Itinerary: Hits and Misses of Two Days in Suzhou,…

n China, Suzhou is legendary. Not only are the women supposedly the most beautiful of the whole country, the silk is exalted, and real estate will cost you everything you have. The water towns outside several cities (such as Gubei Water Town outside Beijing) are all modeled after Suzhou.

When you arrive in Suzhou, I think you can just feel how different it is. The train station sits right outside the Waicheng River. In Chinese, Waicheng means encompassing wall – in other words, an actual moat around the city! Suzhou is home to 14 classical gardens; these gardens are small havens! They look exactly like what you would expect ancient Chinese gardens to be. Because of them, there are plenty of locals touring Suzhou at all times. In fact, one tour guide said that the reason everything is so cheap is because the government subsidizes tour companies and the salaries of tour guides.

I visited on two weekdays in late July. The weather was ridiculously hot, and yet the gardens I visited were full of people.

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Day 1: Getting Sucked Into a Tour

When I first arrived, I decided to check out some of the gardens first. The Humble Administrator’s Garden was the closest to the train station. As I walked around, I started to see a ridiculous number of small tour companies advertising packages. I would definitely recommend that you stay away from these, especially if you don’t speak Chinese. What happened with me is that I thought the package encompassed more than it did. That explained the price. I only paid ¥150. That price is not too bad in itself, but considering what it entailed, it was a steal. What you have to remember, though, is that Chinese tours make money off commissions. This means they’ll take you shopping – whether you want to or not.

Shopping is great if you live in China and want to get silk sheets or various pearl products. They’ll even ship it to your address for you, wherever you live. However, you end up spending an hour at each of the silk and pearl “museums” (where the gift shop takes up 80% of the building) – a waste of time.

The better way to handle this is to take your entrance ticket to the Humble Administrator’s Garden (worth ¥90) and then go with the tour on a boat ride. Outside the HAG, they’ll even transport you to the pier! After that, though, I would recommend that you break away from the tour. It’s very easy to get a taxi through the Didi app (Uber/Lyft equivalent) back to the gardens. It would provide much more value for your time than staying with the tour.

Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园)

The Humble Administrator’s Garden, along with the Lingering Garden, are probably the two most well-known classical gardens in Suzhou. If you don’t have much time or didn’t plan your trip very well, just follow my lead!

The garden is the largest of the classical gardens across the city, at about 13 acres. Because of this, you can expect to spend at least 1.5-2 hours here. The garden is from the Shaoxing period during the Southern Song Dynasty (1131-1162). What you’ll notice first is the multitude of trees and water. In classical Chinese gardens, both of these are key elements of design. If you don’t have a guide yourself, consider tagging along someone else (there are sometimes English-speaking guides with other groups) or doing some background research.

Either way, I’m sure this garden was meant to be calming – a way for the rich to get away from the fast-paced nature of the city. You won’t feel that with the crowds, but you can definitely take your time to explore the entirety of the garden!

Boat Ride

Suzhou is fundamentally a water-based city, so you should take a boat ride if you can! As you go down the river, you can see how the water is an integral part of the city. The way that vines grow on the sides of the buildings that line the river or how classical-looking structures stand out from the trees can make for an actually calm ride. The other great thing is that the boats are climate-controlled, which means a nice break from the heat of summer if that’s when you visit.

New Silk Road Exhibition Hall

If this exhibition was less about trying to sell you things and more about showing off the history and culture behind Chinese silk, it would be amazing. You can actually see both silkworms making silk and the process of harvesting it from them! Considering silk is one of China’s biggest assets, I feel they could capitalize this much more. I mean, there is an entire portion of history where people from all over the world coveted Chinese silk so much the route they took to China was called the Silk Road!

When these silk sheets are made into products, especially blankets and comforters, it is apparently a process still done by hand. The silk comes in small balls that need to be stretched, so it takes four people on each corner to do so. They have to pull probably hundreds of layers just to make one, but apparently it’s the secret to the wonderful beauty sleep that local people get. Allegedly.

I would have enjoyed this stop if the presentation ended there. Instead, we were whisked through a long series of rooms trying to sell us all types of products. I hated that. How many people actually have use for a completely new blanket/comforter? I feel like this would be a pretty big purchase that takes longer than a few minutes to make. There were silk clothes, but they sure spent a lot of time pushing new comforters on us.

Pearl Museum

Unfortunately, this stop was much of the same. The museum itself was very interesting, as there was a lot of information about the different types of pearls (yeah, I thought there was only one type too!). There was jewelry, but also face wash, lotions, toothpaste, and other pearl-derived products for sale. By the time I realized this would turn into another shopping stop that took up way more time than I wanted to spend, I hailed a taxi and left.

Lion Forest Garden or Lion Grove Garden (狮子林园)

The Lion Forest Garden is another of the UNESCO Classical Gardens of Suzhou. Its name comes from the plethora of rocks and stones. There’s a small exhibit of different types of stones in the back building, but many of them near the pond are shaped like lions. Hence, the name. They were brought when the garden was built in 1342 during the Yuan Dynasty.

