Suzhou bike tour: Sleuthing paradise on a pair of wheels

Culture | by Rebekah Pothaar
Posted: September 14th, 2009 | Updated: October 27th, 2014 | Comments

A skeptical cyclist tests Suzhou, finding charm in silkworms and Song Dynasty streets alike. Is the old line about "paradise" still true? When Marco Polo visited Suzhou in the 13th century he saw "no fewer than fifteen thousand vessels" on the canals and compared the city's intricate bridgework and architecture favorably to his hometown of Venice. Even through the mid-1800s, Suzhou's population of 500,000 ranked among the top ten most-populated cities in the world—beating out Moscow, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, Bombay and New York. Today's cosmopolitan Suzhou is a living legacy to 2,500 years of continuous civilization, silk making, textile production, trade and a wealthy merchant class. But the last several decades have seen Suzhou's old city flanked by Suzhou New District and Suzhou Industrial Park (not to mention getting overshadowed by nearby Shanghai, a relative upstart in historical terms). Still, Suzhou is hardly a backwater. It's home to nearly six million people (including some 10,000 expats), very popular with Chinese tourists, only 35 minutes (85km) east of Shanghai by train and still 42 percent covered by crisscrossing waterways including that ancient wonder of engineering, the Grand Canal, which extends north all the way to Beijing. As a Canadian transplant to cosmopolitan Shanghai, I've smirked at the ancient Chinese saying: "In heaven there is paradise, down on earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou." I've read BusinessWeek's article here with more insider tips). Still, prior to my last visit, I remained skeptical. I remember watching Steven Spielberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, in which an American boy, Jim, is captured on the streets of Shanghai by the Japanese and interned in Suzhou until 1945. I couldn't help thinking of how awful it would be to go from a fabulous expat life in Shanghai with its masquerade parties and butlers to sharing a cell in Suzhou with a scrupleless, black market conman played by John Malkovich. Perhaps my subconscious perception of Suzhou as expat internment camp kept me from visiting the popular garden city, even after two years in Shanghai. Nonetheless, when Ctrip asked me to try out a Suzhou bicycle tour for them (a day out of the office!), I hopped on a morning express train from Shanghai without hesitation and zipped off to Suzhou in a puff of A/C. I arrived at Suzhou station at 8:30am and was met by Herbert, the local guide Ctrip had arranged for me, who was holding a sign with my name on it. He then introduced me to the other local guide, Li Shen, and then to our mountain bikes. From there, it was almost eight hours of sightseeing with just the three of us on bikes. Li Shen picked the route and Herbert filled me in on all the history, museums, anecdotes and architecture along the way. We explored back lanes, carried our bikes over stone bridges, visited gardens, museums and a silk factory and, after it all, I was able to catch the 7:30pm express train back to Shanghai. After a whirlwind day tour and talking to two local experts all day, here are some recommendations for a day or two in Suzhou on a bike. 1. Jinji Hu (Golden Chicken Lake): Biking along the lakeside We started by biking around Jinji Lake, which spreads over four square kilometers on the east side of town. Herbert informed me that only a decade ago farmers lived by the lakeside, fished and cultivated freshwater pearls there, but now the lake has been dammed, so it's less than three meters deep and surrounded by cultivated park land, willow trees, boardwalks, stone pathways, upscale bars and restaurants at Li Gong Di (Suzhou's Xintiandi). 2. Classical Chinese Gardens: There's nine of 'em, so pick one The word paradise comes from Persian and means, literally, "a walled garden." By such definitions, perhaps Suzhou is not far from paradise with its nine UNESCO-listed, walled, classical Chinese gardens. But unless you're a real connoisseur, once you've seen one garden, they do all tend to look the same. (In fact, the gardens in Suzhou actually reminded me of a Chinese garden I visited in Vancouver.) Regardless, they're a fascinating point of entry into Chinese culture, philosophy and aesthetics. In the design of the classical Chinese garden, four components are required: water, stone (representing mountains and embodying the poetic ideal of shan shui), buildings and, of course, plenty of flora. And these four components are all arranged in a particular way. My advice for Suzhou day-trippers is visit one garden, really take the time to exprience it in full, and then move on. We visited the Master of Nets Garden (30 RMB entrance). Herbert filled me in on the basic facts, and then we were on our way. I was glad to have had an expert explain the garden's significance, but I was just as glad when it was time to move on to a new kind of attraction. If you're really into gardens or Chinese landscape art in general, however, Suzhou is hard to beat: Among the choices are the Humble Administrator's Garden, Lion Grove Garden, Surging Wave Pavilion, the Couple's Garden Retreat, Garden of Cultivation, Retreat & Reflection Garden and Lingering Garden. 3. Suzhou Silk Factory: How silk is made, worms and all When I noticed the Suzhou Silk Factory on our itinerary, I grimaced a little, imagining it would entail your typical "jade factory" experience, the kind suffered by many an unwary tourist on route to the Badaling Great Wall north of Beijing and spend an hour or more of valuable vacation time being pushed to buy something, anything, everything. But I was surprised by the 80-year-old Silk Factory. Silk-making is a fascinating and bizarre process and, though there is an on-site shop, the real draw is the chance to witness the process step by step, from freshly-hatched silkworms, to mature 30-day old worms, to silk cocoons sorted by hand from conveyor belts, to the best cocoons boiled and painstakingly unraveled as each thread is fed onto a reel before finally being woven into fabric on mechanical looms. The shop sells products made onsite and, after seeing the incredible amount of labor that goes into making silk, I was impressed enough to buy armloads of silk bedding, no aggressive sales tactics necessary. Suzhou makes the best silk in the world, according to Herbert (though I recall being told the same thing in Varanasi and Bangkok). Chinese silk, Indian silk, Thai silk—it's all the same to me at the end of the day. It begins with worms who munched on mulberry leaves and ends with luxurious bed sheets. But I now have a deeper understanding and appreciation of the patience and effort that goes into making those sheets. Did you know that it takes 3,000 cocoons to make one pound of silk? And that the larvae die inside their cocoons? (It's just as well that silk larvae aren't cute like baby seals, right PETA?). 4. Pingjiang Historic Block: The cutest little old lane in Suzhou Pingjiang Street is my favorite street in Suzhou. It's as charming and quiet as one could hope of a 1,100 year old cobbled canal-side street, complete with ancient stone bridges, ancient houses, small cafés, bookstores, tea houses and barber shops. As we biked along our only competition came from 80-year-olds on one-speeds. Herbert told me this street was built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) and it seems that many things have barely changed since then. There is something tranquil and authentically "old China" about Pingjiang Street that has to be experienced first-hand to understand.

