Suzhou #1: The Humble Administrator's Garden and Shantang Street

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August 6th 2018
Published: August 16th 2018
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We arrived in Suzhou at lunchtime and headed to the main downtown area to find some lunch. We had looked up some of Suzhou's famous food online and headed to a place that served sour vegetable fish soup. My friend said it was a Suzhou dish, but after doing my own research it appears to be a Sichuan dish. Why does all the best food in China originate from Sichuan? I don't know if my friend meant that the restaurant we were going to was a famous restaurant in Suzhou (I saw several posts advertising the place around Suzhou) or whether the other soup, a tomato based one, that the restaurant offers was a traditional Suzhou dish. We ordered the soup and some shrimp tempura to snack on while we waiting for the soup. The meals was really cheap, too. We found a table and ate our tempura. It was pretty nice, it wasn't traditional tempura, but had flakey, crunchy bits in the batter, which I enjoyed. We didn't have to wait too long for the soup as the huge dish soon arrived. I recognised it as one of the dishes my friends and I used to share at university in one of the canteens. I quite liked the dish at uni, but this one was a million times better. The taste was just amazing. The fish was just so soft and completely boneless! I think I ate most of the fish, it was just so good. The only problem with the restaurant was that it was too hot and I was totally sweating eating my lunch. They could have blasted the air con a little stronger, me thinks.

While we had been sitting in the restaurant, it had started to rain, very heavily. We were hoping that it would pass quickly as we wanted to head to one of the gardens and the rain would ruin that plan. It was still raining lightly when we stepped out of the restaurant. We were only going across the street to the tea shop to get an iced tea, but while we were waiting for our order the heavens opened again and we were stuck at the tea place for a while, waiting for the rain to lessen. It eventually did and we headed off towards the Humble Administrator's Garden, which is the top attraction in Suzhou. My friend thought it was weird that I had been to Suzhou, but hadn't visited this garden. We took a detour via Pingjiangsu Lu, which is a quaint old street, now filled with shops to attract the tourists. It is a bit commercialised, but I still really like it. Eventually, we made it to the gardens and paid the rather steep entrance fee of 90 yuan. Chinese attractions are definitely not cheap to visit. We heaed inside the garden. The place is massive and it takes a couple of hours to explore every nook and cranny. Since this is the top attraction to see in Suzhou, the gardens were pretty busy. I couldn't help but think about how each person had paid 90 yuan to enter. The owners must be making a fortune from this place. We wandered around the garden. There are a few small bodies of water in the garden and we saw a small group of ducks in one of the ponds. The gardens were very green, since it was summer I had expected there to be more flowers, but greenery pervaded. A few of the ponds had big lotus leaves on them and we saw a few lotus flowers. Since I had left my proper camera at home, I wasn't able to zoom in and get any decent close ups of them on my phone. There was a traditional style house in one part of the garden, so we took a look around that. My friend remarked how boring it must have been to alive back then and I agreed with her that the traditional style furniture looked uncomfortable. I would have hated having to sit on chairs like those. The weather was super hot and I was totally dripping in sweat. I felt so gross. Other people must be able to cope with the heat and humidity better than me as they didn't look sweaty at all. We found a small Bonsai garden in one section of the garden, that was a nice little find and I didn't expect to see it. Once we'd seen everything the garden had to offer we took a rest in a small pavilion before heading out. The Humble Adminstrator's Garden is nice, but definitely overpriced.

After we left the garden, we had a wander along the main street. We had hoped to visit the Suzhou Museum, but since it was a Monday, it was closed. Insead, we decided to plan what we should have for dinner, so we found a comfortable spot and my friend searched the internet for some options. Since hotpot is one of our favourite meals, we decided on that. She found a place with good reviews in the centre, so we took a walk back to where we had been earlier for lunch. As we were walking along the main street, my friend found an ice cream place that she really likes so we had dessert first. My friend ordered me a plain vanilla cone, which was nice. I am not a huge fan of vanilla ice cream, but this was pretty decent. I also got a very nice and sweet summer drink, which had blueberries in it. I was super thirsty, so the drink really hit the spot. The hotpot restaurant was a short walk away in the basement of a building. It was still quite early, so it was pretty quiet. There was too much choice on the menu and I don't think my friend could really be bothered to translate everything to me (which is fine as it would have been a lot of work), so we opted just to get a set package. I wanted the super spicy hotpot, which is what I always eat, the waitress and my friend tried to dissuade me, which is annoying as I know I can handle the spiciness of it. In the end, we compromised and got half and half, one super spicy broth and the other was non spicy. The set package turned out to be a good idea as we got loads of food, all of which I liked. We were given lamb meat, meatballs, ducks' blood, enoki mushrooms, black fungus mushrooms, cabbage leaves, noodles and bamboo tofu. The food was really, really good. I love eating hotpot and making the dipping sauce to coat my freshly cooked food with. I don't know the names of all the different sauces on offer and some looked different to the ones I get in my regular hotpot place. So the dipping sauce I created here tasted different, I had added more vinegar than I normally do so it was quite tangy. It tasted really good though.

