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Why do people go to Suzhou?

Canals, gardens and questions in the Venice of the East

3-3-3 Tour: Day 10

Rowing boat on Pingjiang Lu canal, Suzhou, China

Why do people go to Suzhou? I wasn’t planning on going myself until I got talked into it whilst I was in Nanjing. “It’s beautiful,” I was told. “You can see the canals and … there are lots of gardens.” I was skeptical.

Suzhou bills itself as the “Venice of the East,” a moniker my guidebook had referred to as a “hackneyed … chat-up line” that I was unlikely to fall for. It is a town, it continues, that has “had to contend with destruction of its heritage and its replacement with largely arbitrary chunks of modern architecture.” Though Marco Polo, everybody’s favourite China traveller, described it as “a very great and noble city … contain[ing] merchants of great wealth and an incalculable number of people.” He may have been writing seven hundred years before this 11th edition of my Lonely Planet China was printed, but I still didn’t know who to believe.

Suzhou is a city of history that’s for sure – over 2500 years of it in fact. Its gardens, for instance, span a period of almost one thousand years from the 11th century Northern Song Dynasty to the 19th century’s late Qing. The oldest, the Blue Wave Pavillion, was laid out in 1044 by the poet Su Shunqing and, like many of the other gardens, led the way in terms of style for the centuries of classical Chinese gardens that followed.

Lily pond and traditional architecture at the Master of Nets Garden, Suzhou

There were originally over a hundred such gardens in Suzhou, built by the many scholars, poets and artisans, merchants, monks and officials, that made Suzhou their home during its early rise to prominence. Amongst those still in existence, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Lingering Garden, the Master of Nets Garden and the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, were added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997, while the Lion’s Grove Garden, the Couple’s Retreat Garden, the Garden of Cultivation, the Retreat & Reflection Garden and the Blue Wave Pavillion itself, were added in 2000.

The canals too, are even older, with the two most famous – Pingjiang Lu and Shantang Street – being eight hundred and twelve hundred years old respectively. Pingjiang Lu in particular is probably the most quintessential of Suzhou’s streets as far as visiting tourists would imagine. 1000 year-old bridges span a canal flowing gently beside crumbling tenements and flaking whitewash. Green trees overhang rippled waters as warbling oarsmen row leisurely past. The street itself is lined with buildings maintained in the traditional style, while coffee shops and gift stores cater for the tourists that come snapping away at it all.

Round Chinese door at the Master of Nets Garden, Suzhou, China

There are the temples and pagodas, the silk and the museums. It seems Suzhou has all it takes to fit the bill of ancient town turned winning destination. And indeed it has. It is, after all, one of China’s top tourist towns – a place certainly worthy of a couple of days’ exploration. But those arriving expecting to find another Dali, Lijiang or Pingyao may be somewhat disappointed.

Suzhou hasn’t become one of the fastest growing economies in China on tourists alone. Away from the gardens and canals, technology and industrial parks are producing everything from microchips and telecommunications equipment to power tools and pharmaceuticals. Suzhou is already the world’s largest manufacturer of laptops. It is home to over 1500 companies from the likes of North America, Europe, East Asia, and Australia. Indeed, Suzhou is said to be the second largest industrial city in China after Shanghai. It may call itself the Venice of the East for the tourists, but away from the canals and the coffee shops, it’s as far from quaint as could be.

Not that you’ll find yourself traipsing through industrial parks to get to the sights of course. Despite the encroaching 21st century, the old town does have plenty of pockets of charm to satisfy. You could spend all afternoon in any one of the gardens enjoying a rare few hours of peace amongst the rocks and water (until the coach-load of Russian tourists arrive ushering you out of their way so they can take their at-arms-length photographs. It happened!) Just be prepared to accept that hype may not always conform to reality before you arrive and your expectations will hopefully survive Suzhou intact.

Old window and leafy branch at Pingjiang Lu canal, Suzhou

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