July 27, 2017

30 hours in Suzhou

For the first time since I arrived in Shanghai, I got two days with nothing scheduled. What to do? Sit at home? Um..or visit an enchanting city where I've never been before, where I don't know anyone, with nothing but a tiny backpack? Now we are talking. The night before the trip, I did my homework and prepared points of interest to see. I also tried to look up how to book a train ticket online, but apparently, it is rather limited, so I figured that I would try my luck at the railway station instead. I went there the next day as soon as I finished all my duties. It was a relatively short bike journey, but my phone displayed a temperature of 37c / 100f with a note that it feels like 47c /117f. Indeed, I felt like even my eyes were sweating. Blinding heat, it was! The station had its queues, but some minutes later, I held a ticket and was ready to set off. Yey! The excitement escalated at the platform where I found my train, consisting of wagons that looked like from the 1960ies.

"Ooh, this is going to be a proper punk, not like the business-like bullet train I took to Nanjing," I thought. And yes, as I entered, it was unlike any of my previous train journeys I can recall. Many people had lively, loud conversations, some played cards, others were sleeping on the seats or in the corridor. Through this, a few individuals were selling stuff: belts, dried food, electronics.. you name it. I took a seat in the middle of the train, far away from the restrooms, heavily used by people to smoke cigarettes. The seats themselves also resembled a historical movie, ranking only a step above wooden benches. Nevermind that, what an experience! A few places ahead of me were a couple of children, having a blast from seeing a white, 6'6" tall guy. They were laughing, pointing fingers, and shouting meiguoren, meiguoren! I laughed with them, saying nihao - which erupted yet another burst of laughter. Unfortunately, since meiguoren was the only thing I could understand from around, the cultural reach stopped on the visual aspects.

The train journey was soon over, leaving me in Suzhou's downtown. Hey hey, let's go! My first point of interest was only a few blocks from the station. It was the Bao'en Temple, significant because of its 76m / 250ft tall Beisi Pagoda.

This place started a chain of historical sites I've seen in Suzhou and needs to be said, all of them left a beautiful impression.

Just as I left the temple, I met a student from Japan, who was also touring the city. We started to chat and opted to visit my next point of interest, Panmen Scenic Area, together. On our way, we discussed the world's economic development and passed through some interesting streets..

The Panmen Scenic Area is an ancient complex with pretty gardens, Ruiguang Pagoda:

The complex also features old city walls and the Panmen Gate with the General Tower.

The tower consists of water and land gates and a command center, and while the current structure is relatively recent, the place's history is older than 2000 years. Apparently, it is the only well-preserved tower of this kind in China, and it's listed as a World Heritage site. As we got there, the luck was with us: they had extended opening hours, so we could browse the complex in no rush. It must have been a rare, not well-known occasion, as there was hardly anybody - a unique situation to experience in a tourist spot in a Chinese city!

By the time we left, the last sunrays of the day had colored the sky with vivid tones.

We took a subway to the east tip of downtown, where's the Culture Exhibition Centre:

It's located on the Jinji Lake's shore - a spot where I anticipated good views. And it didn't disappoint: There's a nice overlook at the new developments on one side..

Suzhou IFS under construction. Once finished, this will be the tallest skyscraper in the city, soaring up to 450m / 1477ft.

..And on the other is the central business district with the iconic Gate to the East.

The Gate to the East, also known as Oriental Arc, or a pair of jeans, is currently the tallest building in Suzhou: 302m /991ft.

Generally, the waterfront is a great place to take a walk. But, as it was getting quite late by that time, I went to check into the accommodation I've booked before they'd close. It was a long walk from Jinji Lake, but the environment around was attractive, so I didn't mind.

When I got there, I found out that the hostel has a cool rooftop terrace, where I made a new friend, who showed me a local place with good noodles. That felt enough for the day, so then I went to bed.

The next morning, after some street food breakfast, my new friend and I went to the Lion Forest Garden, well known for its maze of rocks.

The garden was built in 1342.

Besides the rocks displayed in the garden, there's also an impressive indoor collection.

Just a block away is another garden, the Humble Administrator's, which is the most known existing garden from the Ming dynasty (early 16th century), and one of the most famous classical gardens in China.

Many Chinese and Japanese gardens originated from this layout, which is pretty fascinating. However, because of this status, the place was crowded beyond belief.

Seriously, it was like the Shanghai metro during the rush hour: hum, zero personal space, no place to sit down and relax. While the garden is indeed beautiful, we struggled to enjoy it. This in account, we left soon. I went to pick up my stuff from the hostel and walked to the subway, which offered more fascinating places along the way.

I took the subway towards the Tiger Hill, (or Huqiu Mountain or Surging Sea Hill - depends on the translation), where is the Yunyan Temple. From the subway, one can either take a bus all the way to the gate, or walk 3km / 1.8 miles through a historic neighborhood. It's not a hard guess; I took the second option. It was quite a sight.

Quite a change from the scenes that I am used to from Shanghai. I enjoyed it.

Besides the residential houses, there were a few small temples and gardens along the way, all accessible free of charge. And other than an occasional cruise boat in the canal, there were no tourists at all. The Tiger Hill is a very neat place with elegant gardens..

..but most importantly, there's the Yunyan Pagoda - one of the very few surviving structures of the original temple.

The pagoda was built in 961 and then rebuilt in the early 17th century. It is 47m /154ft tall and is visibly tilted a few degrees. In fact, its nickname is "the leaning Tower of China." Pretty cool! After the visit of the Tiger Hill, I strolled across the downtown:

more roofs

Overcast skies accompanied grey downtown well.

The greyness disappeared by dusk, as thousands of bulbs and neons replaced the daylight.

Once it was dark, I went by Changmen Gate..

..observed the pulsing city for a moment and got on the way back home.

See my other articles about China, or visit my Blog Archives for more places and topics. Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories