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
Suzhou photos by Rebekah Pothaar.