A May 2005 trip
to Suzhou by Re Carroll
Quote: An hour’s train ride from Shanghai brought us to Suzhou, home of gardens and canals. With over 70 formal gardens, as well as a maze of scenic canals, Suzhou has a romantic, relaxed atmosphere that appeals to gardeners as well as those horticulturally challenged.
Only a dozen or so gardens are open to the public, but we knew we didn’t have time to see them all. We chose four and then managed to sneak a fifth into our schedule. Picking a favourite was impossible - although there were a few similar features, overall, each garden was unique and well deserving of accolades.
Comparisons to Italy are frequently made in regards to Suzhou. It has been called The Venice of the East because of the numerous canals that ring the city centre, and there is even a Chinese Leaning Tower – in this case, a 10th-century pagoda at Tiger Hill Park.
To avoid garden overload, we visited only two per day, which gave us plenty of time to explore Suzhou’s picturesque canals. We took a nighttime cruise along the main canal, and although there was no gondolier signing operetta, it was a relaxing and romantic way to end the day.
Canal tours, lasting about 1 hour, leave from the Panmen dock at 2 and 7:30pm. Cost is 35y per person. There is a video detailing Suzhou’s history, but it is only in Chinese.
Not only do the gardens awe and amaze, but the colourful admission ticket with pictures of the garden make for a nice souvenir.
You’ll find colourful pedi-cabs at most of the gardens and other major sights – a ride in one can be a fun experience, but make sure you agree on the price before getting into the cab.
There is no airport in Suzhou, so most people make the trip from Shanghai by train since it is only an hour away. Numerous trains run throughout the day, and the cost is approximately 20 y for a "soft" (airline-type) seat. If you are on a really tight budget, "hard" (bench-style) seats are available for even less. Not only were drinks and snacks available for purchase on the train, but, to our amusement, hawkers had souvenirs and toys for sale and even gave a demonstration on their product in each car.
Many of the more popular gardens are located around the downtown core, although Tiger Hill is on the outskirts of town, so you’ll need to take a taxi or city bus to get there. Taxis start at a base of 10y and then charge 1.80 or 2y per additional kilometer. Most drivers don’t speak English, so have your destination written in Chinese characters.
The front-desk clerk took us to look at a room on the third floor. Although this was one of their best rooms, with light walls and duvets on the twin beds, the mattresses were just too hard for us, so we asked to see another room. Unfortunately, the beds in the second room were just as hard and we thought we’d have to look elsewhere for a hotel. The clerk, however, was determined to find us a softer bed, so she took us to a room on the ground floor, and like Goldilocks, these beds were just right. We were happy, but she was concerned the room might be too noisy because of the staff quarters across the courtyard. She offered to have the beds moved to the third-floor room, but we were feeling guilty about being so picky and finally managed to convince her we were fine where we were. On a parting note, she said that we could switch to the third-floor room at any time. On top of that, she also comped us for their breakfast buffet, normally a 16y-per-person charge.
Although it was pretty nondescript with a beige-and-brown colour scheme, the room was large, with windows looking onto a garden. The room had air-conditioning and a large TV that got a couple of English stations. There was no minibar but a wide assortment of snacks for sale, as well as a kettle with teas and instant-coffee packets. The bathroom had a few chipped tiles but was spotlessly clean and had the standard amenities, as well as thick cotton towels.
The hotel has a business centre, small gift shop, a bar, and a large restaurant that serves buffet breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
One of the nicest features are the gardens. The main one is in an open courtyard in the centre of the hotel and has a small pond and bonsai garden. Our room backed onto the rear garden, which was a little less manicured but no less interesting, with a bridge built over a small stream and a little pavilion tucked into a back corner.
Breakfast was served between 7 and 9am in a large room overlooking the main garden. The buffet was extensive with lots of Chinese dishes, as well as eggs fried to order, fresh fruit, and an assortment of breads and pastries.
Our room was listed at 380y, but we paid 300y.
We found the hotel to be very aptly named, and I wouldn’t hesitate to return here.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 14, 2005
The Friendship Hotel
Suzhou, China 215007
Rooms are large, with twin beds and high ceilings, but could use a new coat of paint and brightening up. Our room was air-conditioned but also had windows that opened to let in fresh air, which was a nice treat. This was one of the few hotels that didn’t have a kettle for tea, but there was an urn filled with water, which we were assured had been previously boiled, since the tap water in China is not recommended for drinking. There was no minibar, but a large wicker basket filled with all sorts of snacks for sale: water, pop, noodles, chips, popcorn, and chocolate to name a few.
