Suzhou is one of China’s most popular tourist cities, and because of this, you’re either recommended to go…or stay away. When we think of cities as being magnets for tourists, we generally think of westerners, but the Chinese love to travel, and while increasingly many can now afford to travel overseas, due to the high cost of exit visas, most are still limited to traveling within China itself, and for famous cities such as Suzhou, you’re going to encounter thousands of them.
Suzhou is known as being the Venice of China, due to the numerous waterways that intersect the city (specifically the older inner city). These waterways vary in quality from quite beautiful bands of water amongst the buildings, to stinking polluted and stagnant mosquito homelands.
But more than the canals, Suzhou is most known for its ancient gardens, of which there are many still in their original forms. I was lucky enough to explore several, from the most popular Humble Administrators garden, to the Lion Grove garden with its interesting rock formations, to the one pictured above, the Garden of the Master of Nets, which supposedly once belonged to a fisherman.
Each garden is quite different from the next, but one thing they have in common is they are all crawling with Chinese tourists – and worse – tour groups. For the Chinese predominantly travel in large groups led by a leader - the one waving the coloured flag and speaking into a megaphone – yes, a megaphone. There’s nothing like enjoying the beautifully sculpted gardens to the sound of a distorted Chinese voice yapping incessantly.
The Chinese tour groups are also highly excitable. Happy to be away and enjoying what their 5000 year old, rich culture has to offer, they like to get off the paths and onto the the gardens themselves, ignoring the ‘keep off!’ signs and climbing onto the base of ancient trees to have their photos taken with their victory pose.
To be honest, in many cases it was intolerable. Attempting to photograph some of these gardens minus the people was a feat in itself. I would recommend skipping breakfast and heading to the gardens super early, or possibly during winter where catching them beneath a coat of snow would be mesmerizing.
As for the rest of Suzhou, well it was nothing special really. In many regards, it was a very typical Chinese city, though the whitewashed buildings are somewhat unique to the area. It was a mere 15 minutes by train away from Wuxi, on the way to Shanghai, and is also on located alongside lake Taihu.
Due to the predominance of old buildings and gardens in the older part of the city, the roads are narrow and holy crap are they busy. There’s a abundance of bicycle rickshaws in the area, which tends to be the best way to get around, but be prepared to be clenching your butt-cheeks the entire trip as the way they cut in and out of the cars and pedestrians alike has to be seen to be believed.
But all in all, Suzhou was a fun city to explore, and if you’re visiting Jiangsu by all means check it out.