...By the name of Singui [Suzhou]~ The “Travels Of Marco Polo”
is to be understood ‘the city of the earth’,
as by that of Kinsai [Hangzhou],
‘the city of heaven’
At first glance Suzhou seems soulless. It is one of the largest manufacturing hubs in China with smoke belching chimneys and traffic choked streets. Its GDP growth is second only to Shanghai – under a 50 min. journey by train – and it is apparently the single largest manufacturing centre for laptops in the world.
Suzhou is also a major producer of silk with a thriving market for bridal gowns on a street called (no prizes for guessing) Wedding Gown Street!
But remnants of Suzhou’s 2500 year old cultural history lurk in its old – waiting to be demolished – buildings along its ancient canals and in its wonderfully preserved gardens. Six of which have been inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The Humble Adminstrator’s Garden is the largest of these six. Built during the Qing dynasty by an official who had fallen out of favour with the imperial court and wished to retire from politics (hence the name).
It was redesigned several times by successive owners up until 1952, and deemed World Heritage in 1997.
Don’t expect flowers and topiary. This is nature in all its glory recreated in miniature. The main features in the garden are the water bodies reflecting silhouettes of the buildings, pavilions and rockeries around them.
Beautiful bridges and zigzag paths (to confound any evil spirits that might be following you! ) lead to viewing pavilions with names like “Looking Faraway Pavilion” and ” Pavilion of Fragrant Snow & Azure Cloud”
Each framing a vista straight out of a Chinese tapestry. One section had the most amazing Bonsai collection I had ever seen.
Later in the evening we set out for a boat ride on the canals. The canals of Suzhou are connected to the Grand Canal that once linked Beijing to Hangzhou. This is the longest man made waterway in the world, and was the main artery for trade up until the 1920s.
Click here for some images of ancient scrolls depicting the “Qianlong Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour” on the Grand Canal. These scrolls illustrate daily life in Suzhou in the 17th Century in great detail.
Marco Polo mentions the Grand Canal in his writings:
“On one occasion, when [I] was at the city of Sin-gui [Suzhou], [I] saw there not fewer than fifteen thousand vessels [on the rivers]”
It is still the main route for supply of goods from nearby villages although the canal cruise from Hangzhou has been suspended.
The buildings are weathered and crumbling and the ugly trappings of modern convenience like plumbing and electrical wires mar their facades but you still get a feel for how beautiful the waterfront must have once been.
GETTING TO SUZHOU
Suzhou is well connected by high speed train to several domestic destinations from four train stations: Suzhou Railway Station, Suzhou North Railway Station, Suzhou Yuanqu (Industrial Park) Railway Station, Suzhou Xinqu (New District) Railway Station
Suzhou Railway Station is the most centrally located with a high frequency of trains but your staion might depend on the departure train line you pick.
High speed bullet trains from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station or the Shanghai Railway Station take between 25 – 35 minutes. Journey time on regular trains ranges between 1 – 1.5 hrs.
By Road: Taxis or Buses take around 1.5 hrs to ply the distance of 108km depending on traffic.
High speed trains from Beijing Railway station connect Beijing to Suzhou (North Station) in 5-6 hrs. Regular trains take two to three times longer.
High speed trains from Xian take between 6 -10 hrs.
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