Shanghai is such a massive urban centre with so much to offer, that it's sometimes easy to forget that there are other places throughout this amazing country, some of which are right on Shanghai’s doorstep. Take for example, Hangzhou, the ancient capital of China and only one hour away on board one of a fleet of new high speed trains China has developed. If one hour seems too long, however, then even closer is Suzhou. This place has been around for centuries and plays a very important part in the country's history. It was here that most of its silk was made, which not only clothed its people but also gave it one of its biggest exports to trade internationally. Because of this and its proximity to the Grand Canal, other waterways were opened up through the city. Most are gone today, but enough still remain for Suzhou to be nicknamed 'the Venice of China'.
Today Suzhou, only a half hour away from Shanghai by train, is a thriving city with a population of about six million. Take note when arriving by train though, as the station is on the north side of the city and there is currently works going on to open a new south side exit. This means that you have to leave from the north exit and either work out the bus schedule - a daunting task if you can’t read Chinese - walk or, as I did, take a taxi to the far side of the city and then wander back to the station taking in the sites along the way. Taxis in Suzhou are the same as the rest of China and are very reasonable, unless you get that one driver who sees a foreigner and tries to take advantage. My taxi from the station to PanMen cost 19RMB, or about $3.
PanMen is located in the southwest of Suzhou and holds the distinction of being the only gate in China that was built for both water and land entry into the ancient city. The area was recently renamed the 'PanMen Scenery Area' and hosts other things besides the gate and some of the original city wall, which still stands. The first thing that you see when entering is the Ruiguang Pagoda, which is believed to be over 2000 years old; the outer shell was destroyed by war some time ago but the brick core still remains and for 6RMB, about a buck, you can climb to the top to get views of the surrounding area and the rest of the city.
PanMen is full of flowers and as I visited in springtime they were all starting to bloom and were full of colour. It seemed to me that this is the scene that friends back home picture when I tell them I live in China; if they saw the urban sprawl of Shanghai they would realise just how wrong they are. Just next to the pagoda are the Century Bell of Tang and the hall in which it sits. Just on the other side of this bell is the lake that typifies a Chinese garden and it was full, rather expectedly, of enormous coy carp. On one side of the lake there were some rocks complete with a waterfall, but I noticed there was an entrance to go inside the rocks that everyone else seemed to ignore. The sign above the hole said 'beware of safety', which I took to mean it was fine to enter as long as I was careful. The caves led to the back of the waterfall, which led to some shocked noises from local tourists who were trying to get a nice shot of loved ones with the waterfall, when all of a sudden there was a foreign guy in the background.
The gate itself is a complex series of doors and bridges designed to let people into the city to trade, both on foot and in boats. There is still around 100m of wall left standing, which I walked but wouldn’t recommend doing the same as it ends abruptly with no way to get down and with the only view to look at being a building site on the other side of the canal.
Overall a visit to PanMen is highly advisable. It cost me 25RMB, around $4, to get in with an extra $1 if you want to climb the pagoda - well worth the price on all fronts.
Next on my agenda was a small Confucian temple, which happened to be on my way from PanMen to the star attraction of Suzhou: the Humble Administrators Garden. The Confucian temple is located close to the centre of the city on one of the main streets so it’s very accessible. The temple is free to get in, and before you get to the temple itself you walk through a small garden with a statue of Confucius himself standing over the middle. I found it one of the quieter areas of Suzhou, with just a couple of people doing their things: reading, meditating and taking a snooze. The temple didn’t keep my attention for too long but, to be fair, I feel a bit "templed out" having travelled extensively in this part of the world. However, it is free and is worth a visit if you are unfamiliar with what a Confucian temple looks like.
The quietness I felt at the temple was quickly evaporated as I made my way to the Humble Administrators Garden. Crowds flock here not only for the gardens but also for the Suzhou Museum next door - though I had been informed that the museum has almost no English and is a waste of time for those of us who cannot speak Chinese - and for one of the last remaining stretches of the original canals that used to bisect the city. This part of the canal is complete with Chinese gondolas pushing people and goods through the water. The gardens themselves come with a 70RMB entrance fee, about $11, which seems a little steep but once inside you quickly realize it is worth it. The gardens are very extensive, and the first thing you see as you go through the gates is another lake with trees and shaded grass areas. As you stroll through it seems there are many things to discover. A favourite of mine was the walkway that goes over the water and rises and falls to symbolise waves. Walking around, it seemed as if every demographic of people was there: old couples, families with small children, foreign groups, local groups and me, the solo traveller. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the beauty and serenity of the gardens.
The only drawback is that the gardens are so well known for being beautiful that going on a day where you don’t have to fight the crowds seems impossibe. There are other gardens in Suzhou to go and visit, and I am quite sure they wouldn’t be as busy, but then they aren’t as busy for a reason.
I had now walked back to the north of the city again. The next place I wanted to go to was Beisi Pagoda, but as I arrived two busloads of people pulled up and starting piling towards the entrance, making me change my mind. As I had already been up one pagoda that day and, again, having travelled so much in the region and seen my fair share of pagodas and the like, I didn’t feel like I was missing much. Besides, you can see the outside of the pagoda without having to go through the entrance. That left me with one more place I wanted to see: the Suzhou Silk Museum. The entrance fee here was 15RMB, about $2.50, and there was ample English to go along with all the displays. I didn't find it all that enthralling; maybe I was tired from walking around all day or maybe you just need a special interest to enjoy a museum dedicated to silk. The best part of it for me was the people who were actually making silk using the same old machinery that was used hundreds of years ago.
From the museum I walked back to the station, which took me about ten or fifteen minutes to get there. There are many places left that I didn’t get to go and see including more public gardens: the Lingering Gardens and the Lion Grove Garden being the two main ones, and Tiger Hill, which is just on the outskirts of the city. Buying a ticket couldn’t be easier as trains leave for Shanghai every 20 to 30 minutes. The price of a ticket is 40RMB, about $6.50, or 60RMB for first class, with the journey only taking a half an hour.
So, if you live in Shanghai there is really no excuse for not going to visit a beautiful, historical city right on your doorstep. And if you don’t live in Shanghai but are planning to take a trip to China that includes Shanghai, why not take one of the days you had originally planned and use it instead on taking a trip to Suzhou. You won't be sorry you did.