Pingjiang Historical Cultural Quarter

Around the Lion Forest Garden and the other classical gardens is the Pingjiang Historical Cultural Quarter. It is essentially a tourist street; you can find it lined with little souvenir shops and food stalls. By the time I visited, around 5pm, it was already starting to empty. Still, you can take a gondola ride or buy something to eat and sit along the small stream that flows through it!

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Day 2: Finishing Up Suzhou’s UNESCO City Center and Zhouzhuang

After I visited the Lingering Garden, it started to rain! The rain was coming down pretty fast and I didn’t bring an umbrella. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I had read about Zhouzhuang being pretty much the original water town. Considering how almost every city has a water town now, and how Suzhou is known for water, I decided to test my luck and take a taxi from the Lingering Garden to Zhouzhuang.

Lingering Garden (留园)

After I visited the Lingering Garden, it started to rain! The rain was coming down pretty fast and I didn’t bring an umbrella. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I had read about Zhouzhuang being pretty much the original water town. Considering how almost every city has a water town now, and how Suzhou is known for water, I decided to test my luck and take a taxi from the Lingering Garden to Zhouzhuang.

Lingering Garden (留园)

There was some questionable information about public transport to Zhouzhuang online, but they mostly involved going back to Suzhou Railway Station and taking a bus from there. I figured, especially with the rain coming down hard, it would be worth it to hire a cab. The other option would have been to skip Zhouzhuang altogether, but it didn’t seem like a choice that I would be happy with in the long run. I decided to go and hope the rain would abate along the way.

The taxi cost ¥152.25 from the exit of Lingering Garden to the entrance of Zhouzhuang. Not too bad! Luckily, by the time I arrived, the rain had stopped and everything was great once again.

Zhouzhuang is a very cute little town. As far as I could see, there weren’t any maps and the directions inside the town are sparse. Rather, I ended up just walking up and down all the streets. At the edges of the town, there seemed to be locals who actually spent their lives there – either working in Zhouzhuang with tourists or something related more indirectly to the tourism industry.

There are a couple small museums/exhibitions around the town, as well as plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops. You could also hire a gondolier to take you floating along the streams, or just take pictures of them – they make for amazing shots! You can expect to spend about 3-4 hours here, or more if you want to explore absolutely everything.

If you want, you can find accommodation inside or just outside the town as well.

Zhouzhuang Public Transportation

There isn’t exactly a direct route to Zhouzhuang if you want to visit completely with public transport. However, you can save yourself a lot of money by taking a bus between Suzhou and Zhouzhuang. The bus leaves Suzhou at the bus station near the train station (walking distance, or you can hire a tuk tuk) and arrives at the Zhouzhuang bus station. Between the Zhouzhuang bus station and the entrance itself is a taxi ride of about 10 minutes.

Buses leaving Zhouzhuang bus station: 7:00, 7:45, 8:25, 9:10, 10:10, 11:00, 11:40, 12:20, 13:10, 14:00, 14:50, 15:30, 16:05, 17:10, 18:05

Buses leaving Suzhou bus station: 7:10, 8:05, 9:00, 9:40, 10:20, 11:10, 12:00, 12:50, 13:30, 14:10, 15:10, 16:00, 16:40, 17:25, 18:05

You can book tickets upon arriving to the bus station, but I would recommend getting there a little early to make sure you can buy a ticket! When I went back to Suzhou, I showed up about 5 minutes before boarding, and bought the last ticket.

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Hits of Two Days in Suzhou, China

Suzhou is definitely worth a visit! The classical gardens as a must, and Suzhou has character. You can tell that the locals are proud of what they have and identify with it, much more than other cities. You can really feel that Suzhou is a more laid back city, which is hard to find in China.

Assuming that you are not a big shopper for silk, pearl, or other items, it is also quite economical to travel.

There are plenty of things to do. Even though they can get repetitive (the gardens can start to blur together after a couple), they are all part of a unique history. More so than surrounding cities like Nanjing, Wuxi, or even Shanghai, Suzhou has a quality about it that you can’t find anywhere else.

Misses of Two Days in Suzhou, China

Because so many people are interested in Suzhou (and rightfully so), it’s very commercialized. Everywhere you look is full of people working specifically in tourism. It seems like there is no local way of life inside the Weicheng River – it’s all just manufactured for tourists. What exacerbates the problem is that Chinese people in general like to travel with a tour group. This means that the streets are filled with large tour buses and the gardens often have large groups of people led by a loud, flag-bearing guide at the front. It can be overwhelming and completely defeat the purpose of travel and cultural experience if you go at the wrong time. Make sure you visit Suzhou early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and on weekdays. If you try any other time, you might as well jump into a pit of people and sweat. It’s depressing, I know.

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