What’s Suzhou Like? (Part 1)

I lived in Suzhou from the summer of 2018 to March of 2020, and I heartily recommend it! Suzhou is located in Jiangsu Province, China, a 30 minute train ride or 2 hour drive from the happening metropolis of Shanghai. (Many of us took day trips there to see museums, art exhibitions, or go to Disney Shanghai.) Much of Suzhou was built within the past decade or two in one of China’s common growth booms.

The whole SIP (Suzhou Industrial Park) area, a prospering financial district with a Western feel and plenty of foreigners, was nothing but fields 10 years ago. I lived in SIP and relished the immaculate roadside landscaping and brand-spanking-new subway system. One American coworker who got her start in central China described Suzhou as “China lite”. She said, “To be honest, sometimes I don’t even feel like I’m in China.” Many customer service workers have a tiny bit of English, (coffee? hot? iced?). Physicians and bank tellers are usually fluent in English as required by their employer. Outside of that…good luck!

On the older side of things, (this is the great civilization of China we’re talking about, after all) Suzhou is an ancient city, older than Rome itself. It used to be an important center of silk production and trade, and plenty of silk goods are still sold in both souvenir shops and upscale boutiques. I used to go in every qipao (traditional dress) shop I saw until my eyes swam from the bewildering array of shiny colors. There are also plenty of cheap qipaos of artificial material.

Along with the nearby city of Hangzhou, Suzhou has long been renowned in poems and proverbs for its beauty, which is largely derived from its many canals and traditional Chinese gardens. Humble Administrator’s Garden is the largest, oldest, and most famous of the gardens, and has been depicted in paintings, poems, and literature for centuries. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with many other gardens such as Lingering Garden, Master of Nets, and Couple’s Retreat.

You can still visit traditional areas in the center of town, if you take the green Line 2 on the subway and get off at Donghuan Lu or Xiangmen station. Pinjiang Road is famous throughout China, and remains incredibly picturesque despite being touristy. Between buildings and sidewalks lie white-plastered walls, with traditional curved black slate tiles on top. The round ends have floral designs just like you would expect to see on a temple roof or museum reconstruction.

The water in the canals, which date back hundreds and thousands of years, is unfortunately a breeding ground for mosquitoes in the summer. Children and adults walk around all summer with legs that look like victims of a horrible rash, or perhaps scars from cigarette burns. I often rolled my eyes and called the canals “glorified storm drains” based on the gray-green shade of water and the direct polluting drainage I witnessed from houses, etc. But oh, if you saw the green willows that overhang the canals year-round, you would understand how the peaceful, enchanting beauty of that picture erases everything else. Suzhou and the surrounding area is rife with “water towns” like Tongli, where canals take the place of the street. Not for nothing has Suzhou been called the Venice of the East.

Published by gracexaris

Explorer, thinker, writer, teacher, woman.

8 thoughts on “What’s Suzhou Like? (Part 1)

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