A little dog sits perched on a maroon window sill, street vendors barbeque plump sausages by the canal, the vibrant colours of lanterns and futuristic buildings dot the grey skyline and colourful electrical bikes zoom by. This is Suzhou, a city steeped in historical charm amidst the vicissitude of the millennium age.
Suzhou was an ancient trading city with a network of canals that helped transport its primary commodity, silk. We are not surprised by its modernity; a city with ancient commerce as its focus can seamlessly embrace any modern business of today, effortlessly.
“Lái lái lái”, shouts a vendor, inviting us to have a look at his wares. Local silk embroidery, an industry dating back 2,500 years ago is found on tote bags, boots and coats. Located in the centre of the Yangtze Delta region, Suzhou is known for its waterside architecture and ancient riverside pedestrian roads. We walked down the pebbled pathways along Shantang Street, itching to shop. But like any seasoned shopper, we braced ourselves to first scan the entire street before making our purchases.
We took a moment to blur out the electrical bikes and modern equipment. What we saw then, was fascinating old world charm – stone arch bridges, gabled roofs, red lanterns, women in Banbi’s walking down the stone streets with waxed paper parasols in hand and merchants busily unloading their goods from their boats. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, Shantang Street was a place where merchants conducted business. It is no different today, with its boutiques, cafes, tea shops and jewellery stores.
While Shantang Street managed to transport us into the old world, a stop at Jinji Lake reminded us of China’s industrial prowess. From across the man-made fresh water lake, the monstrous modern city of Suzhou starred back at us. Gate of the Orient, standing at 990 feet with an underground rail interchange that is fully integrated into the building clearly amplifies the architectural ambition of the city of Suzhou. We once read a quote that stated “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”, so with chocolate ice cream in hand, we gawked and admired this landmark situated at the heart of the China–Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) district.
Our tummies rumbled and savouring Suzhou’s food was inevitable. Sweet and spicy were the two gustatory perceptions we found in most of the dishes we tried. The deep-fried Squirrel-Shaped Mandarin Fish, a traditional dish in Suzhou, was our favourite. The meat of the fish is shaped to protrude outwards like the fur of a squirrel and while the dish is meant to be sweet and sour, we only found it sweet. It was a good contrast to the spicy fresh black fungus we thoroughly enjoyed as well.
Suzhou’s street food like chicken feet with pickled peppers, green sticky rice balls and Zongzi, rice and preserved ham wrapped in bamboo leaves is a must try for a curious foodie. We must admit that it is an acquired taste. Barbequed meat and deep-fried food on sticks were plentiful, we munched on fried crab claws and chicken as we explored further.
Lovers holding hands walked across Maple Bridge, a bridge that is mentioned in a poem by Zhang Ji, a Tang dynasty poet – a perfect setting for a romantic stroll. The serene canal water seemed to ripple with laughter whenever a cruise boat passed by. The smell of incense was in the air. We were about the enter Hanshan Temple, located five kilometres west of the old city of Suzhou.
Known also as the Cold Mountain Temple, Hanshan Temple is anything but cold, in fact it has risen like a fiery phoenix several times in history. The temple was founded in 502 A.D. during the Liang Dynasty, destroyed in the time of the Yuan Dynasty, rebuilt during the Ming Dynasty only to be destroyed again during the Qing Dynasty. It is in the reign of Emperor Xuantong of the Qing Dynasty, that the temple was rebuilt and stands till this very day.
Prayers that are written on red ribbons and tied on trees swayed as a strong breeze gushed into the temple courtyard. Perhaps the winds will carry these prayers to the celestial world. Unlike Xi’an, Suzhou is predominantly a Buddhist city, and Hanshan Temple with its signature yellow walls plays an important role in the daily lives of the locals.
No visit to Suzhou would be complete without a stop at Panmen. Also known as Pan Gate, historians estimate it to be approximately 2,500 years old and built in 514 B.C. to surround and protect Suzhou. Pan Gate was the only entrance that served as both a land and water gate, and while parts of the ancient wall no longer exist, what remains are the gates that lead to interesting discussions of the architecture of that era.
