At first glance Suzhou seems soulless. With its smoke belching chimneys and traffic choked streets, it is one of the largest manufacturing hubs in China. Its GDP growth is second only to Shanghai – under a 50 min. journey by train – and it is apparently the single largest manufacturing center 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 granted UNESCO World Heritage status.
.….By the name of Singui [Suzhou]
is to be understood ‘the city of the earth’,
as by that of Kinsai [Hangzhou],
‘the city of heaven’
~ The “Travels Of Marco Polo”
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”
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 Suzhuo are connected to the Grand Canal that once linked Bejing 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 in great detail, daily life in Suzhou in the 17th Century.
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 apparently 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.
As in Tongli, we were lucky to have very few tourists on the water! Doubt very many do this tour! It was a lovely long ride up to the Wumen bridge, providing excellent photo-ops, one of which is the main header image of this blog.
I enjoyed this boat ride much more than I did the tour of the garden. Wonder how much has changed since our visit in 2009….three years is an aeon in China.