The tiny bathroom had all the usual amenities we’d come to expect in China – toothbrush with miniscule tube of toothpaste, shoe-cleaning cloths, comb, shampoo, shower cap, bath gel, and hand soap. There was also a selection of more items for sale, including disposable underwear, towels, and hygiene products – in fact, there was just about everything you could think of.
There was a security desk on each floor near the elevator, but we never saw anyone actually stationed there. Nightly turndown service included disposable slippers laid out in front of the beds.
As our trip through China progressed, our mantra became comfortable beds, because so many of the mattresses were almost rock hard. Unfortunately, Zhong Shan was one of the hard-mattress places, and we were advised by the front desk that all the beds were the same quality. Consequently, we spent one night here and then moved to softer beds at The Friendship Hotel.
We paid 260 yuan for the room. A breakfast buffet was available for an additional 15y per person. Although we didn’t have breakfast here, the selection included congees, dumplings, and pastries.
Hard beds aside, Zhong Shan had very friendly staff, a gorgeous marble lobby, and a good location. There were lots of restaurants and shops just a few blocks away, as well as a grocery store next door. The Lion Grove and Humble Administrator’s Garden were about a 20-minute walk away.
If your back can handle the beds, Zhong Shan is an acceptable budget hotel.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 14, 2005
Zhong Shan Hotel
1585 Renmin Lu
Attraction | "Tiger Hill Park"
I liked this park – it was very natural without the primping and manicured formal look of other spots in Suzhou. The main sights are located in a central area accessed by stairs from the ticket booth, but the park is spread over a large area, with walking trails that take you into the forest and away from the crowds. It was easy to find a quiet spot to relax and listen to the birds. In fact, the park is home to a large population of white cranes, and they were visible through the trees.
One of the park’s more colourful stories concerns a large rock ledge located near the top of the stairs. Called the Ten Thousand People Rock, legend says that a rebel gave such a fiery speech that even the rocks lined up to listen.
The main attraction at the park is the 7-story, 158-foot-high Yunyan Ta Pagoda, which was built in 961 AD. Nicknamed the Leaning Tower of the East, the pagoda leans 359 degrees to the northwest. Although it has been shored up by modern engineering, only the ground floor is open for viewing. No pictures are allowed inside, which is a shame since the ceiling and wall paintings are in relatively decent shape. The pagoda is open from 8 to 11:30am and 1 to 4pm and is included with the park admission.
Vendors had set up stalls near the entrance inside the park, and there was even a place where, for a fee, you could ride a traditional wooden boat along the canal at the edge of the park. Just outside the park’s entrance were a mini market and more souvenir stalls. After hoofing it around the park, we decided to treat ourselves to an ice cream. There was a large selection to choose from, many the same as what we’d find back home, but there were also some we’d never seen before. I had a green pea (not tea) ice bar, and Jim had a corn flavoured ice-cream bar. Mine had a subtle but definite boiled-pea taste, which was surprisingly refreshing. Jim’s was very rich, and dare I say, too corny for either of us.
Tiger Hill is open from 7:30am until 5pm (until 6pm from March to May and September to November). Admission is 60y.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 14, 2005
The gardens have all the standard features you’d expect in a Chinese garden, water, paths, greenery, pavilions, and terraces, but what sets them apart is the artful placement of limestone rock groupings that have created interesting shapes throughout the garden, as well as some mini caves. Many of the rock formations were said to resemble lions, but our imagination wasn’t sharp enough to note the similarities in more than a few instances. No matter, we were still fascinated.
Lion Grove covers 2.5 acres and, at least during our visit, didn’t have many visitors, so the gardens were very quiet and peaceful. Throughout the park are a number of pavilions and halls with very interesting names and stories to tell. One I particularly liked was Hall of Standing-in-Snow, taken from a Buddhist story about two people who so respected their elder that they waited in 1/3-metre snow for him to wake from his nap. A small pavilion looking onto the lake was called the Fan Kiosk because it was shaped like a fan and had a fan-shaped, wooden window. The Hall of Joyous Feasts was the main hall where guests were entertained with elaborate feasts. The Moral Sense Pavilion needed no explanation.
This is a very "hands-on" garden where visitors can climb the rocks and scramble from one section to another. Kids would get quite a kick out of this, but beware, because the rocks are slippery from centuries of use and footing can sometimes be precarious.
Admission is 30y per person, and the garden is open daily from 9am to 5pm.
