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.

Pingjiang Road

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.

Lunch

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.

Dinner

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.

Shopping

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.

Saying Goodbye

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.

Posted by:twobrownfeet

Writer-Photographer Duo. Now in Seoul.

29 replies on “Falling in Love with Suzhou’s Dreamy Canals

  1. The traditional Chinese architecture is so very beautiful, isn’t it? I love it, though I imagine you might get ‘pavilion fatigue’ at the end of the day πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ The canal and the gardens are places I’d much rather be than in high rise cities. Happy travels in 2020!

    1. It is stunning! I truly love Chinese architecture and I’m a big fan of pavilions. πŸ™‚ You would love walking along the canals. Wishing you a happy 2020 and many more Monday walks. xoxo

  2. Brings back memories of my trip to Suzhou in the 90’s. I haven’t been back since and would love to since I didn’t get to spend enough time in Suzhou back then. I remembered breezing through some of the gardens and after a while they all seemed the same to meπŸ˜‚

    1. I know what you mean. Garden fatigue can be a real thing. πŸ™‚ Fortunately, we just visited two of them and they were quite different. We loved the maze in Lion’s Grove.

  3. Suzhou looks like a lovely and tranquil place to explore. Chinese architecture and gardens are beautiful to look at and if I ever end up going to China, I would very much love to visit Suzhou. Thanks for sharing and have a lovely festive season 😊 Aiva

    1. Hi Aiva! It was tranquil in December 2018. I’m not so sure about the peak months because Suzhou is quite popular with the local population. πŸ™‚ It’s definitely worth a visit. Wishing you a wonderful new year filled with many more travels to exciting places.
      Cheryl

  4. I see no similarity between Venice and Suzhou. If the only reason someone has compared this with Venice is because of canals, there are many better comparisons. Anyways, this is the first time I have heard of Suzhou. I guess the city has undergone many changes but it is interesting to know its history dates back to 2500 years!

    1. Agree. The only similarity that these two cities share is canals πŸ™‚ Suzhou is Suzhou and Venice is Venice. From history to architecture, they are totally different from each other.

  5. Thanks for taking us to yet another beautiful and interesting place near Shanghai. Shanghai is a place I’ve wanted to visit but I didn’t realize there were so many places to see in the area. The canals at night look especially beautiful.

    1. Avoid Shanghai in winter when the air pollution gets bad. We visited Hangzhou and Suzhou in winter. The tourists were definitely lesser, but I can’t be sure about the pollution levels or the cold. 😦

    1. In 2018, I accompanied Basil on quite a few of his international work trips. This was a last minute decision and it was worth it. Wishing you a happy 2020 and a year filled with travel!

  6. β€œPeaceful” emanates from almost every image in this post. I have never heard of Suzhou but its tranquility is calling to me. The absence of tourist hordes makes it seem to be the opposite of Venice. Thank you for introducing me to this place. I’ve added to my β€˜when I visit China’ list.

    1. We’ve realised that travelling in December is cheaper and great to beat hordes of tourists. I’m not sure how crowded Suzhou will get in the peak tourist months. We were happy with the few hours that we got and it was bliss! Here’s to 2020! Wishing you and the captain a year of wonderful travels around the globe. xoxo

    1. It is a peaceful city especially in December. πŸ™‚ Although, with climate change it’s hard to predict the cold winds and temperatures. Wishing you a happy 2020, Jolandi! May it be filled with happiness and many more exciting places to explore!

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