Considered by many travelers to be the Venice of the East, Suzhou, China can still find its way off the itinerary of some who put too much emphasis on the major cities and cultural sights of this massive country. Which is a shame, as its many waterways, along with a massive assortment of cultural relics should make it a must-stop on any serious journeyer’s travels through the Middle Kingdom.
Suzhou was a major hub of the empire in previous centuries, being the centre of the Wu kingdom from the 12th to the 4th century BCE, and today its fortunes has surged once more, as it is now a hub of the high-tech industry, churning out laptops, memory sticks, and other electronics in record numbers.
But it is the murky canals lined with Chinese lanterns that glow an eerie red in the night that will earn Suzhou a place in your heart. By day, its temples and gardens will thrill the culture vultures in your band of travelers, while the relatively flat topography makes it easy for active people to get around and do some DIY sightseeing with the aid of a bicycle.
Let’s get exploring!
In the city of Suzhou proper, the most impressive point of interest is said to be the North Temple Pagoda. Also known as the Beisi Pagoda, the main highlight of this imposing brick structure is its prominence, soaring almost 250 feet into the air at over nine stories high. In the roof of the tower, various Buddhist relics were found during recent renovations, including images of the Buddha and some copper turtles.
The Cold Mountain Temple, or Hanshan Temple as it’s more traditionally known, should be your next stop on your cultural tour of Suzhou. This 1,500 year old centre of Buddhist worship has been captured in Chinese poetry, as a maple wood bridge on the premises inspired a poem by Chinese writer Zhang Ji more than 500 years ago. In less peaceful times, it was also the scene of a battle between local security forces and Japanese pirates, so the history of this site is very rich indeed.
After seeing those beautiful religious monuments, venture out of town to see one of the largest Buddhist statues in China (and one of the biggest in the world), which is the Grand Buddha at Ling Shan. Standing at over 88 metres high and weighing over 700 tonnes, this monolithic statue was completed in 1996, and it also contains a pair of palaces built off the southeast corner of the complex which have ornately designed architectural elements worth seeing on their own merits as well!
In addition to the canals that you’ll be sailing on tomorrow, Suzhou is also famed for the musical productions that have been composed here for centuries. The Suzhou Opera Museum does an excellent job of documenting this history, with many old musical instruments, costumes, masks, and books filled with lyrics/musical scores from many years of exquisitely produced opera in this classic city.
While many of the canals that used to crisscross this city like veins and arteries in the human body have been paved over, some still remain for the enjoyment of visitors, with canal boat rides being the star attraction within the Pingjiang Lu area. Rides last about 45 minutes, and with oar-powered boats available for your cruising pleasure, it’s likely one of the more romantic things you’ll do on your trip to China if you’re with a significant other.
Aside from the Venice-like waterways, Suzhou is also famous for its many Chinese-style gardens, created for emperors, government administrators, and wealthy citizens over the eons. Of all the green spaces that grace this city, make time to see highlights such as the Lingering Garden, the Humble Administrator’s Garden, and the Master of the Nets Garden.
These botanical wonders feature genuine bonsai trees and the staging of a Chinese wedding (Humble Administrator’s), grottoes and ponds recognized by UNESCO for their beauty, as well as occasional opera performances during operating hours (Lingering Garden), and cypress trees, water features, and the elegantly placed rocks that make for a striking setting for performing arts exhibitions (Master of the Nets).
With many fabulous sites lying just outside Suzhou, and with the terrain in this part of the country consisting of gently rolling hills to flat land, bicycle rental agencies make it easy to take a cycle tripin the countryside. Within easy reach of the city centre lie many smaller attractions like Jinji Lake and temples such as the intriguingly named Temple of Mystery, making it an excellent way to spend extra days that you have available in Suzhou, while staying healthy in the process!