The cobbled rampart was slippery. With the aid of the wall, we walked up the rampart slowly. Could the slippery factor be a method of slowing down an invading army? It surely slowed us down. Up on the wall, we viewed the Weng Gate that takes its name from a narrow-mouthed deep-bellied Chinese jar. Like the jar, the gate’s entrance is small while its interior is large. There is a winding passageway leading to the large square interior boasting 20-metre high walls. This is where enemies are lured and annihilated from above.
The surrounding area of Panmen has beautiful gardens and the oldest pagoda in Suzhou – the Ruiguang Pagoda. Built using brick and wooden platforms, the octagonal pagoda is said to be constructed by Sun Quan, a King who established the Wu Kingdom. We enjoyed sitting by the pond and admiring the peaceful surroundings, for outside, the modern city of Suzhou is bustling with activities that only seem to quiet down around midnight. Panmen may have been a military stronghold back in the day, but today it is a serene place offering its visitors some solitary time for reflecting.
It’s been a fabulous day in the city so far and when in Suzhou, a Garden visit is compulsory. Built during the Yuan Dynasty in 1342 and an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lion Grove Garden features grotesque rocks that resemble lions amidst bamboo groves, classic Chinese halls, pavilions and terraces across 2.7 acres. Original built for a monk, the property has changed hands many times until it was open to the public in 1953.
We did get a bit lost in the rock caves that seemed to take us in never-ending circles. Almost like an Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland moment, the labyrinth held us hostage until we noticed a small Chinese sign that we assume meant “exit”. Up and down we went, holding the rocks tightly as we manoeuvred our way to freedom. We kept wondering what the caves were used for; alas we left only with our own imagination to keep us intrigued.
Our day in Suzhou had come to an end and we bid her farewell for the next morning, we would say hello to Wuxi. A 55-minute ride later, our bus crossed the Grand Canal. We noticed barges carrying heavy loads of goods. It was clear to us why Wuxi is known for its industry and commerce.
The city on either side of the highway is dotted with tall buildings and large shopping malls. Fancy cars cruise the large roads. Unlike charming and historical Suzhou, Wuxi impressed with steel and glimmering skyscrapers. Nothing in Wuxi seemed small…
As we neared the Mt Lingshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area, we could spot the silhouette of Buddha’s shoulders up among the mountains. Stuck in a noisy traffic jam we watched him peer through the mountains oblivious to the boisterous din far below.
He watched us enter from a height of 88-meters. His face serene, his smile benevolent and despite some magnificent architecture around him, the Grand Buddha is the most grandiose of them all. We spent about three-hours there but we spent most of the time irresistibly drawn to the great bronze Sakyamuni Buddha weighing over 700 tons that stands tall against the backdrop of the Longshan Mountains.
When we finally reached his abode, we were transfixed at the august sculpture. Completed in 1996 and made from tin and bronze, it stands on a mountain that was named by the great monk Xuanzang. Historically, Xuanzang is the monk from the great Tang Dynasty who journeyed thousands of miles over treacherous terrain to India to bring Buddhism to China.
Hordes of tourists and devotees throng the area giving it a kind of a touristy feel. We certainly had to look beyond the crowds to enjoy the beauty of this place. We headed off to the Brahma Palace, a grand and glittering citadel in which a vast retinue of people participated in afternoon prayers. The imagery inside the great hall was riveting and we were spellbound. We spent a good forty-five minutes watching multitudes of devotees both young and old worship and make offerings. Later we followed the congregation for lunch in one of the great halls within the building.
There are several other attractions around the Great Buddha and the best way to see them all is by using the electric trams on offer. Some of these attractions include the Altar of Buddha’s footsteps, the Nine Dragons bathing the Sakyamuni, Buddha’s Hand Square (an exact replica in size as the hand of the Grand Buddha of Lingshan), Xiangfu Temple, Ancient Ginkgo Square, Flying Dragon Tower and the Five Mudra Mandala. Since we were short on time, we couldn’t see them all, but had seen enough to leave mesmerized.
In a bygone era, a soldier burying a pot found an inscription on a stone plaque. It read, “If there is tin, there is an army and conflict under heaven. If there is no tin (Wuxi), there is peace and tranquillity under heaven”. Perhaps this is how the ancient city of Wuxi got its name. Her prosperous ports traded in rice and cloth to merchants all across the known world. The mighty Yangtze and the venerable Grand Canal streamed through her. Her modern ambitions have earned her a new moniker – Little Shanghai.
