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Suzhou, China

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Did You Know … ?

  • One ounce of silkworm eggs produces 30,000 to 35,000 silkworms and ultimately 12 pounds of silk.
  • Renowned architect I.M. Pei returned to his ancestral home Suzhou to design the new Suzhou Museum.
  • Sun Tzu wrote the famous military book, “The Art of War,” at nearby Qionglong Mountain 2,600 years ago.
  • In the 16th to 18th century heyday of Suzhou’s gardens, the city counted 200 private landscaped gardens.
  • A single silkworm cocoon has from 1,640 to 3,950 feet of silk thread.

Of gardens and silk

Suzhou ranks high on tourists’ must-see lists because of its antiquity, its connection to China’s Grand Canal, its classic gardens and its role as China’s silk capital.

Suzhou is about an hour from Shanghai, in the center of the Yangtze delta in southeastern China, and it is one of the country’s oldest cities, dating from 514 B.C. The equally ancient Grand Canal connects it to other cities, but Suzhou also is known for its lakes, rivers and local canals.

These waterways, originally harnessed for commerce, are exotic and fascinating for 21st century visitors. A standard sightseeing opportunity, they provide a window on the local way of life, both in current and historical terms. Other touchstones include centuries-old pagodas, stone bridges and the imperial city’s moat. Suzhou’s ancient city walls are gone, but the gates also remain.

In fact, much of Suzhou’s past — cultural as well as material — survives, often protected and incorporated into modern life. Its gardens are a case in point. They originated as small, carefully designed private spaces meant to provide a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Among the nine on the UNESCO World Heritage List, the oldest dates from the 11th century, the newest from the 19th. Today, visitors come to the gardens for tea, for a festival, for an evening show — or simply to appreciate the art of the classic Chinese garden.

Suzhou has been the center of silk making since time immemorial and, in imperial days, made much of the best silk goods for the court. Silk production continues, and tourists can see how it is done, at museum and factory sites, and buy samples, too. Similarly, Suzhou is the home of embroidery, another specialty that is celebrated in a museum while remaining a living art — and potential souvenir.

Suzhou has a couple of other claims on China’s cultural history. Kunqu, a form of Chinese opera, originated in Suzhou. Pingtan, also a Suzhou performance art, uses ballads as a storytelling device. The appeal of Kunqu and Pingtan is not as broad, but these arts, too, are recognized in museums and accessible to all comers.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Take a self-drive tour that lets you spend time in the area’s water towns, noted for their numerous rivers, canals and bridges and the fact they are repositories for traditional ways of life. Choices include Luzhi, Mudu, Tongli and Zhouzhuang.
  • Sample Suzhou’s signature dishes, such as the squirrel-shaped Mandarin fish, characterized by its lack of bones and the positioning of the fish head and tail to give the appearance of a squirrel. Others are the biluo shelled shrimps, made with green tea; cracking eel paste, and watermelon chicken.
  • Take a tour on a bamboo raft through the marshes of the Shanghu Wetland nature reserve to see some of the 60-plus bird species there.
  • Attend a performance of Pingtan, which is a type of storytelling whereby two artists/storytellers relay old tales with ballads and traditional musical instruments. These are long stories and are typically presented in teahouses.
  • Devote an evening to rock, blues and other popular music heard in the bars along Shiquan Street. The street, between Anli Bridge and Phoenix Street, features more than 20 European-style bars. Another option, but pricier, would be the nightclubs on Li Gong Di, a causeway in Jinji Lake at the Suzhou Industrial Park.
  • Climb Qionglong Mountain where you can see a statue of Sun Tzu and visit the thatched cottage where it is said “The Art of War” was written.

Things to do for Centrics

  • If Suzhou’s history interests you, visit the Pan Men Gate and as many of the other seven original city gates as you can. Pagodas and stone bridges warrant a look, too.
  • Get a look at quality Suzhou embroidery, including double-sided embroidery for which the city is known, at the Suzhou Institute of Embroidery. Then troll Embroidery Street to visit workshops and stores where you may see the work done and buy embroidery to carry home.
  • See the local version of Chinese opera, the Kunqu (also called Kun) opera, at the Qinlan Showplace.
  • For a unique way to see one of the gardens, attend a party at the Master of Nets Garden. Performers in traditional theater costumes present eight different shows in eight pavilions, each featuring entertainments such as Pingtan, Kun Opera, the Chinese zither and folk music. The nightly parties run from mid-March until mid-November.
  • There are museums for everything that matters to Suzhou. Besides those accommodating the stories of embroidery and silk, there are these choices: Suzhou Arts and Crafts Museum, Suzhou Opera Museum, Suzhou Pingtan Museum, Suzhou Museum of Folk Customs, Suzhou Chinese Medicine Museum and, for recent history, the Suzhou Revolution Museum.
  • Head to Guangfu town on the eastern bank of the Taihu Lake, and eat fish specialties served in one of the boat restaurants. These specialties include steamed white fish and water shield soup with egg flakes.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Suzhou is the ultimate destination for a garden tour. Visit all nine found on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Time your visit for festival time. From March to May, the Humble Administrator’s Garden hosts the Azalea Tourism Festival. From April to October, the Lingering Garden hosts the Festival of Wu Culture.
  • Have lunch or take tea at the Tinfeng or Yiyuan Garden.
  • Tour the new Suzhou Museum, both for the stunning I.M. Pei design and for the historical artifacts inside.
  • Cruise on the Grand Canal. That can be a three-hour trip to or from Wuxi, or a multiday cruise on the world-famous waterway. Or, take a night cruise on the city moat. It takes about 80 minutes to circumnavigate the ancient city. Much of the moat also is part of the Grand Canal.
  • Ride the Ferris wheel at the Suzhou Ferris Wheel Park, located on the east shore of Jinji Lake. There are other typical amusement park rides, as well.
  • See how silk is made at the No. 1 Suzhou Silk Manufactory. Have lunch on site, and shop for silk as a most fitting Suzhou souvenir.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Suzhou Tourism Bureau at http://en.visitsz.com or select another language.