Suzhou: any good?
24 Apr 2005
I spent Friday and Saturday in Suzhou with Carl and his parents. Carl took his parents for sightseeing, and since I’d never been, decided to tag along.
Suzhou has always been paired with Hangzhou in my mind, due to the famous Chinese saying:
> Above there is Heaven,
> Below, Suzhou and Hangzhou.
Living in Hangzhou, I had this verse cited to me countless times. Hangzhou was not quite Heaven, but it was a pretty nice city as Chinese cities go. I was always just a little curious to see how Suzhou compared. I finally had my chance.
My first impressions were not good. The touts at the train station in Suzhou are particularly aggressive and annoying. These touts learn a few phrases of English just so they can rip off unwary foreigners. After finally convincing them we REALLY had no interest in their services, we got in the taxi line. It was extremely long.
Then we had trouble finding the hotel we wanted to stay at. That may very well be the Lonely Planet’s fault; who knows. We ended up getting off somewhere and walking for quite a while. We walked through Suzhou University’s campus, which was quite nice. Very green campus, with interesting circle-inspired architecture. Eventually we decided on a hotel right off Suzhou’s shopping/bar street (十全街).
The first touristy place we went to was the maze-like “Garden of the Master of the Nets” (网师园), which was supposed to be the most famous of Suzhou’s legendary gardens. The admission was 30 rmb. Wow, what a let-down. Not interesting, not beautiful. Not even very green. I guess maybe I’m bringing in my own Western ideals of what a “garden” should be, which does not necessarily jive with China’s version throughout its history, but so what? We didn’t like it. Carl, always looking for the good in things, made the comment, “this place would be good for playing paintball.”
That afternoon we sipped freshly harvested Suzhou green tea and played 五子棋 (traditional Chinese “Connect 5” boardgame) while having a nice chat in a teahouse.
That evening Carl and I checked out the bar scene on 十全街. The bars all seemed to be hostess bars or dead. All the bars we came to would be either (a) absolutely lifeless and uninviting, or (b) filled with provocatively dressed girls that tried to pull us in as we passed. I guess that’s just how 十全街 is. We saw a lot of foreigners on that street. A staggeringly large amount.
Carl and I settled on Venice Bar, killed some time there, and then later went to meet up with Matt (of Chabuduo). We chatted at his place for a while with him and his charming young bride Wang Ying, and then we headed out to a nice pub Matt knew (which, thankfully, was not on 十全街!). We had a good bilingual conversation there (Matt, as expected, speaks some good Chinese), put away a few beers, and then headed back into town for a late-night snack of 麻辣烫 (a kind of DIY spicy soup, or “the poor man’s hotpot,” as I think of it). I passed on the 麻辣烫, which for some reason disappointed the others. I’m just not a big fan of it. Then we said bye to Matt and Wang Ying and promised to meet again, probably in Shanghai next time.
The next day the only thing we did of mention before coming back was visit “The Humble Administrator’s Garden” (拙政园), which charged a steep 70 rmb admission. Wow, what a difference from the “Garden of the Master of the Nets”! It was sprawling, very green, had interesting landscaping, and flowers were in bloom everywhere. Carl and I spent a pleasant hour and a half there before the tourist crowds got to be too much and we headed back to Shanghai.
If I had to compare Hangzhou and Suzhou, I’d have to say that Hangzhou would win, hands down. Suzhou may be greener than your average Chinese city, but it certainly isn’t doing much about its pollution problem. The canal that ran by our hotel (which is in a major commercial area, mind you) absolutely reeked, and at one point we saw the green murky water bubbling. Furthermore, Suzhou’s attractions are its gardens, but those are walled off and isolated from the rest of the city, plus admission can be pretty steep. Hangzhou, on the other hand, makes West Lake its public tourism focus, and, indeed, the center of its city planning. The bulk of Hangzhou’s touristy spots radiate outward from West Lake, and the parks are free. Hangzhou has its problems, but it’s on the right track. In any case, it’s closer to “Heaven” than Suzhou. If not for the promise shown in “The Humble Administrator’s Garden,” I probably wouldn’t even recommend Suzhou as a sightseeing destination. And if I did recommend it, it would have to be a spring trip. Even so, I feel no compulsion to see the rest of Suzhou’s gardens.
Conclusion: best two things about Suzhou (that Hangzhou hasn’t got): Matt and “The Humble Administrator’s Garden.”