China Daily


China’s garden city has long lured travelers with its historical horticultu­re and crisscross­ing canals. But visitors who stay three days discover more than Suzhou’s numerous nicknames suggest. Erik Nilsson explores the metropolis.

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Heaven on Earth. Venice of the Orient. China’s Eden. Land of fish and rice. Suzhou, indeed, lives up to its multiple monikers.

Nine of the city’s over 200 classical gardens are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list — for good reason.

They embody top-notch ancient aesthetics.

The settlement’s moat has flowed for 25 centuries.

Residents who dwell in antiquated abodes still swill from 6,000 of 20,000 dynastic-era wells.

And they wash clothes in the countless canals that split the seams between patchworks of vernacular buildings.

The city in Jiangsu province falls within the jurisdicti­on of the 144hour visa-free transit for travelers from dozens of countries to Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang province. But it’s worth three days on its own.

Visitors discover why it has for centuries been a retreat for literati, who’ve long used their pens and minds to compose homages to not only its aesthetics but also to its soul.


Whirlybird’s-eye view Helicopter tours are a new way to view from above not only the ancient city by day but also the futuristic industrial zone’ s spark le at night.

Their appeal is that they hover, rather than soar, over striking panoramas.

Choppers twirl over natural wonders like mountains, islands and peninsulas.

A growing number of guests use these whirlybird’s-eye views as backdrops for milestone moments like proposals and weddings. Canal cruises Suzhou’ s appellatio­n as the Venice of East comes not only from its grid of canals but also from the craft that ply these watercours­es.

Traditiona­l gondolas glide through the channels, frequently beneath bridges.

Vessels still drift along the 80 kilometers of the nearly 1,800-km Grand Canal that flows through Suzhou on its way from Beijing in the north to Hangzhou in the south.

The world’s longest manmade waterway — a world wonder — was constructe­d in the Sui Dynasty (581618).

Over 20 smaller channels dissect downtown within the city’s moat.

Night tours offer a more ethereal feel, as passengers slip across dark waters clasped by gardens illuminate­d as if by moonlight cranked up to full luminosity.

The haunting songs of local pingtan performers onboard float through the air like the boats over the water. Zheng He Memorial Park Zheng He “walked like a tiger” and spoke with “the clamor of thunderous bells”. So it’s said. He also explored foreign lands. That’s for sure. The 100-hectare Zheng He Memorial Park hosts monuments to China’s celebrated navigator, the nation’s answer to Magellan.

A replica of the eunuch explorer’s ship bobs next to a statue of the voyager that’s 18 meters high — because he was 1.8 meters tall — on a pedestal that’s 2.8 meters high — since his voyages spanned 28 years.

It’s an impressive sight, even if the scale metrics’ symbology is lost on casual visitors.

The Zheng He Memorial Hall’s Tunnel of Time depicts the progressio­n of China’s maritime expedition­s over millennia.

There are replicas of exotic curiositie­s — zebras, camels, ostriches — for which he traded Chinese goods like tea and silk.

The giraffe he brought from Africa became an official talisman, since it resembled the qilin, a mythical Chinese totem that proclaims the birth or passing of a great sage. Tablet museum Suzhou’s Tablet Museum is literally history written in stone.

The inscriptio­ns are time capsules, rocks of the ages that speak to us from eras past.

Their stories perhaps endure today because they’re engraved in mineral slabs. Tough stuff. These writings are exhibited in a Confucian temple that claims to be the largest outside the wise man’s faraway hometown.

It reportedly displays Asia’s oldest astronomic­al and China’s oldest national maps.

Another 2,000 rubbings from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (16441911) dynasties are rendered as apparition­s of engravings from those periods.


Taihu Think of Hong Kong. Then think of a freshwater body twice its size. That’s Taihu Lake. A local saying declares of its shores: “A different flower every month, a different fruit every season, and fish and shrimp every day of the year.”

Indeed, throughout the calendar’s fluctuatio­ns, the area’s flora heaves with peaches, waxberries, pears, tangerines and gingko seeds.

Boats to Jade Island offer tea picking and fruit harvesting.

The lake is ringed by 365 kilometers of bike trails.

Woodpecker­s tap trees while egrets wade through water in Taihu’s admission-free ecological park.

The park features a laser fountain show that casts colors on a 30-meter-wide screen of aerosol that sprays 130 meters into the air over the lake.

Lights! Water! Action! Ebizui Park Ebizui is today a placid place built over wars and woes.

That’s not to mention eyes that foresaw the future before being scooped out upon their owner’s request at the moment of his compulsory suicide, as is the tale of Wu Zixu.

A pavilion honoring him is perched on the peaceful river shores that have served as the staging points for military attacks, from imperial times to roughly a century ago.

It’s a longstandi­ng war zone — replete with bomb shelters and cannon — transforme­d into a picnic destinatio­n, where families wade in wistful waves that caress shores garlanded with greenery. Pingjiang Road Hipness meets history in this bohemian bastion, where creative types scrub paintbrush­es into easels and thumb through novels outside cafes housed in historical buildings.

Pingjiang Road is a canal-side street lined with teahouses, galleries and shops.

But perhaps the best offerings are hidden in the ancient alleyways that radiate from the main throughway.

It’s in these slender lanes that music lovers find museums devoted to Kunqu Opera, pingtan and the city’s guqin (Chinese zither) guild.

Pingjiang Road is a place where it’s easy to get lost — and advisable.


Tongli Tongli sits on the outskirts of Suzhou and in the heart of five lakes that pump water through its canals — arteries that carry its cultural lifeblood.

About 50 bridge shop between the banks of the waterways that slice the ancient town into seven islets, atop which Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynastic buildings huddle.

Taiping, Jili and Changqing bridges are places of pilgrimage where locals pray for good fortune.

The settlement founded in Suzhou’s outskirts in 1271 is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — for good reason.

Tuisi Garden, constructe­d over two centuries ago for an imperial scholar, offers “a different view at every turn”. True. But the same could be said about the entire town — and all of Suzhou.

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The Suzhou Museum, designed by world-famous Chinese-American architect I.M.Pei; a waterway of the ancient town Tongli; visitors take a rest at a roadside tea shop at Pingjiang Road.
PHOTOS BY WEI XIAOHAO / CHINA DAILY, AND WANG QIMING AND WANG JIANZHONG / FOR CHINA DAILY From top: The Suzhou Museum, designed by world-famous Chinese-American architect I.M.Pei; a waterway of the ancient town Tongli; visitors take a rest at a roadside tea shop at Pingjiang Road.
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