A day in SUZHOU: Apr 2019

I made the 110km journey from Shanghai to the city of Suzhou in 25 minutes. China’s high-speed trains are a marvel. As British poet John Betjeman wrote: “Trains are made for meditation.” 

Betjeman was writing in 1940, in the age of steam, but that meditative effect of trains lives on… as long as the train is not too crowded or noisy, which the train to Suzhou was not. 

Suzhou is on the Yangtze Delta Plain. I had hoped to see some countryside on the way to the city, but no, the land was all ‘conquered’ by buildings and development, with only the odd patches of fields.

The city is famous for: 

  • Over 50 historic gardens with UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
  • Being the Venice of the East – the city is dissected by nine canals going north to south and 12 east to west. 
  • The Suzhou Museum, designed by Chinese-born architect IM Pei of Louvre pyramid fame.
  • Nearby Lake Taihu – the birthplace of the worshipping of rocks.

Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou 

The gardens of Suzhou reflect over 2,000 years of Chinese garden design. They mimic nature, its mountains and rivers, and natural rocks, with strategically placed pavilions and pagodas in the landscape.
The crowds are not so beautiful, as the gardens of Suzhou are one of the top spots for Chinese tourists, with their flag-toting guides. 

I was with two guides from the hostel where I was staying in Shanghai and a Swiss traveller, also staying at the hostel. Our day visit only gave us time to visit the Lion Grove Garden – one of the nine ‘mountain and water’ gardens. The garden was built by a Cha’an Buddhist monk (China’s equivalent to Zen Buddhism) in the 14th century.

Having lost the guides among the flocks of tourists,  the garden officials very kindly allowed me to make a public announcement to the hundreds of people visiting the Lion Grove Garden that day, asking out guides to join us at the main entrance.  Once we found them, I asked them to write in our phones, in Mandarin: “I am lost. Please can you ring my guide. Her number is …

This joined my other message: ”I am allergic to MSG [monosodium glutamate] and it makes me ill.” 

Rock worshipping in Chinese art 

The Lion Grove Garden is famous for its grotto of lion-shaped taihu rock, a local limestone which is one of four stones venerated in China – the other three are Lingbi and Ying, and Kun, also from the Suzhou region. 

Near Suzhou is Lake Tahai, known as the birthplace of the Chinese tradition of rock worshipping. The story goes that Bai Juyi, a famous poet and prefect of Suzhou, was strolling by the lake back in 826CE, when he came across a pair of oddly-shaped rocks. 

He took the rocks back to Suzhou, where he wrote a poem, A Pair of Rocks, inspired by how rocks are marked by time and the forces of the universe. This became the founding moment of the Chinese veneration of rocks

The Lion Grove Garden, meanwhile, is renowned for its grotto of lion-shaped taihu rock, a local limestone which is one of four stones venerated in China – the other three are Lingbi and Ying, and Kun, also from the Suzhou region. 

Pingjian Road – noodles & fashion 

For lunch, we headed to Pingjian Road, a pedestrianised street dating back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The road runs along a canal. It’s a popular place for young Chinese women to dress up in traditional clothing and go for a stroll. 

We ate at Dream of Taoyuan (named after a region in Taiwan).  MSG is sprinkled liberally onto food in China, but here I managed to find a MSG-free dish of noodles and vegetables, followed by some kind of red bean sweet soup.  

We also bought some fruit from a man with a bicycle. No cash accepted. Only card.  The purply-black fruit tasted like a cross between a grape and a sweet plum, and the yellow-white one was almost pure sugar. Our diet is so limited in the West, where fruit is seen as not much more than apples, oranges and bananas.

Bread from ‘minorities’

On the way back to the station, we passed a bread stand.  Who were these people, whose faces were not like the Han Chinese of eastern China? My guides told me they were from “the minorities”. 

Checking back with Chinese friends in London, they were probably from Xinjiang. “They are Euroasians,” I was told.  Xinjiang is a region that has since generated much news in Europe.

Whoever they were, their bread was deliciouscooked on a hot plate like the ones used to make crêpes and galettes in France. I asked for my bread not to be put straight off the hot plate and into a blue plastic bag. Too late.  I whipped it out pretty quick.

Sunset by the lake in Suzhou

In Pingjian Road, I had the sensation that Suzhou was a small historic city. The reality is that it is home to over 10 million people

After lunch, we crossed the city by metro and by foot to arrive at Lake Jinji … it was only afterwards that I realised where we had gone, as I had thought we were heading for Lake Taihu. The problems of (mis)communication when you don’t speak the local language. 

Towards the end of the day, people were gathered in the cafés and restaurants that line the shore with views of the sunset and across to Suzhou’s tallest building, the Gate of the Orient.  Like the Bund in Shanghai, this was also a favourite place for brides to have their photos taken

On the way back to the train station, our guides got us thoroughly lost.  We walked so far, flanked by anonymous modern high rises, on busy roads, filling our lungs with pollution.  

The next morning, back in Shanghai, I could feel the pollution grating the back of my throat.  Ironically this was the only time I was to get lost in China, and the only time I travelled with a guide

And why did I go to Suzhou? It made for a pleasant day trip from Shanghai, where I was staying for ten days. Previously I was going to do a yoga retreat in San Francisco. The retreat got cancelled and I was left with a changeable BA ticket. Shanghai also began with an ‘S’ and the ticket cost about the same.  

In Shanghai, I stayed at Laoshan Hostel, which has a MSG-free restaurant on the ground floor and great foot massages round the corner, near Dashijie station.

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