上有天堂,下有苏杭

In heaven, there is paradise. On earth, Suzhou and Hangzhou.

I love this quote, which is often attributed to Marco Polo.

The first time I heard it was some 10 years ago when I worked for Banyan Tree and the company was opening a hotel in Hangzhou. I visited Hangzhou in 2010 and have fond memories of unhurried conversations over hot longjing tea, gliding past mangroves in a hand-rowed boat.

Suzhou, however, took a little longer to get to, but I finally made my way there last summer.

AB and I were in Suzhou for only three days. The high-speed train from Shanghai took a mere 20 minutes. Alighting from the train, we descended into an empty cavernous hall and followed the signs to the taxi stand.

Suzhou train station

Our ride zipped along a smooth highway and soon dropped us off at our hotel in the Suzhou New District commercial area where we were surrounded by new high-rise commercial and residential buildings, wide roads, and spacious modern parks. Suffice to say, our first hour in Suzhou was incongruous with what we had imagined the ancient city to be like.

View from Shangri-La Suzhou

Many people associate Suzhou with its classical Chinese gardens. Designed to recreate natural landscapes in a contained space at a miniature scale, Suzhou’s classical gardens date back to the sixth century. Once upon a time, dotted amidst an intricate network of canals, there were as many as 200 gardens in Suzhou’s historic city centre.

Today, less than 60 gardens remain, of which nine were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

The “Classical Gardens of Suzhou” include the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Lingering Garden, Net Master’s Garden, the Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, the Canglang Pavilion, the Lion Grove Garden, the Garden of Cultivation, the Couple’s Garden Retreat, and the Retreat & Reflection Garden. Dating from the 11th to 19th century, these exquisite creations are regarded as masterpieces of the Chinese “Mountain and Water” gardens 山水园.

We set aside one day for garden-hopping as AB had to work on the other days. We decided to visit a couple of the UNESCO gardens and two lesser known gardens to see if there were any discernible differences to casual visitors like ourselves who do not have a profound knowledge of this art, or would the saying “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” hold true.

Humble Administrator’s Garden 拙政园

Our first stop was the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the largest and one of the more famous of the nine UNESCO gardens.

We arrived within the first hour of its opening, thinking that there would be less people. We were wrong. The entrance was swarming with people. Or as one would say in Mandarin, 人山人海, which literally means “people mountain, people sea.” Most of the visitors were Chinese travellers in large groups, led by tour guides talking out loud about the garden’s history. We had to look as we walked as an occasional selfie stick would poke into our faces from nowhere.

Humble Administrator's Garden 拙政园

Contrary to its modest name, the Humble Administrator’s Garden was immense. It was originally built in 1509 to be the private garden of a retired government servant. It was later sold and passed through different hands, gradually transforming through various iterations.

We tried to find quiet corners to get away from the crowd but had little success, so we decided to move on. 

Humble Administrator's Garden 拙政园

Half Garden 半园

The Half Garden (60, Baita Donglu, 白塔东路60号) is part of the Scholars Hotel on Baita Dong Road, a short walk from the end of Pingjiang Road.

Half Garden 北半园

A curious detail of this small garden is that most of its key features – from the bridge to the pagoda – are designed in halves. This underlines its design philosophy, which is that the key to happiness is to be content with what you have, even when they come in halves.

There was only one other person visiting Half Garden when we were there. The space was tranquil as a garden should be, with ample space for one to observe the koi swimming in the pond and to breathe. No selfie sticks either.

Half Garden 北半园

Pingjiang Road 平江路

Several of the travel guides I read recommended a visit to Pingjiang Road, a historic street that has been preserved and is listed as one of China’s “历史文化名街,” which literally means “famous historical and cultural street.” It was a short walk from Half Garden, so we went over.

I should have known better. Anywhere in China that is in some sort of famous historical places list is likely to be brimming with visitors and a tourist trap. Sure, most of the buildings on the street along the Pingjiang River had been restored but most of the businesses that occupy them were selling the same mass-produced junk. It was bewildering that they had brisk business.

Good news is that you can easily escape the humdrum by crossing one of the many bridges along the river.

Pingjiang Road 平江路

We ended up in a mini labyrinth of traditional houses where an occasional turn would lead to a dead end or another tiny street lined with colourful laundry hanging out to dry. It was a refreshing change from the tourist trap across the river. Here was where regular people live, never mind that the exteriors of the formerly white-washed buildings were crumbling.

Pingjiang Road 平江路

The quiet was suddenly broken by a loud grating rumble. A man passed us briskly, dragging a chunky television on a rope behind him on the road!

Pingjiang Road 平江路

Garden of Cultivation 艺圃园

After walking for a couple of hours, we finally made it to the Garden of Cultivation (5, Wenya Alley, Pingjiang District 平江区文衙弄5号) that is tucked away in a small old lane near the Shantang Jie historic area.

