China: Water Towns of The Yangtze River Delta
Visitors go to the water towns of the Yangtze River Delta to get away from the bustle of the nearby cities of Hangzhou and Shanghai. They come to absorb the beauty of the Classical Gardens and to bask in quiet of the tiny lanes along murky canals.
The famous city of Suzhou and the towns of Tongli, Luzhi, Zhujiajiao, Xitang, Wuzhen, Nanxun, and Zhouzhuang each draw thousands of tourists each day hoping to catch a glimpse of what is popularly called “the Venice of the East.”
For weeks advertisements on my Facebook page have been urging me to visit Suzhou. “10 Reasons to Visit the Venice of China” the advertisements taunted with pictures of flower draped canals lined with white buildings. The adds made me incredulous. Calling anything the Venice of anywhere strikes me as pretentious and misleading.
When I looked into the claim further I found that travel news was not much more helpful. The headline on a January 2017 article in the San Diego Union Tribune touts Suzhou as a “slice of Venice in China.” Even Trip Advisor had reviews for a place called “Venice of the East, Suzhou.”
In the end, my curiosity got the best of me and I arranged to pay a visit to Suzhou and nearby Nanxun to see what all of the hype was about.
So, you wonder, is Suzhou the Venice of China? No, (of course not). Venice is Venice and absolutely unique on this earth. In the same way, Suzhou is Suzhou and to compare it to Venice does both cities a disservice. Aside from the presence of sometime picturesque and sometimes stinky canals, the two cities have little in common. Nevertheless, Suzhou has some charm, plenty of history, and is well worth a visit.
Suzhou in A Day: What to See
Most of Suzhou has modernized and with a modern look the city lost a good deal of charm. The streets are wide and the buildings are tall, concrete blocks speckled with green tinted windows. Town planners have made a few attempts to undo some of the cultural damage done by modernization. They’ve added generic tile eaves in a classical Chinese style to the tops of the square blocks and paper lanterns to the city’s main shopping street. Unfortunately these efforts do little to restore what was lost.
So why should I visit Suzhou? People visit Suzhou for two reasons: Classical Gardens, and ambience. Of the two, the classical gardens is by far the better reason. Suzhou is home to 8 UNESCO World Heritage protected gardens – each with a unique beauty.
Pingjian Historic Quarter
The Pingjian Historic Quarter lies inside the moat that encircles the oldest part of town and runs North-South from Suzhou Museum down to the central East-West Ganjiang Street.
The narrow, cobbled street parallels a picturesque canal. Souvenir shops, cafes, and artisan’s boutiques line the little street. Silk scarves, flutes, and carved fans entice tourists into tiny shops. From time to time an army-green motor-cycle rickshaw rumbled by with a group of tourists squeezed into the seat under the bike’s red awning.
If you are visiting Suzhou for glimpses of the canals lined with white houses and draped in flowers, there are two the Pingjian Historic Quarter will serve your purpose well.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden
At the intersection of Baijia Alley (the main canal-side alleyway of the Pingjian Historic Quarter) and Dongbei Street, turn left and you will find yourself at the gates of the Humble Administrator’s Garden.
In spite of its name, this garden is anything but humble. The Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest and most famous of Suzhou’s Classical gardens. It is also among the most crowded.
“Maximum flow of tourists: 9,031” a digital sign read at one of the entrances. “Real-Time flow of tourists: 1,801.” At around 1/5th capacity, the garden already felt crowded.
I wandered through the centuries-old pavilions dodging selfie-sticks ducking behind families posing for photos with a flower or a water feature or an ancient well. It is well worth getting to the garden early as many visitors come as a part of a day tour from Shanghai – arriving after 9am.
Admission: CNY75 (50 in the low Season)
Continue Westward on Dongbei street which becomes Xibei road until you reach the North Temple Pagoda. This nine-storey pagoda is the tallest south of the Yangtze River and offers hazy panoramas of a modern Suzhou for CNY 25 (open from 7:45-17:00). Turn right on the busy Renmin Road and you will find Suzhou’s Silk Museum.
In case you are unconvinced of the importance of silk in Chinese culture, the museum’s preface is quick to remind you: “silk is an epitome of ancient Chinese Culture…” it reads.
The region south of the Yellow River has been home to silk making for centuries. References to mulberry, silk worms and silk fabric appear as early as the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century BC).
This is the best place in the region to learn about the region’s silk industry. The museum boasts re-creations as well as original swaths of exquisite ancient silk patterns. There are also informative displays demonstrations of the manufacturing processes for different kinds of silk.
Shantang Pedestrian Street
From the Silk museum, continue to work your way westward to Shantang Pedestrian Street.
While most of Suzhou’s famous sights and museums lie near the Pingjian historic quarter, all of the city’s authenticity is to be found along the Shantang Pedestrian Street. Early in the morning school children made their way along the narrow street. The lucky ones rode on the back of a parent’s scooter.
As the morning wears on, the souvenir shops open. Unlike the more popular Pingjian Quarter, though. Long swaths of housing, as well as the occasional school punctuate the rows of knick knack sellers. This section of the city is old and beautiful, but still manages to hold it’s own identity very much apart from the tourist nature of the town around it.
Tiger Hill lies at the western end of the Shantang Pedestrian street. The burial site for the Wu king, Helu, the garden is named for the shape the burial mound takes At the top of the hill, the cloud rock pagoda leans precipitously – the top leaning almost 2 meters off of the the bass.
The grounds are beautiful. Meadows decorated with purple wildflowers fill the breaks in the quiet forests at the base of the hill. The place also oozes legends of the King. There is a sword testing rock that was said to be broken in two by an extraordinarily sharp weapon and the sword pool where legend says 3000 swords were buried with king Helu.
More to do in Suzhou
More Canals – Explore Guantaiwei Lane
“The southern section of the lane was called Guantaiwei Bridge Xitutang’an, while the northern section of the lane was called Baixian Bridge originally. The two sections merged into one lane called Guantaiwei Lane with a length of 260 meters in 1980. There was Shadow of two towers, the former residence of the Qing Dynasty scholar Yuan Xuelan, in the lane, which is Wudu Hall now.”
I read the placard at the entrance to the alleyway next to the twin pagodas and tried to make sense of it. I’d gone for an afternoon explore and wandered the length of a tiny, residential canal for more than two Kilometers. There were no tourists and most of the residents looked genuinely surprised to see me. Here the white houses all could have used a coat of paint and wires drooped across the canal like robotic vines. Beautiful in its own way I wondered how long this tiny slice of a bygone time could hold on in the face of modernization.
Suzhou is a city of gardens. The Humble Administrator’s Garden might be the largest and most famous of the classical gardens, but it is a tiny sample of what Suzhou has to offer. The lion Forest Garden, the Couple’s Garden Retreat, and the Master of Nets Garden are are just three more of the dozens of classical gardens in the city and are all worth the time.
Traveling to Suzhou? See where I went next