Chinese legend states that, "In heaven there is paradise, and on
earth there are Hangzhou and Suzhou". Suzhou (population 5.7
million), has been praised as a "paradise on earth" since
ancient times. Being only two hours from Shanghai,
Suzhou has enjoyed great prosperity and recognition over the years and
this is an extraordinarily delicate and elegant city in parts.
However, it is an exaggeration to refer to this pretty place as
"paradise". Like many other cities in China, the bulldozers
and cranes have moved in. There is still a fair amount to see and the
classical and traditional Chinese style and designs here make a nice
change from the modernity of Shanghai.
Suzhou is one of the oldest towns in the
Yangtze basin, founded in about 600 BC but really making it's fame one
thousand years later when the Grand Canal was up and running. The
great location that the city affords helped Suzhou become a prosperous
trading area and the silk industry especially boomed here.
By the 14th
Century, Suzhou had become the leading silk producer in China and this
quaint little retreat became popular with visitors from the imperial
court at Hangzhou.
Artists, scholars and painters all retreated to this "Venice of
the East" to seek inspiration and to relax.
Suzhou was one of the few city's in China
to escape the ravages of the cultural revolution and its famous
gardens survived almost intact. It is the gardens here, which are the
most famous attraction in the city. The gardens embody the harmonious
principles of Chinese garden construction which dictate that gardens
should attempt to create a microcosm of the universe in a confined
space. Amongst the most charming are the Garden
of the Master of the Nets and the Humble
Administrators Garden. The intimate gardens here are particularly
pleasant on a misty day and Suzhou's narrow streets and lanes can be
very romantic and relaxing.
Suzhou's cultural sites and temples are
also worth a visit. Hanshan
Temple's distinctive atmosphere and construction are
unforgettable. The Temple
of Mystery and West
Garden Temple are both excellent examples of Daoist and Buddhist
tradition respectively. Also, Tiger
Hill is a great spot to explore and spend a lazy afternoon in a
historical setting. Suzhou's profound cultural and historical
background as an ancient capital have helped make this one of China's
premier tourism cities.
However, the crowds of tourists here can
get unbearable and Suzhou is a favorite with Chinese tour groups who
are bussed in and out on day trips. It's most pleasant therefore, in
the early evening when the sun is going down and the streets are
emptying. The canals and quaint little houses and alleys are charming
at this time. Get there fast though, as things are changing. Hotels,
skyscrapers and highways are going up and urban renewal is eating away
at this little area of "paradise".