Our journey through Wuxi led us to the Turtle Head Isle (peninsula). The locals know it as Yuantouzhu Island. It’s a land mass surrounded three sides by the waters of Lake Taihu and resembles the head of a turtle. For over 2,500 years this place has attracted tourists especially the imperial families who used it as a vacation getaway. Several primordial fishing boats ply the lake making it a picture-perfect sightseeing spot.
We watched the sun set on Lake Taihu with the antiquated fishing boats in the background. The air was laden with the fragrance of flowers and romance was in the air. We passed a bridal photoshoot and young lovers meandering through the park hand-in-hand. A young girl in traditional Chinese attire was crooning a soulful melody in the balcony of what appeared to be an old guesthouse across a decrepit bridge. The lake was serene, the land tumultuous by tourists cackling their approval on the tranquil ambience. Mankind, it appears is the only aberration of nature.
The Qingming Bridge is a historical bridge and one of the many that was built on the Grand Canal. Built during the Ming Dynasty, the Qingming Bridge is one of the best-preserved ancient stone arch bridges in Wuxi. It overlooks a beautiful canal and along that canal, on a street named Nanchang, the night springs to life.
It was past 7.30pm as we made our way to Nanchang Street. The canal was on our right and the street in front was quiet and devoid of any activity. The houses on the left were old and nothing like the glitzy buildings we saw in the city. As we walked, we occasionally noticed a brightly lit water taxi pass by. We wondered if we were in the right direction. The canal next to us was built more than 3,000 years ago and was the first man-made canal in China. It felt like history was flowing alongside quite peacefully into a silent night.
A distant glow appears which intensifies as you walk closer. Nanchang Street sprang upon us like a bejewelled dancer who wakes you up from slumber and enthrals you with a jig from a catchy tune. The street was brightly lit and alive with festivities. Party revellers stood atop a bridge watching the boats on the canal. We paused a while to reflect upon the various cultures throughout history the canal may have witnessed.
Nanchang Street is fashioned for entertainment. It has bars, restaurants, cafes, bookshops, hawkers, handicrafts, paintings and souvenir shops housed in Jiangnan-styled houses. We walked along the length of the street and watched the locals let their hair down. A bunch of young men were proudly displaying their Harley Davidson bikes to one another. Hawkers were busily selling street delicacies and the aroma of food filled the air. Street vendors stood outside their shops trying to entice passer-by to come and inspect the wares on display. Nanchang Street is certainly a great place to go and absorb the local sights and sounds over a drink or two along the banks of history.
Moonlight set over Wuxi and it was an end to another day in China. The next day, we were at the foot of the Huishan Mountain, west of Wuxi city. There lays an ancient town called Huishan. The town’s main attractions are the well preserved ancestral halls, ruins and relics that tell the story of the town’s ancient past.
During the Ming Dynasty the art of clay figurines emerged and is very widely accepted by the locals. We found several stores in the town bazaar selling these clay figurines and bought some for ourselves and as gifts for friends back home. We traversed the length of the busy bazaars in this town and it was bustling with frenzied activity.
The locals shop here and the stores that line both ends of the narrow streets sell everything from curios to everyday goods. Several small cafes sell tea and coffee and other local delicacies. We sat by a roadside café and for a change we became the centre of attention for the locals. They stopped in their tracks, whipped out their phones and took pictures of us. They then gave us a warm smile and nodded at us gently as if to say thank you for visiting and then went their way.
The inhabitants are friendly. They are simple in their ways and hospitable. The majority of tourist activity in Wuxi seemed to be that of natives visiting from other parts of China. Wherever we went, we found amicable and curious locals and their endearing smiles. Both Suzhou and Wuxi are ancient cities in China. They have learned to evolve with age to suit a new generation and rewrite history as they always did on the banks of their great canals and rivers.
The canal cities of Suzhou and Wuxi are clothed with the modern garb of concrete and glass. They speak the language of technology as well as most developed cities of the world. The wisdom to evolve comes from their ancient cultures and traditions and from the people who are curious and willing to adapt. Perhaps that’s what makes them great.
Stay: Joy Holiday Hotel located at 789 Yangchenghu W Road, Xiangcheng, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China and Ramada Wuxi located at 190 Xicheng Road, Wuxi, China.
**We were guests of Tigerair. All opinions are entirely our own.