Elyn lived in China with her family for 30 years, soaking up the history and culture, having fun, and making many friends.
Suzhou Is Home to Many Classical Gardens
Suzhou is the perfect place for an adventure! Here, Chinese gardens are built to give you the impression of great size and long views in a small space. Some are actually quite tiny, but as you ramble through them looking through every gorgeous round moon door or climbing on the famous Lake Tai stones, you will feel like you had an adventure in the countryside and up into the mountains.
There are nine classical Chinese gardens in Suzhou on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list that are being carefully protected. One of the things that brings me great joy is to take a day or weekend trip to Suzhou to enjoy the beautiful landscape and imagine I am in the mountains or roaming the countryside.
All photos were taken by Elyn MacInnis; please give attribution if you want to use them.
How Much Can You See in One Day?
If you look fast, you could see four gardens, but why do that? My favorite way to see a Suzhou Classical Garden is to see one in the morning and one or two in the afternoon. Don't forget you will have to take a taxi or walk to your next site, and that can take some time, especially if the roads are congested, which is often the case. You will also have to eat lunch...
A garden is not considered mature for about 300 years, and each detail, view, plant, tree, and rock has been considered. If you go running through them, you will miss 80%, and come home thinking they all look alike!
The perfect way to take it all in is to stroll slowly, looking all around you, through windows and doors to the other side. The point here is the vista—the view. In the view through the windows or doors, which is like a frame, you will find beautiful scenes, which are almost like paintings.
Everything here has been planned to give you the feel that you are in a very large space, even though it may be quite small in square meters. Everything has been planned so that your eyes enjoy every view and vista.
Surging Waves Pavilion: The Oldest Garden
Surging Waves Pavilion is Suzhou's oldest, first built in 970, a thousand plus years ago.
I like this one because it has soul. There have been hundreds of years of scholars living here, and you can almost feel their intelligence in the surroundings.
One of the features you need in a Chinese garden is a pond, which is usually in the middle. This garden has a very delightful surprise—the water flows around it, instead of being in the middle. Two thousand years ago in the Han Dynasty, building a garden was called "pond cultivation," the pond being necessary to have the right spirit. Suzhou Gardens have also been called a "Three Dimensional Painting" as well as "A Silent Poem." People here see them as a work of art, not just a place for flowers.
Where Is the Adventure? Caves and Secret Places
One of the things I love about Chinese gardens is that they often have secret rooms and caves where the masters of the house would discuss philosophy, read poems, drink wine, and enjoy their time together. The garden is not just to look at, but is to be lived in, with people as an important part of what is happening.
Take a picnic lunch and have it here. Maybe you can find some good Chinese poetry to talk about, or read one of Robert VanGulik's fantastic Chinese murder mysteries (based on historical records of murders from the 1300s to 1600s). This way you will capture the real feeling of the spot and be part of a thousand years of history. Now that is adventure!
This is the secret cave in the Surging Waves Pavilion in Suzhou.
The Western Garden: Not All Gardens Are Associated With Houses
The Western Garden is actually a Buddhist temple in Suzhou, but it has an attached garden, and is a charming place to visit. If you go there, you will want to read my other lens that gives you an idea of what a Buddhist temple is like so you can understand what you are seeing. Temples are very interesting places to visit too.
Why would you want to visit?
You are getting two adventures for one here: the temple in the front, and the garden. In the back, there is a pond where ancient turtles live, ones that were around at the time of the dinosaurs. On the near side is a tea house, and you can order tea and small plates of seeds, nuts, and candy, and sit on the veranda surrounded by beauty in some really comfortable cane chairs and read a book or take a nap. It is a great place for a rest during your time in Suzhou.
Note: the zig-zag bridge that goes to the pavilion in the middle of the lake is a standard part of gardens. According to Chinese tradition, ghosts are only able to fly in straight lines, so the bridges have at least nine zig-zags in them so the ghosts won't be able to fly over the pond.
This temple also has a vegetarian noodle shop towards the front of the temple where you can have a bowl of steaming noodles for lunch around noon for a very reasonable sum. I like the mushrooms version.
So Where Is the Adventure?
Watching for the prehistoric turtles in the back pond...
They have been there for hundreds of years. This is a bronze statue of them which is fun to climb on and take photos of.
Is There Anything Else Worth Seeing?
Yes! There Is a Silk Factory!
If you are in Suzhou for a weekend or a two-day tour, you really should visit the silk factory and museum. If you go on your own, there are taxis who will want to take you to the factory that is closest to the train station. It is not a very good one, although it is small and you can see it quickly.
My favorite factory to visit is the Number One Silk Factory. You will learn everything there is to know about silk production, and I have been endlessly fascinated with the process since I first visited in 1990. From silkworm eggs to the stages of silkworm life, how they eat mulberry leaves (it's very noisy!), to unwinding cocoons—they're all presented.
Then you get to see how the thread is unwound and spun, dyed, woven into fabric, and more. If you are traveling with kids this is an absolute must-do. If not, you really ought to go visit too.
The silk products they have in the shop are more expensive than what you can get in town, but in the shop you are assured of the quality of the goods.
Number One Silk Factory
No.94 Nanmen Road, Canglang District, Suzhou 215007, China
Transportation From Shanghai Is Easy and Fast!
The train ride from Shanghai to Suzhou is very fast, about 30 minutes. You do need to get your tickets ahead of time, because the lines can be crowded. I don't recommend just showing up at the train station.
The train station is conveniently located right next to the domestic airport in Shanghai in the West of town. You can walk from the airport terminal to the high-speed train station. Now that is convenient!
Below are links where you can see the train schedule. If you need tickets, you can get them delivered if you are in Shanghai via CTrip.
Ordering Train Tickets in China
- Trains to Suzhou from Shanghai - schedule
Link to see the train schedule from Shanghai to Suzhou
- CTrip link - where you can order tickets online in English
I use CTrip a lot.