After a week in Shanghai, it was time for me to move to my next destination – Suzhou, a city of just over 4 million people, some 100km north-west from Shanghai. After Shanghai, it seemed like a very small place, although it was still a very big city.
My journey from Shanghai to Suzhou took approximately 20 minutes. Travelling in China is very easy, fast and comfortable. China has built an extensive network of high speed rail in recent years, therefore there is really no need to fly within China. The high speed rail connects most Chinese cities. Chinese trains travel at 300km/h, thus I arrived to Suzhou in no time. As a matter of fact, it is possible to do a day-trip from Shanghai to Suzhou. However, as I was moving in that direction, I decided to stay there for several days and to see the city in a more relaxed way.
I took my train from Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station. My friend in China bought me a ticket in advance. But, it is possible to turn up at the station and to buy a ticket just before the travel. The risk is that the train you want may be fully booked and consequently you may have to wait for the next available train. Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station is a new station, in the western part of Shanghai. To get there, take a metro, line number 2. The journey to the station is longish, because the scale of the metro map does not reflect the true distance. I wouldn’t bother with a taxi, because the traffic in Shanghai can be horrendous, while metro is safe and reliable.
Chinese trains are brand new, comfortable and fast. Travelling in 2nd class is perfectly fine, especially for shorter journeys. Trains are not entirely cheap, although they are not as expensive like in Europe. From Shanghai to Suzhou, the 2nd class train ticket was 39.5 yuan.
I arrived to Suzhou Railway Station. There are 2 railway stations in Suzhou. The other train station is Suzhou North Railway Station. You should avoid it as it is very far from the city, although the Suzhou metro system connects it with the city centre. I stayed in a four-star apart-hotel, the Fraser Suites, close to Xinghai Square metro station. It was an excellent hotel but not in the best location. I still had to take a metro every time when I wanted to go to the centre. I would have preferred a hotel from where it would have been possible to walk everywhere.
Because of its canals, stone bridges, pagodas and meticulously designed beautiful gardens, Suzhou is one of the top tourist destinations in China. The Classical Gardens of Suzhou were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000. People also call it “Venice of the East”. If you look on the map of Suzhou, the main historical part is a rectangular area, encircled by the main canal. To find it easily, look for Lindun Road metro station, on line number 1, which is more or less in the centre of that area. Almost all places of interest are there.
Before going to Suzhou, I read various guides in order to find out where the city centre is, but none of them mentioned it. To get to the centre, go to the Xuanmiao Temple in Guanqian street, which is a famous pedestrian street.
The Xuanmiao Temple is a prominent Taoist temple, with a long history. It is right in the centre of old Suzhou and it is worth a visit. I would suggest that every visitor to Suzhou goes to this colourful area. Guanqian street and the whole surrounding area are full of shops, restaurants and markets. It was very busy, especially in the evening, with people shopping or looking for a place to eat. Shops were open until very late.
There are many beautiful things to see in Suzhou:
– Pingjiang Road – is an 800-year-old road in the historical district, within the walking distance from the Xuanmiao Temple. The road is approximately 1600m long and I suggest that you start your visit from Ganjiang road, on the south side. You will eventually arrive to Dongbei street, near the Humble Administrator’s Garden.
In 2009, the Chinese government listed Pingjiang Road as “The famous historical and cultural street of China”. The street runs along the canal and there are many stone bridges, old buildings and intersecting alleys. You will get a feel of old China there, something that modern-day China mostly lost due to the economic progress and urbanisation. Along the street, there are many shops and open space places where you can eat. A gentle walk would allow you to fully absorb its magic.
– The Humble Administrator’s Garden – is the most famous, the finest and the largest of all gardens in Suzhou, and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It consists of three major parts around the large lake and it contains numerous pavilions and bridges, set in a maze of connected pools and islands.
It is a dreamlike garden. It was already very busy when I arrived there around 11am. In order to avoid huge crowds and to enjoy in its tranquillity and mysticism, try to go there as soon as it opens. As it is a large garden, it takes approximately 2h-3h to see everything in a relaxed and unhurried way. It’s a must see for everyone going to Suzhou. If you have to choose just one place to visit, this has to be it.
– The Pan Gate Scenic Area & The Pan Gate – is a historic landmark, in the south-west corner of the canal that encircles Suzhou. The Pan Gate is approximately 2500 years old. It is now part of the Pan Gate scenic area.
The other two main attractions are the Ruiguang Pagoda, the earliest pagoda in Suzhou built in 247, and the Wu Gate bridge. The Ruigang Pagoda is constructed of bricks with wooden platforms. It has simple Buddhist carvings at its base.
I spent approximately two hours in this outstanding park. To arrive there – I walked, but I took a taxi back to the centre. You can take a metro now, line number 4, to Nanmen station and walk 15 minutes to the park. They were building this metro line when I was in Suzhou, thus it wasn’t an option that I could use at the time.
I spent two days in Suzhou, although that’s not enough time to see everything that there is there to see. I missed some other famous Chinese gardens, which are also listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Additionally, I also missed Shantang street, which is similar to Pingjiang Road. It is not possible to see absolutely everything, if the stay is very short. I would gladly go back to this uniquely charming city. Outside of the old historic area, Suzhou is a bustling modern city.
If you go to China and if you happen to be in Shanghai, I urge you to, at least, do a day trip to Suzhou. Choose to see one or perhaps several major historical sites. You will not regret it, especially because going there and back to Shanghai is so easy.