As we were finishing up dinner, we started to look for somewhere to stay. My friend found a hotel close by that was reasonably priced, so we booked that and it only took us a couple of minutes to walk there. When we checked in we were given the option of a Cinderella themed room or a Hello Kitty themed one. We went for the Hello Kitty theme. We headed up to our room, which was pretty cute and there was certainly a lot of Hello Kitty stuff in it. The bed had Hello Kitty pillows, the kettle was a Hello Kitty one, the chair and mirror were Hello Kitty shaped as was the ceiling, and there was a huge Hello Kitty mosaic on the bathroom wall. It definitely wasn't a half hearted attempt at the theme.

After a quick rest, we headed out again to explore more of Suzhou. My friend's friend had recommended somewhere and we had asked the reception staff for their recommendations, too. We decided to head to Shantang Street. I had been there before but only in the daytime, so I was interested to see what it would be like at night. Since it was quite far away, we took an Uber there. I was shocked when we arrived as it was very different to Shantang Street I remembered visiting a couple of years ago. When I had visited before the place seemed a lot more localised, just normal people going about their business. This place was filled with shops and cafes catering to the tourists. I don't know if it was different because I came in the day last time or that I entered the street from a different point, where it was quieter. Anyway, we were right next to the boat dock so decided to go on a ride on the boat. I was really happy to do this because I have been to plenty of places in China with boat rides along the canals but have never actually been in one. I think the ticket was about 40 yuan. The boat ride took about half and hour and we just went up and down the river that is in the middle of the street. The boat was air conditioned, which was nice, since it was still super hot outside. However, it was annoying as it meant you couldn't really take any decent photos because of the reflections on the windows. Not that there was a lot to see. I don't think my friend was too impressed, but I really enjoyed the boat ride. It was very peaceful as there were only a few other boats on the water and the darkness made it feel very calm. I liked how the lights lit up the sides of the houses and it was nice to have a peek in. I wonder if the same families have been living in these houses for generations. We did have a moment of excitement as on our way back to the dock, we had to pull over a bit to let another boat, coming in the opposite direction, go uner the bridge first. I don't konw if our captain/driver misjudged the angle or what, but the guy sitting out at the front of the boat had to use a big long pole to keep us from bashing into the banks of the river. That didn't work too well and we did smack into one side. People were screaming and I was laughing. I didn't know if the captain had done it on purpose or not to liven up the trip. When we got back to the dock he checking out the boat for dammage, so maybe it had been an accident after all.

We then took a walk around Shantang Street. It was nice to stand on the bridge and take photos of the houses next to the water. I don't think my friend was too impressed with the place as she said it was just like Nantang Old Street in Ningbo. I think she was hoping for it to be a little more unique. Still, it was pretty and worth a couple of hours of our time. It felt so different to when I had visited in the daytime. I wish my friend had been with me then so she could see the contrast. We were able to get another Uber pretty quickly to take us back to where we were staying, which was good as we were both starting to flag and using public transport would have been too long and tedious. It had been a very long day, enjoyable, but long. We got back to the hotel around 10 pm and taking a shower there was pure bliss. I had sweated so much during the day, I'm sure my clothes were still damp, it was utterly gross. I think I managed to stay awake for another hour or so before passing out.

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16th August 2018
Sour Vegetable Fish Soup

Local dishes
Even if this dish wasn't local, it sounds amazing! I'll have to remember to refer to your blogs for ideas before we travel through China :)
17th August 2018
Sour Vegetable Fish Soup

Local dishes
Please do. There is so much good food in China to sample and enjoy. :)

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