It really comes across in scenes like this: A couple of brides were getting their photos taken on the steps leading into the canal, a few tourists wandered with cameras, and some boats paddled down the canal. If it sounds rather everyday-ish and unremarkable, it is... and it isn't.

The fact that Pingjiang Street isn't a fossil or outdoor museum piece, but rather part of the daily life of Suzhou's citizens is what animates its historical charm. If I were to stay in Suzhou, I'd stay at Mingtown Hostel (28 Pingjiang Rd) located on the side of the canal, right around the corner from a bookshop that sells great hand-drawn riding and hiking maps of Suzhou. If you head south on Pingjiang Road, you'll get to Shiquan Jie which is another pleasant canal street. Li Shen told me that Shiquan is her favorite place to shop in Suzhou, although if you're looking for shopping malls, you should head to Guanqian Street. On the east end of Shiquan Jie is The Bookworm (sister to the well-known Beijing Bookworm), a nice spot for a Western-style lunch or coffee. Solo Cafe and Fisher Coffee are other adorable cafes on Shiquan Jie. 5. Shang Tang Jie: The essential scenic street to visit in Suzhou

  Somewhat similar to the Pingjiang Historic Block, but more resembling a typical water town, Shang Tang runs alongside a canal and features arched bridges, but it's more touristy than Pingjiang Street. Shang Tang is the place where people get their authentic "Suzhou" photo atop one of the half-moon arched bridges, and it's a good point of departure for Tiger Hill, whether walking the two kilometers or biking out. Li Shen's favorite hangout in this area is Minghantang Cafe (part of Minghantang Hostel) which has a big balcony overlooking the canal and serves up delicious pizza, pasta and sandwiches.

