Suzhou is connected to Shanghai by a 200km/h-plus fast train ride that takes just 24 minutes. Yes, that’s right; the city that’s famed worldwide for classical Chinese gardens is now practically a suburb of Shanghai. As such it makes for a perfect day trip from the Big Smoke, although frankly, you could easily fill 3 or 4 days here. With a population of around 4 million, it’s hardly a small place. But if a day is all you’ve got, no worries; here are ideas for a busy 8-hour itinerary that will give a good taste of the place. Taxis are the best way to get around, although they can be scarce at peak times. Pedicabs ply main tourist areas and although slower and more exxie, they’re a handy option.
Arrive hungry; this town has some famous dishes and diners. Head to Zhuhongxing (108 Gongxiang) for breakfast where fine, local ‘dragon-beard’ noodles are the order of the day. Suzhou cuisine makes an art of stewing and simmering; stocks receive particular attention and soup noodle dishes are knock-out. If dumplings are more your speed, try Yangyang Dumplings (420 Shiquan Jie) for legendary porky bites the locals clamour for. Pan-fried dumplings are the recommended way to go- fillings include pork and coriander, chive and egg, crabmeat and green vegetables and pork.
Suzhou’s elegant gardens draw visitors from all over the globe; 8 are on on UNESCO’s cultural heritage list. Most open at 7.30am and it’s a good strategy to turn up early. The Humble Administrators Garden (178 Dongbei Lu) is over 500 years old and by far the largest. It, The Lingering Garden (338 Liuyuan Lu) and Master Of Nets Garden (11 Kuojiatou Lu) are the three show-stoppers, with pavilions, pools, bridges, rockeries and waterfalls-aplenty. The Lingering Garden sometimes stages free, daily opera performances in the afternoon; Suzhou is celebrated for it’s indigenous Kunqu opera. Try to see 2 gardens; with 1 day and other parts of the city to explore, that’s all you’ll have time for.
At 10.30, 130-year old Pin Von Teahouse opens its doors. Clinging to the side of the canal on picturesque, pedestrianized Pinjiang Lu, it’s a popular venue. Upstairs you can have your own private room. Order sweet local dim sum from the illustrated menu; things like rice balls in sweet fermented rice porridge or crisp green tea cakes. A Suzhou speciality, the latter are squished together with sweetened taro puree, studded with sesame seeds and are extremely moreish. Wash these down with the local brew of choice, biluochan tea.
Pinjiang Lu is quaint, has some lovely shops and offers 45 minute-long man-powered boat rides around Suzhou’s canals. The songs of the boatmen, an emblematic sound of Suzhou, fill the air. About 1km long, the street is a major draw, but despite its busy-ness, there’s a genteel air. You could spend a couple of hours here; the adjoining old residential streets are also atmospheric. Tucked into them is the beautifully proportioned Couples Retreat Garden, a low-key option to some of the more heavily subscribed gardens.
Grab a cab to Xiyuan temple, one of several notable temples in town and famed for a collection of over 800 Buddhist sculptures. It’s also the largest temple compound in Suzhou, incorporating stands of ancient trees, gardens, pavilions, arhat halls and long corridors. The turtles in the beautiful, fish-filled Fangsheng Pond are said to date from the Ming Dynasty.
Wumenrenjia (31 Panruxian Lu, Pingjiang District), near the Lion Grove Garden and right next to Suzhou Folk Custom Museum (32 Panruxian Lu), is a stalwart of local cuisine. The interior is old-China dreamy and they’re scrupulous with their ingredients. Regional, must-try dishes include deep-fried mandarin fish, cloaked in sweet and sour sauce. Shrimps cooked with local green tea is another, and in season (around October), they utilise water vegetables harvested from nearby Taihu Lake. Fresh water chestnuts are a revelation, gently stir fried with other starchy lake vegetables, such as water caltrop and lotus root.
Suzhou is known for silk production. A tour around the Suzhou No 1 Silk Mill (94 Nan-men Lu, Canglang District) is fascinating and although they want you to buy product, there’s no hard sell. You probably will want to purchase an affordable silk-filled duvet or two however, designed to cope with both sticky summer heat and the bone-chill factor of a Suzhou winter. Another option is to visit the tranquil I.M.Pei designed Suzhou Museum. Crammed with ceramics, calligraphy, crafts, archeological relics, paintings and other treasures from the old Wu Kingdom, of which Suzhou was the major hub, the stunning building is drenched in natural light and features a garden and pool out the back.
Walking up Guanqian Lu, the main retail hub of Suzhou, is mandatory. It’s a great place to pick up mementos - silk embroideries, fans, jade pieces and biluoshan tea, for example. Cai Zhi Zai, at number 91, dates from 1870 and specializes in Suzhou candies. The local sweet tooth is legendary and can best be seen in action at Huang Tian Yuan (86 Guanqian Lu) where fresh rice cakes and pastries come in over 320 mind-boggling varieties. Nearby, on Qiaosikong Xiang, down steps just past the Soul Hotel, there’s a small collection of antique shops worth seeking out, liveliest on the weekends. Snack along Taijian Lane, where dozens of stalls proffer everything from fried fermented tofu, steamed freshwater crayfish and rice-stuffed lotus root cooked in intensely sweet syrup and scented with osmanthus flowers.
1,100 year old Shantang Lu, in Gusu District, is in another historic precinct punctuated by quaint arched bridges, meandering canal-ways and pretty cobbled streets. It’s shops are a tad more main-stream than those of Pinjiang Lu but, with plenty of lantern-festooned facades, it has a particularly cheery atmosphere. There are some terrific eateries; try the branch of famous restaurant Song He Lou at number 198. The bean curd with crab roe and white bait soup are killer. Adjoining streets make a pleasant place for an early evening stroll, as the red lights come on and the day-time crowds thin.
RadioSmartMouth travelled with the kind assistance of Air New Zealand.