Suzhou, close to sprawling Shanghai, is what Fort Worth is to Dallas. The Chinese call it a small city; it has “only” 11 million people. It takes about an hour to get from Shanghai to Suzhou, given the sprawl, and from Suzhou to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, it takes one and a half hours. But the people who live in Suzhou love it for its “small” size — it “only” takes about an hour to get from one side of the city to the other — and it still has everything you want in your “town.”
Not generally on the tourist itinerary, Suzhou isn’t particularly pretty, although it is known as the “Venice of the East” for its outstanding ancient city and wonderful Chinese garden. Chinese tourists flock here on vacation. Maybe they know something foreigners do not.
Suzhou can’t base its achievements on being a center of government either, as it isn’t the capital of the province. It is regarded as a well-functioning, business-oriented city, similar to Dallas in that way, with its giant neighbor, Shanghai, close by.
Downtown Suzhou is developed on two sides of a lake at its center. Modern buildings in both places are surrounded by streets closed to traffic on which one neon-lit, modern restaurant after another tries to draw in customers. One side of the lake has a convention center whose patrons keep the restaurants in business. The other side has the new Suzhou Center Mall, a huge, luxury shopping center with all the American brands represented and spanning the lower floors of the iconic, inverted U-shaped high-rise office building that symbolizes Suzhou.
At night both sides of the lake seem to compete for the best lighting of the buildings. Both are magnificent, so I declare a tie.
Suzhou gets its reputation as the Venice of the East because in its ancient quarter known as Xietang an extensive canal system runs parallel to a cobblestone pedestrian roadway that once served horse-drawn vehicles but is only wide enough today to accommodate motorcycles. On the other side of the road are shops and homes. The area dates from the 13th century during the Song Dynasty, and retains its original look and feel. In fact, many of the buildings have never been renovated. Do not visit during holidays, as the streets are so jam-packed that you can hardly move.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is reputed to be one of the four best in China. This garden dates from 1509 during the Ming Dynasty. A Chinese garden is a work of art made with living things. The artistry is to take into account how a plant will grow over time, creating visual landscapes and waterscapes that look good in all seasons. Some of the scenes here are among the most world’s most stunning in their simple beauty.
The I.M. Pei designed museum in Suzhou houses some great ancient pieces from the many dynasties that ruled China. One of my favorite parts of this museum are the window views overlooking Pei-created landscapes strategically placed to create a calming effect throughout the museum.
My host in Suzhou took me to a noodle restaurant that has been in existence for more than 500 years where I had the most delicious rendition of noodles, a popular Chines dish, that I have ever had. We also experienced dumpling restaurants, hotpots and Suzhou’s specialty, a fish fried with its mouth open, served in a restaurant known throughout China and so popular that it needs three large floors to seat its customers. Reservations required.
An aspect of Suzhou that fascinated me is the use of building exteriors as super-sized computer screens to broadcast light shows, advertisements and pictures. The hotel in which I stayed had this technology. From inside the room, you detect nothing; but outside the light is so bright it is like daytime. In the areas of Suzhou where many buildings have this astounding technology, it seems like there’s perpetual daylight.