6. Sights in passing: Panmen Gate, Jing Gate and Chang Gate

Old Suzhou is surrounded by a moat and was once completely surrounded by a wall that had many ancient gates. There are a still a number of gates, but only one is authentically ancient: Panmen Gate, which is an astonishing 2,500 years old, dating back to the Kingdom of Wu and the time before China was first united under as single imperial dynasty. We also rolled past Jing Gate and Chang Gate on our bikes, taking in landmarks of Old Suzhou before visiting the latest archictectural momument to modern Suzhou. 7. New Suzhou Museum: I.M. Pei's architectural homage to Suzhou
The New Suzhou Museum means something special to Suzhou and its native son, star international architect Hong Kong, as well as many other extraordinary buildings around the world. The layout of the museum is modeled to match the axis of nearby Zhong Wang Fu (Prince Zhong's Mansion). Pei, who spent a number of his childhood years on his family's estate in Suzhou, said his work was influenced particularily by his memories of Lion Grove Garden. Herbert said the museum is rumored to be the last design of Pei's career and that it was made with the design concept of "Chinese style with innovation" in mind, merging traditional Chinese architecture with modern design. After seeing so many of Suzhou's traditional white walls and gray slate roofs, it's not difficult to draw the connection between them and the careful geometries of Pei's gift to Suzhou. The museum itself has a little bit of everything from traditional Chinese opera costumes, to porcelain and Chinese contemporary art. It's also walking distance to the Humble Administrator's Garden, Zhong Wang Fu and Lion Grove Garden. Entrance is free. 8. Near Suzhou: Tai Lake and Tongli
While I never got the chance to visit these places on my trip, I talked to Li Shen about her favorite bike trips near Suzhou and she said that a trip out to Tai Lake (Tai Hu) is her favorite. She said it's beautiful out there, and that you can pack a lunch and do the 35-kilometer ride out to the lake in about four hours. Tai Lake is also one of the famous hairy crab lakes. Suzhou area is well-known in China for being home to fresh water hairy crabs, popular enough (tasty enough) to inspire an annual festival.
In addition to nearby Tai Lake, Tongli water village is another good option for an afternoon away from Suzhou. It's an easy 18-kilometers bike ride from Suzhou (you can also get a bus there or take a taxi for 60-80 RMB each way).
Suzhou: Where to stay, how to get there and how to book a bike tour
For more information on bike tours in and around Suzhou, visit Ctrip where you can book the Suzhou Classic tour or the Suzhou Highlights tour. If you're looking to spend the night in Suzhou, you can also book Suzhou hotels via Ctrip. If you're flying in, you'll need to book a flight to Shanghai, then connect via train from either Hongqiao Airport or Pudong International. Both airports also provide a shuttle bus to and from Suzhou.
Final thoughts on Suzhou  I was in Suzhou for only 11 hours so my opinions are based on casual and brief observation, but I far prefer a daytrip to Suzhou over that of Hangzhou. Suzhou also seems to have a lot more outdoorsy options than Shanghai, like boat rides, lakes, nearby water towns, fishing, canal-side cafes, and gardens. 
Li Shen told me that clothes shopping in Suzhou is much less expensive than Shanghai because it's closer to the source and overhead costs are much lower. Biking is a fantastic way to see the city, although, after eight hours, I begged Li and Herbert out of taking me to the Kunqu Opera Museum and the Folk Customs Museum cause I was all "cultured out" and more interested in coffee than the history of Chinese opera. Herbert seemed a little disappointed with my lack of enthusiasm and informed me that Chinese opera is in fact very interesting and diverse. Okay, I believe you, Herbert, I really do. Give me COFFEE now or might have to carry me there fireman style! To end this story, I leave you with a song that I dedicate to Suzhou. It just sort of came to me...inspired by Guns 'N Roses. Axl Rose, eat your heart out!
"Take me down to the PARADISE CITY where the grass is green and the GARDENS are pretty. TAKE. ME. HOOOOOME. "  Ahahaaaaaha, just kidding. I will stick to memorizing old Chinese sayings...

Suzhou photos by Rebekah Pothaar.

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