Greetings from the future!
This dispatch comes to you from the ancient Chinese city of Suzhou, first built in 514 B.C.
An ancient Chinese proverb proclaims, “In heaven there is paradise, on earth there are Hangzhou and Suzhou.” I have not been to Hangzhou, but I can attest that Suzhou does indeed possess the makings of a heaven on earth.
Marco Polo was the first westerner to sing Suzhou’s praises. It’s no wonder the Venetian traveler found this Chinese city to his liking considering Suzhou, with its intricate canal system, is called the Venice of the East.
Venice is one of my favorite cities, so its eastern counterpart had a lot to live up to.
Suzhou did not disappoint. To the contrary, this Sino-paradise earned its way into a top slot on my list of favorite places.
The ancient canal system, still intact, serves as the foundation for Suzhou’s alluring charm. Throw in verdant city gardens pregnant with spring’s blossoms and you have enough to inspire millennia of poets, artists … and two humble tourists.
As described by a friend we met in Nanjing, “Nanjing is like a man; Suzhou is like a woman.” I didn’t quite know what she meant at the time, but after just one day in this eastern Eden, I get it. Permitting gender stereotypes, Suzhou shows a softer side of a nation increasingly identified as an industrial powerhouse. An underlying echo of romanticism pervaded as we leisurely admired the city’s finely manicured gardens, bonsai groves and canals.
There are plenty of sights to keep your itinerary full for 3-4 days in Suzhou. Here are some highlights from our stay:
Tiger Hill: A quick bus ride from our hostel, Tiger Hill is a hillside area replete with gardens, canal bridges, lazy waterways, women picking tea leaves, temples and historical sights that date back to the city’s founding. The most famous monument, the Tiger Hill Pagoda (Yunyan Pagoda), was built between the years 959-961 during the Northern Song Dynasty. Like Suzhou, the Tiger Hill pagoda too has an Italian twin, in this case, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The pagoda’s lean — about 3.5 degrees to the north — is very apparent, but unfortunately while we visited, the pagoda was under construction and scaffolding obstructed our entry and photos. Still, Chris and I spent the afternoon strolling around Tiger Hill’s beautiful and expansive grounds, fully taken with the beauty all around us.
Humble Administrator’s Garden: This was my favorite of the city gardens we visited. I dragged Chris around every nook and cranny of this place. I loved it. We didn’t leave until the garden closed and they kicked us out.
Suzhou Museum: Chris loved this place. He dragged me to every nook and cranny … and it was free! It offers a great collection of Chinese artifacts and artistry chronologically organized telling the story of Chinese history, and highlights the artistic and philosophical Chinese literati tradition, which apparently had a strong foothold here in Suzhou.
Pingjiang District: Specifically, Taijian Long Lane — an area of Suzhou that is still reminiscent of its ancient architecture and structure. Narrow passages packed with tourists and the occasional motorbike make for a busy scene along the canal, but respite awaits at the many mellow bars, cafes and restaurants lining the water. Chris and I sipped on a beer at a cafe along the canal and watched as boats slowly paddled by. It was lovely.
Guanqian Street: Goodbye ancient China, hello ultra commercialism! Gucci, Prada, Hermès, oh my! This place was bright lights, big city central. Chris and I ducked down a side street and were pleased to find the China we could afford. Street food and local restaurants full to the brim. We sized up the many foods on offer, and the first to move me to pull out my wallet was fried soft shell crab on a stick … or so I thought. Those three fried crabs impaled along a stick were, in fact, not soft after all. Just regular ol’ crabs. So … I guess we eat the shells? I made one hearty attempt at chomping into a claw and bowed out. Chris took down all three, spitting out only the big claw shells. He’s so hardcore.
Lao Shi Tou (Old Stone) Restaurant: This restaurant was right down the street from our hostel, and I suspect was owned by the mother or aunt of the guy running our hostel since he was very persuasive in his pitch. We dined there on our first night and loved it so much it became our go-to lunch spot. It was authentic, no other tourists in sight. Only downside, lots of men smoking cigarettes. Ah well.
Yaba Shengjian Restaurant: Famous in Suzhou and beyond, this place has a reputation for having the best sheng jian bao around (delicious fried pork dumplings). Our friend Brett recommended it to us (Thank you, Brett!). He said that we’d recognize the place by the line spilling out the restaurant’s door and around the corner. Sure enough, the line was long but it moved fast and the lady at the counter was helpful in picking out our order when we fumbled to know what to do.
Suzhou, like Nanjing, is located in the Jiangsu Province, which has its own style of cooking. Jiangsu cuisine or Su cuisine for short, makes up one of the eight culinary traditions of China. One thing I noticed while dining out in Nanjing is that the typical dishes seem to have a subtle sweetness. The presence of cloves and star anise could be detected but didn’t overwhelm. This subtly sweet flavor profile was true of sheng jian bao as well. This culinary masterpiece combines elements of a sesame seed bagel, savory doughnut and pork stew — did I mention there’s both meat and broth inside? It’s like bitesize soup in a bread bowl. So delicious!
Come take a stroll through Suzhou with Chris and me in this video (you may need to allow some time for the video to buffer):
And here are some more photos from our stay in Suzhou: