Suzhou: any good?

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:

> 上有天堂,下有苏杭。
> 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.”


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Da Xiangchang Says: April 25, 2005 at 2:17 am

    I don’t know, but I loved Suzhou when I went there. It didn’t seem like a city but rather a town, and I stayed 3 days. The gardens were unimpressive, but whole atmosphere of the city was interesting. I didn’t feel like I was in China, with its overpopulated polluted cities and what not. Instead, Suzhou was small with winding alleys and nice shopping districts. I LOVED the humpback bridges, and that HUGE pagoda (biggest one south of the Yangtze supposedly) they have there. I rented a bike and rode for what seemed like hours south to see the precious-belt bridge, which was right by the Grand Canal. I sat there among the waterfront reeds and checked out the barges moving languidly on the river during sunset. Very exotic. I can’t say it’s better than Hangzhou (cuz I only saw Hangzhou when it was winter), but it was definitely worth a trip.

  2. Anonymous Says: April 25, 2005 at 3:32 am

    Is Yunnan worth visiting?

  3. I loved Hangzhou when I went there on my honeymoon last year. I haven’t been to Suzhou but it sounds like I made the right decision in choosing Hangzhou.
    By the way I thought the Dezhou post was great.
    What’s the simplest phrase to get rid of touts at train stations?

  4. After hearing such good reports about HangZhou from you and Carl, I’m rather curious. I’ll be checking it out one day soon.


  5. Familiarity quite often makes a difference about one’s perception of a city. I am very familiar with Suzhou and find it very pleasant, pleasant enough that I prefer to live there rather than Shanghai. As Da Xiangchang mentioned above, Suzhou does not have the feeling of a large city, but of a small town, quaint perhaps.

    The pollution problem is serious, in my opinion most significant defect of the city. It’s source, I suspect, is the huge number of automobiles and buses and trucks, coupled with a large amount of dust oringinating from the construction projects everywhere in the city (the greater Suzhou city). The canals are part of the swamp ecology of the whole region (at least as it was orginally before most of the reclamation that has occurred, especially since the mid twentieth century), including Shanghai. There is a canal right behind my flat, and it is not fetid at all, but some canals will have sufficient moving water and they may become more fetid.

    Shiquanjie is not a shopping/bar street, it is a bar street with some shopping (mainly mainly tourist art-type stuff, I presume the art stuff is for the day time, and the saloons are for the evening). The shopping center presently is in guanqianjie (观前街). I do not believe there are any saloons there, but there are a number of restaurants.

    Suzhou University does have a rather pleasant campus, but on the other side of Dushu Lake (独墅湖) there are a number of new University campuses. I believe Tsinghua has one campus and there are a few private HongKong colleges that also have set up campuses there, all very green and beautiful.

    The first city in mainland China that I visited (back in 1996) was Jiaxing. I enjoyed it there, as I suspose I have really enjoyed most places that I have lived (including Vineland, New Jersey). The first time I went to Hangzhou, I found it pleasant, but not overwhelming so. I did not live there, I was just being a tourist, and with all tourist places I visit, I enjoy but find them not particulary enticing.

    Most foreigners that I meet enjoy the Humble Administrator’s Garden. I enjoy the small gardens, myself. I do enjoy Asian gardens compared to the Western Gardens, but that is just my taste. Suzhou gardens are in the Southern style, while Beijing would be in the Northern style (I also enjoy the Japanese gardens). Your commentary about charging entrance fees to the gardens vs. free charge for West Lake in Huangzhou does not make economic sense. Huangzhou is a tourist city with industrial development, Suzhou is an industrial city with historical presense which allows it to have tourist attractions. (Suzhou has actually sucked much of the industrial development that Shanghai had planned on acquiring for its Western districts). West Lake is a sufficiently large attraction that will bring in the tourists, and the tourist cottage industry around the lake will bring in enough money to support he upkeep of the lake. That will not be the case for Suzhou’s gardens. So it is better for the gardens to charge money as a profit center to maintain their upkeep. Suzhou does have free parks for its citizens on both the east and west side of Jinji Lake (金鸡湖), most people I meet translate that as Golden Chicken Lake, but I think a more apt translation would be Golden Hen Lake (going back to something in Shakespeare’s time and location about a Golden Hen pub or something like that).

    I enjoy playing wuziqi (五子棋), and playing with the middle school kids can be very challenging (they are not afraid of trying to win from you), and sometimes I find myself winning just with the last game in a, let us say, 30 stone game.

    Of course some prefer to live in large cities, others in small towns, etc. I enjoy the smaller towns. If I had my choice right now, I think I would live in Weihai. It is a small town on the tip of the Shangdong peninsula, with the hills tree covered in the background and the ocean rumbling upon us in the foreground (or I guess we can turn around in put the tree covered hills in the foreground and the rumbling ocean in the background).

    If you enjoy being in different places, Suzhou is as pleasant as any place; if you do not enjoy being in different places, Suzhou is as unpleasant as anyplace you have been.

  6. JFS,

    Your commentary about charging entrance fees to the gardens vs. free charge for West Lake in Huangzhou does not make economic sense.

    Do my reasons for liking one city’s attractions more than another’s need to make economic sense?

  7. I apologize for the miscommunication. I was referring your comments that Suzhou should follow Hangzhou’s not charging any fee to be in West Lake, it had nothing to do with your liking or not liking Suzhou. In other words, the idea that the gardens be free and their upkeep be a burden on the tax structure of the community as West lake is free and a burden on the tax structure of the community is not justifiable. I doubt seriously that the gardens are such a draw that one can added business revenue to the community is sufficient to maintain the operating costs of the gardens, most of the businesses around the gardens are marginal in themselves and I do not believe they would be able to provide sufficient revenue to maintain the gardens. West Lake, on the other hand, I suspect is draws sufficient tourists that the Lake can be maintained from the general tax revenue generated from the tourist industry.