Suzhou streets - 学子街

Three young men were loitering at the entrance and, upon seeing me approach, asked if I had a Chinese bank account. It turned out that they had no cash on them to pay the entrance fee and wanted to know if I could help them and they would repay me via WeChat Pay.

This moment epitomised how China had become a far more cashless society than any other place I had known. Anyway, the entry fee was a token RMB10, approximately US$1.50. So I told the boys – they were university students from the north visiting Suzhou – that they didn’t have to pay me back.

The centre of the garden is dominated by a wide pond lined with lush greenery including Japanese maple trees in their autumnal colours. The teahouse by the pond is a lovely spot to take a breather as you sip on hot tea and crack open melon seeds.

Garden of Cultivation 艺圃Garden of Cultivation 艺圃

While there were several visitors in the garden, they immediately seemed different from the selfie stick-touting tourists we encountered earlier in the day. Dare I say this – most of the people appeared to be more refined, and spoke quietly instead of yakking at the top of their voices. Many of them were visibly enjoying the garden and its charming surroundings instead of going camera-mad.

Garden of Cultivation 艺圃

Am happy to report that the overall mood here was more contemplative and peaceful than what we experienced at the Humble Administrator’s Garden.   

Lingering Garden 留园

Our final stop was Lingering Garden, one of the most famous gardens in China and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After our morning at the Humble Adminstrator’s Garden, we were apprehensive of what awaited us.

Lingering Garden 留园

It was a tremendous relief to find out that we had arrived less than an hour before closing time. While we had a limited time to wander and explore the grounds, the few tour groups that were present were on their way out. Which meant that there were significantly fewer people lingering in the garden and its magnificent halls.

Lingering Garden 留园Lingering Garden 留园

The bonsai garden at the back was an unexpected bonus too.

Lingering Garden 留园

Final thoughts

I’m glad to have finally visited Suzhou. The few gardens that we saw attest to the historical city’s reputed charm and beauty. If I were to be in Suzhou again, I would avoid the famous gardens and instead explore the lesser-known ones which I think I will enjoy more in the absence of the overwhelming crowds.

P.S. I’ve been procrastinating this post for about half a year. No good reason for doing so. I moved back to Hong Kong, started a new job, have been preoccupied with my family as my mum’s ill, and spent too much time staring at my phone…

I decided this evening that I’ve had enough of this inertia. That I have to stop being pedantic and resist the urge to research to death everything that I plan to write on.

So here you go, a short post on my observations from our short visit to Suzhou. If you wish to read more about the gardens highlighted above, there’s always Wikipedia and its Chinese equivalent, Baidu 😉

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13 replies on “In search of quiet in Suzhou

  1. Nice to read you again, sorry for your not easy time, wish your Mum all the best.
    Beautiful places, and as always beautiful photos and words. By the way I read a few days ago in a photo forum this sentence “A zen garden is meant for contemplation and not visitation”
    It seem the problem is the same everywhere, most beautiful and interesting places are to crowded to enjoy them. But very oft if you go only a little bit away from the crowd you can find something even better and enjoy it at the best!
    Did you made the drawing I see in the Garden of Cultivation? Love it!
    All the best, robert

    1. Hello Robert, it’s nice to be writing and sharing here again, and great to hear from you!

      Interesting point that you brought up about a zen garden is meant for contemplation. For me, what frustrates me sometimes is when people around me are more occupied with themselves (for instance, constantly taking photos of themselves) than admiring or appreciating the beauty of the place that they are in. I am sometimes guilty of documenting too much of what I see and have to constantly remind myself to stop and just enjoy the moment!

      As you’ve pointed out, often it takes just a small conscious effort to do something slightly less conventional and you could discover something more enjoyable by avoiding where everyone’s headed.

      I wish I made the drawing. There was a group of young Chinese friends sketching in one of the courtyards who then later dressed up in period Chinese clothes to practice a skit. Quite fun to watch them.

      Thank you for your well wishes for my mum 🙂

  2. Great to read from you again!

    I love these vignettes from Suzhou. They paint a slightly absurd city: round doors, eptagonal windows, the guy dragging a cathode TV, the dapper fellow in that rather down-to-Earth context (he reminded me of Congo’s Sapeurs!)… Definitely a peculiar place!

    Fabrizio

  3. I am glad that you finally have time to write this post 🙂 It’s very informative! The photos are great as usual, especially the painting in the Garden of Cultivation. Is that your work of art? I also like the photo of the man dragging the TV. At first, I thought he is dragging some sort of toy tank, or a peculiar animal cage 😛

  4. Lovely post Angelina – thank you – really makes me want to go there when we visit Shanghai. Are there any nice guesthouses if we want to stay near the canals and experience local life?

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