Posted by: Richard Marshall | October 1, 2013



North Pagoda

At the beginning of August I swapped a day off with a colleague and went to Suzhou for a three day break. I was pretty tired on the train as Sam and I had sat drinking Carlsberg at a little corner shop near our apartment. Neither of us go there any longer as the stuff is almost certainly fake and leaves an awful hangover. I got to the station though and the fast train got me there in an amazing 25 minutes – it took longer to queue for a taxi to get me to my hotel. I rested there for a while and then set out for a walk in the old town,

Suzhou is most famous for its classical gardens. There are about half a dozen large and spectacular ones and then tens of smaller ones dotted about. These are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and well protected. It was also famous, once, for being,along with Hangzhou, one of the most beautiful cities in China, so I was eager to see how it had fared in China’s relentless development. In fact, the old town did retain much of its old charm. This is in contrast to Shanghai where the old area of the city is literally in ruins awaiting tower blocks – walking through it is like being on the set of a  World War Two movie. The main roads in the old town in Suzhou are pretty gruesome with the usual awful banks and hotels. But away from that the city has some great advantages. For one thing, the existing network of lanes and streets has been maintained. Also, it was clear that the old buildings that have survived were being upgraded rather than destroyed, and there were lots of new doors, air-conditioning units and burglar bars on the old houses.  Finally, even the newer buildings were subject to height restrictions – Suzhou’s inevitable cluster of skyscrapers is elsewhere – and some attempt had been made to keep the buildings in a similar style. I fact the mixture of architecture made the place even more interesting. In areas where there had been serious conservation efforts, such as around Pingjiang street, there were little plaques with information. Often there would be the remaining two halls of a meeting hall with a grim Maoist tenement or workshop behind, clearly built in the cultural revolution. But the buildings gave an interesting sense of the sweep of China’s twentieth century history.


Narrow street in the old town


Very narrow lane

After wandering the old town a while the first garden I stumbled across was the Garden of Cultivation. It is not one of the bigger gardens but that in many ways was to its advantage. The only people there were some elderly people relaxing so it was still possible to have a sense of the garden as a place of peaceful repose, an atmosphere destroyed but the loud, uncouth tour groups in the more famous gardens. It also helped to visit at midday, as the temperature was nearly 40 and that discouraged the crowds.


Garden of Cultivation

I headed back to the hotel for a brief rest and then decided to head to the eastern part of the old town. A large section of the centre of the town was pedestrianized, but the buildings were mostly hideous and the shops and restaurants were the same as anywhere else in China. The one attraction was the Guan Qian temple, a cluster of Taoist temples in the midst of all the shopping. Further east, though, I arrived at Pingjiang street. This was one of the most attractively restored areas in the city, a lovely street with little coffee shops, restaurants and stores along a canal. Unlike so many old towns in China the surrounding streets were still people’s homes and the area had the feeling of a place that was actually lived in, not just gawped at. This was also evident in that people lingered there over their coffee or xiao long bao, in contrast to Shantang street, of which more later. I wandered towards the moat from Pingjiang street and into the Couple’s Garden Retreat. This is one of the most famous gardens but luckily the heat meant there were very few tour groups and I was able to keep a few steps ahead of them. It was absolutely lovely, especially as it was alongside a tree-lined canal. Leaving the garden I made my way to the moat and a clearly reconstructed section of the city wall. The heat was appalling on the wall but the view over the prosperous new town was attractive. As it was getting late I headed back to Pingjiang street for a couple of beers and some dumplings and then went to bed.


Guan Qian Temple


Pingjiang Street


Pingjiang Street


Couple’s Garden Retreat

The next day I headed north, first visiting the North Pagoda. Wonderfully, the eight story building is still the tallest in old Suzhou, can be seen from almost anywhere and gave great views of the old town. I then walked to the most famous of Suzhou’s gardens, the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The entrance ran was along an “old” street that was pretty enough but looked mostly rebuilt – it is always very difficult to tell the difference between old, renovated and entirely reconstructed buildings in China.  The garden was huge and stunning, but somewhat marred by all the domestic tourists. The problem isn’t really the number of people but the way they behave; smoking, spitting, yelling into cellphones, dropping litter when there are bins just a few feet away and taking thousands and thousands of photographs – of themselves. The most annoying people are the tour guides who yak endlessly into a microphone to people who seem mostly too engrossed in their mobile phones to be listening at all. All this is especially aggravating in a place designed specifically for cultured minds to take there ease – there are pavilions built to contemplate the moon reflected in a pool of water or the wind shaking the plum blossoms.  Nevertheless, I came, I snapped pictures, I picked up other people’s water bottles, and admired as best I could. The nearby Lion Forest garden was a similar experience.


Humble Administrator’s Garden




Lion Forest Garden

I had a quiet lunch back on Pingjiang street and braced myself for more sightseeing, this time at the Southern end of the old city. I headed down first to the Canglang Pavilion, which was mostly under renovation so I just got to see the arcade by the canal. I then walked to the Master of Nets Garden. This was another of the really famous gardens, but luckily the mid-afternoon heat meant I had it mostly to myself. (It was so hot walking around the city my black t-shirts were encrusted in white salt at the end of the day). I walked along Canglang street, an oldish street lined with not terribly appealing bars, and then into a old, crumbling Mao era tenement complex, another interesting part of the city’s legacy. That evening, although pretty tired, I decided to head to Shantang street. This was a long street of old buildings, a small section of which was done up for tourists. Unlike Pingjiang street it had little life in the tourist area. I sat down for a drink and a meal, but most people shuffled by in the usual tour groups, snapping pictures and dropping litter. The constant flashes going off on the bridge behind where I was sitting started to give me a headache. It was the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s day, so perhaps it is a little less crowded usually. When I returned the next day to take a photo it was a little clearer how pretty the place really is.


Master of Nets Garden


Shantang Street

My final day I headed down to the Panmen scenic area, that had a lovely pagoda and garden and the only remaining land-water gate in China. The surrounding area had various housing complexes being built in faux-classical style, but they looked attractive and the park was really lovely. I then took a taxi to Hanshan Temple on the Grand Canal. The temple was noisy and crowded but attractive and there some pretty but probably reconstructed buildings along the canal. The canal itself was very interesting though as it is clearly still a working body of water after all the centuries of its existence – there was a steady traffic of barges laden with sand for construction. As it was still quite early and I was only catching my train late I decided to walk back to the old city. On the way I stopped at my final garden, the Lingering Garden, which was reasonably quite and also surrounded by upmarket looking housing developments. I had a quiet lunch at Shantang street which was more bearable in the day time, and then headed to the station for the quick train trip back to Shanghai.


Panmen Pagoda


Land-water gate


The Grand Canal


The Lingering Garden

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