24 Hours in Suzhou, China's Venice (A Well Fed Guide)
NOTE: I'm excited to add this post has been updated! Scroll on for a Suzhou itenerary worth screen-shotting.
[Above: My first glance of Suzhou's canals left me starry eyed!]
We piled quickly into the van while Shanghai's skyscrapers were still shaking the morning mist from their shoulders. We sat, sipping bad coffee from Styrofoam cups as the city around us shrank towards the sprawling countryside, with small shacks dotting fields of vivid green.
I admit I was skeptical- my brother promised Suzhou was amazing, but how could I have missed something so must-see in the hours of research I did before our arrival?
Soon, whitewashed houses with hipped roofs clung together on the roadside and the city of Suzhou unfolded before our eyes.
And yes, it was every bit as amazing as my brother said it would be.
For those unfamiliar, Suzhou is a city within driving distance from Shanghai that boasts a rich cultural history. Once a home base for many of the great writers and thinkers in China—and also a major silk manufacturing centre—it was seen as a fashionable, artsy city.
Today much of that vibe remains. The historic neighborhood (located on Dongbei Street and the surrounding area) is gorgeous and worth two days' exploring. We, regrettably, had only 24 hours to take in all of Suzhou, but we definitely made the most of it.
[Images from top: 1) and 2) Humble Administrator's Garden.]
We started our exploration in the Humble Administrator's Garden, a place that feels like a traditional Chinese watercolor come to life. The garden was the project of a retired government official, and its name comes from a poem about living an idle life properly.
Pack your camera, a small picnic and a sketchbook or novel and wind your way slowly through the gardens, trying your own hand at "idle living". I'd recommend trying to come on a weekday morning if possible, as the crowds can be unbearable at other times.
Once you've tried your hand at being ancient Chinese aristocracy, head down the whitewashed street to Suzhou's eponymous museum. With rooms dedicated to displaying Suzhou's literati and how they lived, from meticulous desks to entire cases of jade stamps, it feels like stepping into a space where a great epic is being written.
Connected to the museum is a palace where Suzhou's royalty once lived. A maze of courtyards and receiving halls, with some rooms perfectly preserved and others dotted with modern art by local artists, you can't help but feel that Suzhou is still a place for daydreaming thinkers. The past and present hang next to each other on gallery walls here, each with perfectly proportioned lines.
After the museum/palace, we took time to wander the streets. We bought scarves from shops selling famous Suzhou silk, ate green tea pastries and discovered, to my amazement, canals full of jade green water piercing the network of side streets and alleyways.
[Above: 1)Me wandering the halls of Suzhou's museum/palace 2&3)Views from our canal ride around the city's historic neighbourhood—and me cheesing for the camera ;).]
See, the real surprise—that my brother left out—is that Suzhou is also known as the "Venice of the East". It once had a very large canal system, but as China progressed, most of it was replaced by roads. Approximately 20 percent of the canals remain, and for a few RMB (Chinese dollars) you can take a traditional, wooden boat ride through them. This was one of the high points of my two week stint in China, as it totally felt like time-travel.
The boat rocked as we climbed aboard. Our driver sang us folk songs and told us stories of Suzhou's past. The words washed over me as I watched the waves in the canal move to match the clouds in the sky.
The sun hung low in the sky as we came back to the dock, and it felt as if we were returning to real life from a storybook.
At dinner, we sat, exhausted, in an international hostel, eating pizza and beans with pita chips. The same Leonard Cohen song kept playing in the background as we tried to move beyond cliches in describing how beautiful the day was. "It's like being between the lines of a poem or the paint strokes of a picture" someone said. Being in Suzhou is being in a piece of art, we agreed.
Cohen's voice faded. It was time for bed. I hoped the feeling of being living art wouldn't fade as we left Suzhou in the morning.