China is becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign students. Many come to study at Chinese universities, while others participate in study abroad programs run by overseas institutions of higher learning.Here at the Ctrip-sponsored China Travel Blog, we've been fortunate to have a number of talented interns work with us in recent years, the majority from NYU Shanghai (you can find out more about them here).Kush is our newest intern. He'll be learning about the travel business in China this semester while sharing with us his impressions of life as a student in China. >>>
This past weekend, I traveled to Suzhou. Although Shanghai, where I'm currently studying at NYU Shanghai, is incredible for its non-stop energy and excitement, Suzhou is an excellent place for a weekend escape.
It's refreshing to explore a city of gardens, parks and traditional water town neighborhoods when it often seems that all there is to Shanghai is construction, traffic and a relentless push to urbanize, urbanize, urbanize.
Suzhou: China's premier water town
My friends and I started our day in Suzhou with a leisurely ride down a canal reminiscent of Venice, except instead of having a gondolier singing and guiding the boat, a 船家 (chuánjiā, a boatman) performed the task.
After arriving by taxi from the train station at Tiger Hill (虎丘, Hŭqiū), we enjoyed a boat ride around the perimeter of the hill for only 60 kuai . From there, we ascended outdoor steps to see Hŭqiū Tower, also known as Yunyan Pagoda (云岩寺塔, Yún Yán Sì Tǎ ), to get a close-up look at its architecture. Every detail of Tiger Hill—from the ancient tower and other stone structures to the bamboo forest and several small lakes—integrates smoothly into nature, heightening its aesthetic appeal.
Indian in Suzhou? Prepare for stares, photos & peace signs
As a side story, part of what makes travel and tourism in China so interesting for non-Chinese is being the center of attention, whether you like it or not. On Tiger Hill, Chinese tourists snapped photos of me as I posed for a friend's photo, mimicking what we were saying. They do not see many Indians, so I didn't mind being entertainment for them.
Later, I was approached by another Chinese tourist with a camera. I initially thought the group wanted me to take a photo of them, but then suddenly one of the them ran over and posed next to me flashing peace signs. I humored them, throwing up my own peace signs. Perhaps that is what Indians do when a Chinese person visits India.
Step into another world at a Chinese Buddhist temple
Afterwards, we visited the Buddhist Cold Mountain Temple (寒山寺; Hánshān Sì). When you visit China, you have to visit at least one Buddhist temple. It's very different from visiting a Western church. There is incense everywhere, and the designs, symbols and rituals feel completely different—it's really something you have to see for yourself.
I've visited Gaudi's fanciful churches and cathedral in Spain, and even those couldn't be more different. Between the architecture and the worshipers, the atmosphere feels a lot more dynamic in China, with people moving all about, whereas Western churches tend to be more about silence and serenity.
Snacks & tea shops amid old Suzhou streets & canalsNext, we visited some of the old lanes and streets of Suzhou. Running alongside canals, they have a relaxed feel that is rare for a city. Dining options range from cafes to street vendors, and there are plenty of choices. We went for local Suzhou-style dumplings—Suzhou's version of the Shanghainese xiaolongbao (小笼包) "soup dumplings."
Afterwards, we went to a small tea shop. This is something you must try while in China, and it's something you will never really get in America. There is a very old ritual to serving tea, which is fascinating to witness, involving multiple pours and a careful filtering process. The tea is made from pure tea leaves and everyone drinks a few small cups per order. It's one of the most relaxing experiences one can have. I was feeling mildly sick at the time, but it all immediately went away as our bodies and minds loosened up.
We finished our Suzhou visit at the Humble Governor's Garden, considered one of the four top imperial gardens in China, and one of the most beautiful. These gardens, set within walls and surrounded by living quarters, were homes to upper-class officials centuries ago. These expansive gardens were created to incorporate all elements of nature. There are lakes, trees, traditional Chinese buildings, rock structures and much more—the perfect place to relax and enjoy the scenery, especially during a sunny day in the spring.
If you have the opportunity, Suzhou is an incredible place to visit. It's an easy day trip from Shanghai or Nanjing, as are other, smaller water towns like Tongli. It's also a great way to experience Chinese culture and to escape the stress of city life.
Photos courtesy of Suzhou resident Web design guru and China expat blogger extraordinaire, Ryan McLaughlin.