity to key cities such as Shanghai and Hangzhou was instrumental in its cultural and economic development over the millennia and its well deserved status as a must see travel destination in China.
So what does this mean? It means that Suzhou is a great place to travel to and you should not deny yourself the pleasure of several days there!
The history of Suzhou began in 514BC when it was established during the last years of Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) and quickly rose to prominence. Much of this prominence was lost in 306BC during a warring kingdoms period when it was annexed the Chu Kingdom.
The completion of China’s famous Gran Canal in 609 by the Sui Dynasty (581-618) placed Suzhou on a major trade route which did wonders for Suzhou’s prosperity and it rise to prominence again.
In 1130 when China was wracked by internal warfare, the Jin Dynasty army from Manchuria swept down through northern and central China raping and pillaging and the inhabitants of number of cities such as Suzhou were massacred.
Not one to be outdone, the Genghis clan also captured Suzhou and many other cities when they defeated the Jin Dynasty around 1215. By the time the Mongols had reached Suzhou, Khan Ogodei had apparently sated his blood lust and the city was not put to sword like so many others before it.
Later in 1367 Suzhou came out on the wrong side of turf struggle and was under siege for 10 months when King Wu of the Red Turban Rebellion made the unfortunate choice of going against the Yuan Dynasty
Suzhou’s run of bad luck continued when the Taiping Rebellion soldiers captured it in 1860 and again when the Japanese invaded in 1937.
With the unification of China at the end of the civil war in 1950, the 1950’s where good years for Suzhou and extensive restorations were completed in its famous gardens
Humble Administrator Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan)
This garden is the largest of Suzhou’s gardens and has an area of around of about 52, 000 square meters. It is also one of China’s four most classical gardens. The other three gardens are Summer Palace, the Mountain Resort of Chengde and Lingering Garden which is also in Suzhou.
The Humble Administrator Garden was first built in 1509 as the private garden of an ex public servant who wanted to live a humble life there. Considering that the garden is said to coast a boat load of silver and taken 16 years to make, there is very little humble about it.
The grounds of the garden are divided into the eastern, central and western sections with each section having its own style and character. The focus point of the garden is the pond which makes up 60% of the actual garden and is the cause of the gardens charm and serene nature.
Lingering Garden (Liu Garden)
With a size of 23,300 square meters, the Lingering Garden is much smaller than the Humble Administrator Garden and was originally also a private garden. In feudal China when the gardens were developed, only the Emperor or noble (rich) families owned gardens so all of Suzhou’s four famous gardens and basically every other garden in China was private.
Lingering Garden is characterized by the exquisite beauty of its halls and buildings. The garden is divided into northern, southern, western & eastern sections with each section having it’s own building style. Interestingly the northern part used to be a vegetable garden and is now used to exhibit pot plants.
The central section of Lingering Garden defines the character of the entire garden and is the original part of the garden that dates back over 400 years. The other three sections were added later during the Qing Dynasty. A 700 meter long corridor winds through the park connection the four different sections.
Master of Nets Garden (Wangshi Yuan)
Created in 1140, the Master of Nets Garden is the smallest of Suzhou’s gardens and the most beautiful, well proportioned and charming. The garden achieves this effect by an incredible balance in the use of water, plants, rocks and buildings. The brilliant use of space in this garden creates an illusion that the garden looks much larger than it actually is.
The garden is made up of three sections, the residential section, main garden section and inner garden section. The focus point of the large garden is a big pond that takes up a major part of the garden. The pond contains a pagoda that is only accessible by a bridge that is less than a foot wide at the narrowest point.
All of Suzhou’s gardens project an atmosphere of harmony and tranquillity and this is especially so with the Master of Nets Garden. Even though it is small, you will want at least 2 to 4 hours to slowly savour and fully appreciate it.
Lion Grove Garden (Shizilin)
Unlike the other three gardens, the Lion Grove Garden was built by a Buddhist monk in 1342, was originally part of a Buddhist monastery and has an area of roughly 1000 square meters. This park is famous for its pitted and eroded Taihu rock formations. These rock formations or rockeries are laid out like a maze and the Lion Grove Park is often referred to as a labyrinth.
The Taihu rocks used in the creation of this garden are from the nearby Lake Tai
and are made of sandstone that erodes over time. Originally the stone formations were built to resemble lions but many lost their shape from continuous erosion over the years.
Located in north west Suzhou, Tiger hill is a 36 meter in height and contains historical sites that date back 2,500 years to the founding of Suzhou. Tiger Hill is pretty small as far as hills go but it is a local spot of great beauty and rich in history. A famous Song Dynasty poet said something along the lines that if you visit Suzhou and do not visit Tiger hill it is a life long pity. Poets tend to dramatise and exaggerate but if you do go to Suzhou, take no chances and see Tiger Hill.
This gate is one of Suzhou’s famous historical landmarks and is located on the south west corner canal circling Suzhou. Built in 514 BC, Pan Gate was one of the eight gates of the ancient city wall that protected Suzhou during the warring states period. The gate has been rebuilt twice, once during the Yuan Dynasty and again in 1986.
Apart from the mechanics of the land and water gates in Pan Gate, there is very little else to be said about this site. Most travel companies take their clients here so it is worth having a look at.
Water towns is a term given to towns that were built on the canal system for easy irrigation and transportation. These towns have not changed much in the last few hundred years so visiting them can give you a good idea of how China’s cities looked in the past. The houses in these towns are not normally more than three stories in height, stone bridges are common and streets are divided by canals. Taking a boat ride in a water town or eating at a water town restaurant that opens to the water is a delight.
Zhouzhuang is the most popular of the water towns near Suzhou and is a must see for anyone with a day to spare in Suzhou. Zhouzhuang is both divided by and surrounded by lakes and rivers and has 14 classic stone bridges crossing its rivers. Buses regularly leave Suzhou for Zhuozhuang and the trip is an hour at the most.
Other famous water towns that are a great to visit are Tongli and Mudu. Both of these towns are extremely old, have water and garden landscapes and are extremely enjoyable.
The one absolutely must do activity in Suzhou is to take a boat ride through the cities canals. There are touts selling boat rides all over the city with boat companies regularly opening and closing so ask your hotel to recommend a nearby boat ride company to you or just choose one as you are visiting the various sites.
Suzhou does have a tiny airport with extremely limited flights. The last time I looked, it was just operating flights between Beijing and Foshan in Guangdong province. This is not a problem though because high speed train services run between Suzhou and Shanghai that only takes 25 t o30 minutes so trains are the cheapest, fastest and way to travel to Suzhou.
If you are flying in from out side China and Suzhou is your first travel spot, you can fly into Shanghai and catch an express train the same day to Suzhou or have a night in Shanghai and train to Suzhou the next day.