For our inaugural blog post, we decided to highlight our most recent trip to the city of Suzhou, an ancient city located in the suburbs of Shanghai (if such thing as a 4 million person suburb exists!) The city, filled with narrow canals and lush gardens, offered us a glimpse into China’s rich past, which is something that’s hard to come by in the ultra modern and always changing Shanghai.
Our journey started as always with an early morning trip to the railway station. To punctuate the enormity of the city we’ve come to call home, our commute to the train station was twice as long as our ride from Shanghai to Suzhou! When we arrived, we traded a train seat for a subway seat and began our search for Mingtown Youth Hostel, which took a little trial and error to find (and holding the map right side up!). Luckily for us though, it sat on one of the most famous streets in the city: Pingjiang Lu, a cobbled lane that stretched along one the city’s many canals. After dropping our things off and taking a quick nap, we were on our way exploring the city.
Upon leaving the hostel it didn’t take long for us to discover the charms of Suzhou while we walked down Pingjiang Lu, taking in the beautiful scenery it created on the way to our first stop: the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which was humble in name only as one could spend hours exploring its sprawling grounds filled with flawless landscaping. The garden, much like many of the temples we have visited during our time here, offered us a rare shot at tranquility and an escape from the daily grind of the city. Upon entering the grounds, we were met with several different routes for exploration. The first path we chose, a secluded stone walkway snaking into a bamboo forest, led us directly to…a bathroom. To its credit, it was in a beautiful old building, but our second route was chosen more wisely.
Shortly after starting down this path, we found ourselves in a quintessential Chinese scene: a pagoda rising up from the horizon in the distance, traditional gazebos dotting the hills of the grounds, and a pond criss-crossed with stone bridges, all surrounded by a nature-filled landscape dominated by weeping willows swaying in the breeze. We were brought back to reality by a sign that warned us of the looming danger of civilization, which, if you’ve lived in China before, you know is a fair warning! To fully enjoy the scene we perched ourselves on some pond-side stones, where we ate our lunch and watched as the falling autumn leaves collected in the water.
Our lunch was followed by a slow wander through the rest of the garden, making detours off the beaten path for different points of interest, among them a bonsai tree garden where each tree was its own optical illusion. To look at them was to expect a scale of enormity, but in reality they only climbed a mere two feet. Aiding in the illusion were small rocks made to look like mountains, a theme that carried on throughout the grounds even after the bonsai trees ended. After nearly two hours in the garden, our meandering eventually led us back to where we started, so we decided to move on to our next site—the Lion’s Forest Garden.
Although both shared the title of garden, the two were completely different. The latter was more compact and featured an area filled with large rocks; despite the numerous signs against it, we and many other tourists used the rocks as a personal playground to pose for pictures as the opportunities were too good to pass up. After getting our fill of pictures, we descended into the jagged hallway created by the rocks and emerged to find ourselves alongside a small pond. One great feature of the Chinese gardens we’ve seen so far is that they don’t follow any rules or pattern in terms of layout or architecture. We were hard pressed to find a window that was square, a door that was rectangular or a wall that stretched straight into the distance. This garden was no exception, as each turn offered something new and unexpected.
Though the beauty of the park didn’t wear off as we continued to explore, our energy level did and we decided to take advantage of the waning light with a boat ride down the canal near our hostel. The dim light of the twilight hours ended up creating the perfect atmosphere for the ride and a feeling of complete detachment from the world moving around us. About halfway into the boat ride, our “captain” began loudly singing Chinese folk songs. Though we couldn’t understand anything about the songs and the singing was more of a screeching cat than a serenading Sinatra, it added to the charm of the experience. After 40 minutes, we were steered ashore and embarked on our hunt for dinner.
The restaurant we settled on sat alongside the canal with a beautiful view of the waterway which slowly began to fill with ripples from the oncoming rain as we watched it from within, which created a warm atmosphere for our dinner of dumplings and vegetables. As we stepped out into the night, the rain became less enchanting and more of a nuisance as we had to scurry back to our hostel without an umbrella. After getting back and suffering through an ice cold shower, we layered ourselves into bed and waited for the next day to begin.
Our first stop on our second day in Suzhou was to Tiger Hill. Before going, we were hesitant to go to any place that featured ‘hill” in it’s name, fearing any sort of incline as our last trip took us up the side of an entire mountain at Huashan. A city bus dropped us off at the foot of the hill and we were welcomed with the sight of a 1,000-year-old pagoda that made the site a popular tourist attraction. As we approached the hill, our path was lined by trees whose leaves were seemingly stuck between their transition from summer green to autumnal yellow, giving them an almost lime green shade. The leaves framed the pagoda, which foreshadowed our entire experience in the park: a seamless coexistence between nature and man-made structures making it hard to imagine one being there without the other. One element that added to this mystique was the damp air and wet ground that had been a result of a recent rain shower that had passed just before we arrived.
As we worked our way further into the park, we came upon a large, open area with a lily pad-strewn pond in its center surrounded by moss-covered rocks towering above. Among the many things to look at was a bridge that had perched itself on two of these rocks, creating a beautiful scene to accompany our hike to the top of the hill, which was surprisingly shorter than we had anticipated. Before we knew it, we were were gazing up at the pagoda, which we were pleased to find out was an original, not having been destroyed and reconstructed like countless other temples and pagodas throughout the country. It’s originality came at a cost though, as the wear and tear of time caused the tower to lean (like in Pisa), displacing it’s top by 2.5 meters from its base. A feature of it that became very obvious as we stood at the foot of the tower, staring slantedly up at it.
After giving the tower its due contemplation, we slowly made our way back down the hill, soaking up the scenery once more as we descended. Once back in the city, we sought out a place for lunch. The search for the perfect place became drug out and, although we wanted something new, we settled for the restaurant where we had had dinner the night before. We were saved from the disappointment of repetition by a rather large and leggy centipede that scuttled out of our menu’s binding as we opened it. We left the restaurant as fast as our swift-footed friend had, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we found a great dumpling restaurant a little further down the the road whose menu thankfully featured a larger assortment of dumplings than insects.
After filling up on various varieties of jiao zi, we made our way through the rain to the Suzhou Museum. Sadly, our trip there was short-lived due to a combination of lethargy and a lack of exposure throughout our life to Chinese culture and history. While living in Spain, it was easier to digest the mountains of information packed into each museum and put everything we saw into a context having been brought up learning about Western history and culture. In China though, without that exposure, we’ve found the appreciation of it all to be much more difficult to come by. However short-lived our visit was, we still enjoyed the museum and all it had to offer outside of the traditional concept of a history museum such as it’s large, outdoor koi pond.
Our remaining time in Suzhou was spent napping on a table in our hostel’s common room waiting to leave for the train station. Walking along the canal for the last time on our way there, we knew we were going to miss the charms of the city. Living in Shanghai makes it difficult to experience the concept of traditional China. In Suzhou however, with its white-washed building walls accompanying tree-lined canals, rain-slicked cobblestone streets, and old buildings seemingly forgotten by time, the city made this concept infinitely more attainable.