In & Around Suzhou
Suzhou is a 30 minute train ride away from Shanghai and I can’t believe that we missed it on our earlier trip to China. Last December, we spent two days in Hangzhou before taking the train to Suzhou. Suzhou is about an hour and half away from Hangzhou. We took the local metro to get to the railway station that’s closest to Pingjiang Street. From there, it was quite a long walk to the maze of houses in the old street. It took us a while to find our hotel. It might have been easier had we taken a cab. Most cabs stop at the main entrance of Pingjiang Street. There’s also a tour bus as well as pedicabs — if you want to cover more ground in Suzhou.
Oriental Hotel Suzhou Pingjiang Road
Our quaint hotel was tucked in a quiet corner — next to the canals. It was worth the walk. Most hotels have an afternoon check-in and we had arrived too early. We left our bags at the reception and went in search of the tourist sights on our list.
A day is too short to spend in this dreamy city that’s soaked in natural beauty and ancient Chinese history. Suzhou is often dubbed as the ‘Venice of the East‘. I’ve never quite understood why a place needs to be compared to another. Suzhou’s own history dates back to nearly 2,500 years and many of its ancient gardens are testament to the mighty powers that ruled it.
Pingiang Street was practically deserted during the day and only a few tourist boats drifted along the green water. We tried searching for Humble Adminstrator’s Garden and succumbed to the call of hunger instead. There are many interesting restaurants to choose from and we selected the one with a view of the canal.
The menu had English names printed along with pictures of the dishes. We ordered stir fried mushrooms, spicy chicken, and three-flavour crispy rice. It was nice to sit for a while and enjoy a hearty meal before we explored the neighbourhood.
Humble Administrator’s Garden
Nine of Suzhou’s gardens are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We shortlisted two of them for their proximity to our location. Humble Administrator’s Garden tops the list of must-see sights in Suzhou. We got lucky after lunch and found the main entrance to this classical Chinese garden.
The gardens have a unique ability of masking tourist banter. The silence of the landscaped patches of green was often broken by quacking ducks.
The sprawling grounds of the garden are landscaped with arched bridges, tiled rooftop pavilions, and dense vegetation — most of which had miraculously survived the cold winter temperatures.
There are guided routes to follow within the garden and the tourist map is elaborately marked. We preferred to follow random trails and explored hidden nooks and quite spaces.
The Mountain-in-View Tower and The Hall of Distant Fragrance are both quite enchanting. We walked along narrow corridors — kissed by the afternoon light — occasionally getting a gentle whiff of old wood rising in the air. It’s fascinating how travel can take us back in time — without having to invent a time machine.
Going off the prescribed route has its perks. There were fewer people and it was possible to take in the beauty of the location without tourist banter. The maze of pavilions was confusing and navigating through narrow paths wasn’t always easy.
After we’d seen the main sights on the map and when pavilion fatigue began to set in, we decided to call it quits.
Way to Lion Forest Garden
We had the rest of the afternoon to explore another sight. It was hard to choose from the long list of gardens and temples that we’d eventually have to skip. We chose The Lion Forest Garden on a whim without expecting much. Moreover, a road directly connected Humble Administrator’s Garden, briefly meandering through a local market, to Lion Forest Garden.
The Lion Forest Garden
The Lion Forest Garden was built by the disciples of a renowned buddhist monk. The grove gets its name from the man-made rock maze that loosely resembles the outline of a lion. The main entryway wasn’t spectacular and the true beauty of the garden lies hidden inside.
Just when we thought we had made the wrong choice, we saw convoluted patterns of rock in front of us. I don’t know if it truly resembled a lion, but it definitely made an impression.
Small openings in the rock connected different sections of this strange formation. We could climb down stony stairways — that twisted and opened into: another set of stairs with panoramic views of the garden. It is a maze of rocks and if you’re prone to claustrophobia you may want to skip this. Normally, I don’t like closed spaces, but this was so much fun. We got lost and there were times when we didn’t know how to get out of this maze.
The rock structures are cleverly designed. Depending upon the trail you exit from, you could find yourself under a pavilion or on top of a vantage point.
Lion Forest Garden isn’t as big as Humble Administrator’s Garden, but it doesn’t fail to impress. And those rock structures explain why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Daylight was quickly fading and we had to get back to the hotel, complete our check-in, and rest for a bit.
Local Markets & Street Food
The inner road that connects the gardens to Pingjiang Street is lined with a variety of eateries and tea shops. Although, we weren’t very hungry, we couldn’t resist buying some local desserts.
Chinese teas are perfect for cold winter nights. We bought different blends after sampling the teas.
Canals at Night
The canals of Pingjiang Street light up after dark. We walked along the cobbled paths that ran parallel to the empty canals. This time, we explored the other side of the street.
There’s so much to see, buy, and eat. By late evening, the narrow cobbled lanes of the street were filled with tourists. The cold wave refused to wane and we needed to take a break from the walking. We found a cosy restaurant that was tucked in a quiet corner. We ordered a hot fish soup for my cold, stir fried noodles, steamed bread, and spring rolls. The warmth of the restaurant and food was perfect to beat the cold.
Nougat shops seemed to be quite popular here. Silk and ceramic shops also lined the street. Most shops close early in winter and only cafes or restaurants were open.
Surrounded by Light
We continued walking along the canals till we could. But, it was getting colder and we had to take the early train to Shanghai on the next day.
We stepped into a souvenir cafe and couldn’t resist having a hot cup of tea. Suzhou was a wonderful surprise. Sadly, it got over before we could truly explore it.