Venice Of The East

After spending ten years in China, Venetian traveler Marco Polo returned again. In The Travels of Marco Polo (II Milione) he is quoted, “In heaven, paradise; on earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou.”

Not so long ago I spent a few days in Suzhou, on an organized trip with a host of other media attendees. After a comfortable 2.5-hour flight arranged through Ctrip, I arrived at Shanghai Hongqiao Airport late before taking a taxi to a nearby hotel. The next morning our group headed to Suzhou, a major city situated in southeastern Jiangsu province of East China, just 100 km northwest of Shanghai. This famous city is well known for its trade and commerce, as well as holding the title for the second largest city in the province, following its capital, Nanjing.

On the way to Suzhou from Shanghai, we engaged in some interesting information about Suzhou’s history, before stopping at Tongli Ancient Town, just one of the renowned water towns in Suzhou. Built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Tongli is very well preserved. Spending a morning here means admiring the pristine gardens and elegant architecture accompanied by tranquility and passing butterflies. We immersed ourselves in the daily lifestyle of the inhabitants, as they washed their clothes outside their homes and drove past us on their bikes via the narrow paving. It was almost nostalgic exploring ancient bridges that made vital links between the different parts of the town, like being a child again following a strong sense of curiosity. This really was a beautiful setting. After a remarkable vegetarian lunch, we enjoyed a gondola cruise through the town from the Three Bridges, an experience not to be missed. Gondolas cost just 90 RMB for a cruise that lasts around half an hour, with up to six seats. The town is open all day long but the scenic spots are open 7:30 am to 5:30 pm and there is a 100 RMB entry fee.

Later on, I was introduced to Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), boasting modern hotels, restaurants and shops. The largest inland city lake in China is also located here, known as Jinji Lake. Did you know that the largest Ferris wheel in Asia sits here too? Not to mention a water curtain that doubles up as a movie screen—oh the marvels of modern technology!

Meeting a devoted jade-carving master inside his British teashop was memorable, listening to his anecdotes of wit and humor. While learning about his passion for jade and how he brought it to Suzhou, I tucked into delicious tea and scones with jam, and this was the real deal! The taste of home. The ideal group activity, we all asked questions and participated with the game of guessing which jade items were fake and which were genuine.

Over the course of the trip, I stayed at Suzhou Pan Pacific Hotel, which portrayed a castle-like facade around the entrance. Welcoming and contemporary, this hotel featured an indoor and outdoor pool, gym, spa and an excellent buffet breakfast. I would recommend it. However, if you’re looking for something a bit less expensive, perhaps have a browse online or if you have a friend in Shanghai, perhaps you could stay there. By high-speed train, from Suzhou to Shanghai Hongqiao, it takes just 32 minutes with ticket fares ranging between 23 RMB and 64.5 RMB.

The next day involved going to The Humble Administrator’s Garden (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), one of the most famous gardens in this diverse city, and once you go, you will see why. It’s the largest garden in Suzhou and many consider it to be the finest in all of southern China. A bold statement, right? But really, it is so refreshing how picturesque this park is. A perfect marriage between culture and beauty, the garden was built in 1509 and displays a myriad of pavilions and bridges, pools and islands. In the northwest corner of Suzhou, sits Tiger Hill, known as “The hill emerging from the sea,” at 34 meters above sea level. With an eye-catching pagoda that looks a little unsteady, this place offers vast history and attractive elements such as gardens, Buddhist temple, flowers and an assorted Bonsai garden. A beautiful Chinese art makes up Bonsai, as miniature trees are grown in containers and maintained very well with cultivation methods to resemble the style of larger, mature trees. English-speaking tour guides are available, meaning you can listen and learn while you stroll around and appreciate the exquisiteness.

Later that evening, we experienced Pingjiang Road. At around 1.6 km in length, the ancient canal-side street is bustling with quaint gift shops, book stores and local theaters. Speaking of theaters, watching the Kun Opera—one of the oldest surviving forms of Chinese opera—was certainly a spectacle. One that was also in a very small space, considering. But this made it more authentic, more intimate. After watching the performers apply makeup and warm up their voices, to hearing high-pitched notes and skillful strumming, I left with great memories and group photos with the lovely ladies.

I will definitely return to Suzhou. It’s a city thriving with culture and beauty, historical and modern, and one that leaves you with a feeling of having been somewhere really unique. Marco Polo was right about it being heaven on earth.