    Whether you like Suzhou or not, and whether I like Suzhou or not is trivial and not particularly important. I did not make the economic argument in reference to your own preferences. Your preferences are just as valid as my preferences, but your economic analysis of a specific exchange is what I was making reference toward, and your observation was not as valid.

  8. “If you enjoy being in different places, Suzhou is as pleasant as any place; if you do not enjoy being in different places, Suzhou is as unpleasant as anyplace you have been.”

    Well said!

  9. I rented a bike and rode for what seemed like hours south to see the precious-belt bridge, which was right by the Grand Canal. I sat there among the waterfront reeds and checked out the barges moving languidly on the river during sunset.

  10. Hmmm…

    Apparently I “do not enjoy being in different places” and write an “economic analysis” when I think I’m just giving reasons why I like a certain city better than another.

    Blogs: amazing tools of self discovery.

  11. John, my comment on your economic wish (garden fees be eliminated), as I read your blog, was just an observation you made and my response was in regards to that specific item, not in reference to your enjoying and not enjoying Suzhou. Just as a side note, for instance, I have heard that the Chinese government plans to eliminate the toll fares on the express ways and substitute in their place a petrol tax. Many of the Chinese that I know think this is great, beginning to be like America. I think just differently. The petrol tax is a more general tax and I think is easier to be abused by the state because it tends to be more inelastic and therefor the tax can be increased to higher levels without affecting the sale of petrol, whereas the toll fares may be more elastic and therefor less ability to increase the fees without affecting the traffic on the expressways. Of course, not that anyone is really interested, but that is what I also like about blogs that have comments, it becomes like a conversation and can go off in all sorts of directions. I find that a pleasure when conversing with people, but then, one also wants at times to stick to the subject matter.

    also, just another little off subject, but concerning the “louts”, I do not know what others do, but I found that if I cannot communicate with them then there is less interest on their parts to continue to annoy you. So what ever I do, I do not speak Chinese at all, and also forgo english. So I become mute or speak in gibberish, usually something that sounds like Russian (unless I am areas where there are a lot of Russians). They want money, and they need to communicate that with you, and if they cannot communicate with you, they will look for someone else that appears to be less trouble. Others may have better ideas.

    I do enjoy your blogs, John. I really liked the Dezhou 2 blog. The comments went off of the anti-Japanese events, but that is just because that is a topical event and was somewhat inevitable. My own comments were really not a criticism of you, I have Lived all over the United States (from the Dead Horse Alaska to Ropund Rock Texas, from Corvalis Oreagon to Vineland New Jersey, all over japan from Sendai to Fukuoka, all over Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. perhaps not all over Thailand, but one year in Rayong province, and here in the Shanghai-Suzhou-Wuxi corridor with extensions to Hangzhou and Nanking, and I have been very blessed in being in places that I have truly enjoyed, mostly because the people have been really wonderful, just good friends all around, not bad for an old country boy that spits out his own thoughts. Coming from a cow county in North Nevada (Reese River valley, if anyone knows where that is), man I just enjoy the world.

  12. JFS,

    It’s cool, homey.

  13. Kikko Man Says: April 26, 2005 at 12:30 am

    Bubbles are gross. Other than the pathetic remake to make Suzhou seem old by tearing down old buildings and rebuilding new ones to look like the old ones, it’s not such a bad place. Good public transportation. Did none of you go out to Hanshan Si with the famous poem? Like that area.

  14. I was in Suzhou a couple of weeks ago, and i tend to agree that it was somewhat dissapointing, ditto “the master of the nets garden”.

    The touts were the worst I’ve encountered in China

    The Pagoda was cool though.

  15. Richard Says: May 11, 2005 at 3:15 am

    When Suzhou (all Chinese cities in general) was much smaller in population (back when the advertising jingle for Suzhou and Hangzhou was made), it must have been a pretty, idyllic place, but the narrow streets and canals that also functioned as a sewage system did not handle growth all that well. Hangzhou, on the other hand, is much better at growing because the whole place isn’t water logged, and the West Lake is big enough that it isn’t dwarfed by larger buildings.

  16. Is it true Hangzhou has stringent rules that would not allow high rises to be built within a certain distance of West Lake? If so, bravos to Hangzhou.

  17. Suzhou,indeed,needs to be improved in many ways and I would like to comment that the reason you don’t like it might be the infamilarity of Chinese cultures,let’s say,parts that originated from ancient suzhou area.

  18. Suzhou is my hometown and I love it very much. Maybe you haven’t travel around all the city.It is more beautiful than you think.You may go to the Jinji Lake and Suzhou Museum,and there youwill learn more about Suzhou.

  19. As a tourist, staying in Suzhou can be just a short period, but as residents in Suzhou, they have more to comment on this city, not just places of interest or critical opinions or comparison with other cities, but varied reflections from different angles as per daily living experiences.

  20. Embarrassed! As a resident here, it’s really feel shamed to read this kind of judgment of the city Suzhou.
    Yeah, maybe she has its problems just like you saw, but if you only have a rash glide here, I guess you cann’t know her correctly at all.
    Anyway, very sorry to let you feel bad. But do hope you will pay visit here again to get to understand Suzhou carefully and sensitively, then you will find the differences which make you love the city more.

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