Many cities have slogans to entice you to visit and spend your tourist dollars. These are usually written by some tourism office or travel agency, and no matter how clever or well thought out, they often fall on the deaf ears of seasoned travelers or the cynical.
The Chinese have a famous saying: 上有天堂，下有苏杭. In the sky is Heaven’s paradise, on Earth is Suzhou and Hangzhou. In the Chinese conception Suzhou, and neighboring Hangzhou, are the closest things to Heaven on Earth.
Suzhou is one city that should be high on your list of must visits when you travel to China.
“You have heaven above and two heavenly paradises below, Suzhou and Hangzhou.” The latter is another ancient city that, like Suzhou – pronounced Soo-Chow – dates back 2,500 years and is where the emperors and their courts of the day made their summer homes.
Marco Polo spent time there in 1276 while on the Silk Road. Sun Tzu wrote The Art of War in Suzhou when it was the kingdom of Wu.
Suzhou is also known as the “garden city” because of the 288 classic Chinese gardens that were constructed during ancient times and the “Venice of the East” because of the 200 miles of narrow canals that snake through it. It could also be called a city that’s “smooth as silk” because this is where some of the country’s priceless silk paintings and garments are made. Combined, they make Suzhou one of the four most important tourist cities in China. Beijing, Shanghai and Xian, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors, are the others.
You don’t have to go far to find one of these to escape the honking horns or the electric bikes, and find your own little piece of Heaven on Earth.
There’s much to see on a visit to Suzhou so may we suggest you start with a tour of the city’s renowned stone gardens – the most famous of which is the Master of the Nets Garden, built during the Sui Dynasty by that court’s defense minister. The Master of the Nets Garden, named that because of the defense minister’s admiration for fishermen, is the biggest in the city and one of 14 UNESCO Heritage Sites in Suzhou.
Construction of the Master of the Nets Garden started in 1140 and it took 30 years to complete the 0.6 hectare masterpiece, which looks now pretty much as it did back in the 12th century.
The delightful retreat, which features the defense minister’s living quarters, halls where he entertained friends, fabulous rock formations surrounded by ponds and bonsai trees and even his opium bed, is one of the best examples of the Chinese Classic garden, which, some say, was duplicated by the Japanese.
The Master of Nets Garden is one of China’s most important historical treasures, mainly because of its main gate contains two remarkable 3-D carvings that are so revered that they were spared destruction during Mao’s devastating Cultural Revolution, a period when much of China’s historic artifacts were destroyed.
The interior of the minister’s living quarters are decorated with hand-carved furniture and remarkable marble “paintings.” The garden area features an amazing rockery, whose stones have giant cavities so big that people can walk through them. The gardens are just one of the highlights one sees on a visit to this former walled city, which, according to Chinese historians, was where the Silk Road originally started. Now, all roads lead to the city’s famed Silk Research Institute where Suzhou’s silk artists turn fabric into beautiful paintings.
Tourists see women turning original art into Suzhou silk paintings using weaving techniques handed down though the centuries. The delicate weaving technique is fascinating to watch and some of the silk paintings take up the three years to complete. There’s also a silk factory nearby where you can watch as the silk worm’s cocoon is turned into fabric. You can buy silk paintings, which carry the Silk Institute’s coveted stamp, and they become great family heirlooms. You can also buy silk products at the factory – the most desirable seemed to be the light-weight duvets, which apparently are warm in the winter but cool in the summer. The prices for those start around $50.
Next stop on your tour of Suzhou will be its famed canals, which total 300 kilometers in length and date back to 25 BC. The canals are lined with protected homes, which were built 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty. Suzhou’s canals flow into China’s Grand Canal, which flows all the way to Beijing, 700 kilometers away.
You can take a boat ride on the canals for just a few dollars and witness the hustle and bustle of this economic hot spot from the water. Or, if you’re really adventurous, you can hire and cab and weave through the city’s congested streets that are clogged with smoke-belching motorbikes.