Suzhou is located in Eastern Jiangsu Province. The best way to reach it is from Shanghai, only 30 minutes away by fast, modern rail transport. From Shanghai there are even frequent buses that connect it with Suzhou as well as a subway line. From Beijing you can reach Suzhou in around five hours on an express train.
History and Significance
Suzhou’s history reaches back more than 2500 years. It was at one time one of the main centers of trade in China, and one of its richest cities. Suzhou is located in a basin formed by one of China’s biggest rivers, the Yangtze, and thanks to its geographic location it was always prosperous and successful. Crisscrossed with canals, Suzhou was perfectly situated to connect with the Grand Canal that was built to connect Northern and Southern China and was a logical focal point for trade. Suzhou exported various commodities - objects made of wood or porcelain, fans, paintings, musical instruments, tea, and fruits from southern China that were in transit through Suzhou such as lichi, pineapple, and mango. Suzhou also had cultural significance as it was one of the great centers of Chinese art production. It was an important place where poets and painters gathered. Many poems and paintings were created here. Also it was a major center of music, or more specifically one school of Chinese opera which developed here.
See and experience
Just imagine canals passing between Chinese-style buildings festooned with red lanterns. Imagine Chinese boats passing through canals while you walk beside narrow waterways, taking care not to fall in the water or get lost in the maze of similar streets. Passing through tight streets, you can be hypnotized by the amazing sounds of Chinese bamboo flutes, which you can follow to find where the sound comes from and discover stunning souvenir shops and old musicians playing their flutes. The main attraction is Shantang Street, which is Suzhou’s largest canal, with a stone arch bridge. It is equivalent to the Grand Canal in Venice – that city’s widest and longest canal. Also you will have to see at least three gorgeous gardens and villas from the seven that can be visited. Most famous are the Humble Administrator Garden, the Lingering Garden, and the Couples’ Retreat Garden. They were all designed in traditional Chinese garden style with various flowers and cherry, plum, and willow trees, pavilions, a lake, and a villa. A large part of any Chinese garden is composed of a pond or small lake filled with lotus flowers and goldfish. Chinese tradition views gardens as places of peace, where visitors can retreat into nature and where everything has a symbolic meaning. Water with lotus flowers and goldfish are considered to be good for harmony and good fortune. If you feed the fish, it is believed that you will draw closer to nature. You will see many people sitting on rocks or in pavilions next to lakes or ponds, listening to birds and relaxing in beautiful scenery. Within Suzhou’s gardens there are villas as well. Inside each villa you will find ancient paintings. All of Suzhou’s gardens can be accessed by boat and on foot.
Do: Take a cruise on a boat around Suzhou. You can rent a boat just as you can rent a gondola in Venice. You can take the tour that the oarsman suggests, but you can also ask him to take you where you want to go. It is a great opportunity to see Suzhou from the water and to pass through canals which are narrow and can only be accessed by boat.
Eat and Drink: In Venice you will probably eat pizza and drink red Italian wine. But Suzhou offers its own specialties. Suzhou food belongs to Jiangsu cuisine, which is mostly known for sour and sweet taste and for fresh water fish and crabs. Things that you must try are various fried fish dishes (most popular are barbels and eels) in sweet and sour sauces. Also fried freshwater crab with vegetables is a famous specialty from Suzhou. Also local is a chicken soup that is cooked in watermelon and eaten from the watermelon, too. As in the rest of China, tea is the major drink in Suzhou, and there is also a local type of tea, a distinctive green tea with the flavor of jasmine flowers.
Buy: As I have mentioned, Suzhou is an artistic center where paintings have been produced for centuries. Many of the souvenirs in Suzhou’s shops are paintings with various scenic backdrops. Most of them are based on the scroll format which typifies so much Chinese painting, with scenes that mostly come from nature or daily life. Landscape paintings typically show moonlight, mountain peaks in fog, ducks swimming in ponds, pandas eating bamboo, tigers in mountain settings, small birds on branches, flying cranes, and goldfish. Also on paintings are scenes from daily life such as people in traditional clothes walking, siting in gardens, playing chess, flirting, or drinking tea. Not uncommon are erotic paintings, too. In addition to landscape paintings you can buy scrolls with traditional Chinese calligraphy, which is very beautiful. Prices are not too high; you can find a nice painting for around 200-250 Chinese Yuan (27-33 Euros).
In the Evening. Nightlife in Suzhou is more traditional than modern. There are not many pubs or night clubs. Since Suzhou played an important role in developing the musical arts, you will also have a great opportunity to listen to traditional Chinese music. Above all, you should visit an opera house to see local opera, which is very colorful and unique. Nowhere else in the world will you find something like Chinese opera. The costumes, sounds, masks, and gestures are stunning. The astonishingly fast changes of masks during performances of dance or song are really incredible. But to see clearly and feel completely how wonderful it is you should come and experience Suzhou opera in person.