The Lion Grove
23 Yulin Lu Rd.
Attraction | "Master of the Nets"
Designed in the mid 1100s, the garden was renamed Master of the Nets during the late 1800s. Supposedly, at that time, the owner of the house, a government official, was so frustrated with bureaucracy that he stated he would rather be a fisherman than a bureaucrat. I doubt he’d be surprised to learn that in this day and age, bureaucracy is still a major frustration for many people.
The garden is divided into three sections: residential, central garden, and inner garden. The residential quarters featured a porcelain display with exhibits from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The central garden has a large pond surrounded by pavilions and walking paths. We overheard a tour guide telling her group that it also contains the oldest tree of any private garden in Suzhou. In one of the pavilions, local artists had set up a type of coop with paintings, silk-screen prints, and heavy hand-carved furniture for sale. Prices were not cheap, but the quality of the merchandise seemed to justify the prices.
The inner garden was used as the model for the Ming Garden at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There is a peony garden with over 20 species and 300 plants, as well as butterflies that flit between the flowers. It was a very peaceful place.
The garden is surrounded by bamboo and green shrubbery that keep it a private retreat from outside interference, although we could hear the children from the school next door laughing and playing at recess.
Near the exit are a number of stalls selling the usual souvenirs: chop sticks, jade, paintings, etc. It was interesting that just about everything we looked at was initially priced at 120y, but relatively easy bargaining resulted in a final price of 20y.
Admission is 30y, and the garden is open from 8am to 5pm daily. During the summer, the garden reopens at 7:30pm for performances of Chinese opera and a lights display. Admission for the night show is 80y.
Master of the Nets Garden Cultural performance
Attraction | "Humble Administrator's Garden"
The garden was built around 1513 by a retired government official. I’ve heard two versions around the naming of the garden – some say the official had been demoted in his job and building the gardens was a way of making amends. Others say the name comes from an essay about the simple life of a humble man. Either way, there is nothing humble about this garden.
Typical of a classical garden of the Ming Dynasty, the central theme is water, and the long, twisting lake is the focal point for the many pavilions and halls that grace its banks. Every path seemed to lead to little treasures, such as a bonsai garden, small water wheel, a peaceful bamboo lined path, a thatched-roof hut, and a small wooden boat tied up to shore. The garden is divided into East, Middle, and West. The east garden is more natural, while the other sections are filled with halls and pavilions that offer a place to rest and enjoy the views. There is also a nice teahouse, although we ran out of time to visit it.
This was the only garden with an abundance of bedding plants and hanging baskets, and the bright colours of the flowers seemed almost incongruous with the simplistic lines and typical greenery that we’d come to expect from a Chinese garden.
The garden is open daily from 8:30am to 6pm, and admission is 70y. During the summer, there is an annual lily show and the admission price increases.
If you have time before or after Humble Administrator, head over to The Lion Grove, just a short distance away by foot. The contrast between large and small, classical and rugged is intriguing and provides a nice balance.
Humble Administrator’s Garden
North-east part of city
We didn’t realize that the gate is now part of a park with an admission fee of 25 yuan, nor did we realize there was much more to the park than just the gate. In fact, the park houses national, provincial, and municipal monuments, as well as scenic and relaxing gardens.
Near the entrance is the Ruiguang (Auspicious Light) Pagoda, a national relic first built in 1004 AD. Originally part of a Buddhist monastery, it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt on a number of occasions. The current pagoda was reconstructed in 1986. The seven story brick and timber structure stands 53m high, and for an additional charge of 6y, you can climb to the fifth floor for good views of the city.
From the pagoda, a paved path meanders by bamboo groves, rock formations, a waterfall, and a number of small pavilions. In one area, people were throwing fish food into the lake, and there was a writhing mass of fat orange-and-white koi greedily jumping at the tidbits. A large hall, The Hall of Four Auspicious Merits, sat in the centre of the garden, and it looked like they were having an after-hours function with white-coated waiters setting out a buffet supper.
We crossed a couple of small cement bridges to venture farther into the park, until we finally came to the Panmen Gate, a provincial relic that was reconstructed in 1351. On top of the gate were 18th-century Qing Dynasty canons as well, as a stone portcullis that was used to block the gate. From atop the gate, we had a good view of the old city walls, as well as the municipal relic, Wumen Bridge, that straddles the Grand Canal.
Panmen Scenic Area is open daily from 8am to 5pm. We arrived in late afternoon and spent so much time in the park that we didn’t realize it was after 5pm. There was no effort made to hurry us along, possibly because of the event at the hall, or maybe the officials are always that kind.
Southwestern corner of Suzhou
Abbotsford, British Columbia