Shanghai Expat: April 2010: Suzhou

On Friday, April 16, 2010, I took the day off of work to visit Suzhou with Di Yin and S, a friend of mine who was in town. Although I had visited Suzhou once before, on that trip I didn't manage to see any of its famous gardens. Suzhou is renowned for having many attractive, classically Chinese, carefully landscaped, meditative gardens, built in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

I took over one hundred pictures on this trip; they document the journey rather well. Di Yin also took similarly many pictures, including a few of things I didn't get to photograph (such as a tea pot with an incredibly long sprout).

I enjoyed our visit to Suzhou. The gardens are pretty, and I liked walking around downtown more than in Shanghai. It's less hectic, less crowded, and the people seem nicer. It's easier to breathe (less pollution). Also, the city's outlined by wide canals, with a few small ones criss-crossing the center. Although I didn't see enough of them for them to significantly impact my impression of the city, S thinks it looks like Venice. Frankly, I'd hope Venice has more waterways, but he's been there and I haven't so I'll let his comment stand.

Judging by the quiet offers of goods for sale on the streets, Suzhou's more upscale than Shanghai. That is, in the pedestrian downtown street in Shanghai I hear "watch, watch, bag" and in Suzhou I heard "watch, iphone".

Incidentally, for background: Suzhou has a long history and was more famous and larger than Shanghai in the middle of the last millennium. Suzhou even had a foreign concession.

The Day
Di Yin and I met S at 8am then (oops!) got on the subway in the wrong direction. We noticed about ten minutes later and switched line. When we finally arrived at the main train station, we ran. This caused us to breathe hard, which made my throat not feel right. I now believe I was right to not go running outside during my stay in Shanghai. In the end, however, the twenty minute detour caused us to miss our train. Happily, the station attendant allowed us to exchange our tickets for later ones. We hung around near the train station.

The express train we took to Suzhou was pleasant. And fast: at times we were going between 150 and 200 kilometers per hour (90-120 mph). In contrast, our evening train traveled slower. I think it's because our train back was delayed and I guess we therefore hit congestion on the tracks.

Upon arrival in Suzhou, we braved the swarms of touts, rickshaw drivers, etc.--this area is more like India than any other place I've been in China--and, after a few misdirections, managed to grab a crowded bus to our first destination. (The bus was likely crowded because the good weather made many people visit Suzhou this day.)

Our first garden was the Master-of-Nets Garden. It's the most famous garden in Suzhou, judging by the multiple (English) guidebooks I consulted. It was compact, pretty, and cozy, and had many courtyards. Indeed, the "garden" is architecturally dense, more focused on its many elegant halls than nature.

After the garden, we took the bus downtown, ate a late lunch, walked the main downtown pedestrian streets, and tried a ton of snacks. (Suzhou's famous for them.) Much of them are documented in the pictures.

Come mid-afternoon, we took a bus to the Lion Forest Garden. This garden is the most famous garden in Suzhou according to the Di Yin and the Chinese web. My guidebooks give it only a little mention. Given that most tourists in China are Chinese, it's not surprising it was very crowded.

I found Lion Forest Garden much more beautiful than the Master-of-Nets Garden. This garden's all about rocks. It's a big garden, with many convoluted paths and winding tunnels through and around rocks (often slippery and dangerous) and strange, natural rock statues.

After the garden we had an early dinner, then made our way to the train station and home.

Although I'd hoped to go to the silk museum--Suzhou's famous for silk--I didn't get the chance. We spent the time that we could have allocated to it instead wandering around downtown and eating snacks. I'm comfortable with this choice: we had a full day, and I'm happy with what we chose to do and the speed with which we did it.

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