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Published: August 9th 2006
Early morning tranquility captured in the Master of the Nets Garden.
Suzhou is one of China's ancient water towns, and is probably Jiangsu's major tourist attraction. It is famous for its classical gardens, silk, freshwater pearls and beautiful women! In recent times, Suzhou is a popular alternative to Shanghai for international companies investing in hi-tech and light industrial manufacturing. It is about 21/2 hrs from Taizhou by bus, and only an hour by train from Shanghai.
I had been looking forward to travelling to Suzhou for some weeks, but time and other commitments had prevented me from doing so. My friend and neighbour in Oz, Jacque, is teaching in nearby Taicang, so it was a good excuse to get away and make contact before she returns to Oz in July.
Jacque and I decided to keep things simple (and cheap!) and booked into the Suzhou International Youth Hostel. We were joined by Jacque's friend Karen (teacher from Zhejiang) who is another Aussie and a real character.
We were located very conveniently just inside the boundary of the old city walls, about a 10 minute walk from the main part of down town, and only 5 minutes to the "tourist " street of Shiquan Jie along winding little cobble-stone alleys where
Master of the Nets Garden
Originally known as the Fisherman's Retreat, this garden was laid out in the 12th Century AD. Several centuries later, it was renamed The Master-of-the Nets Garden and is famous for its peony blooms in spring. The focus of this small but elegant garden is the centrally located pond, with its surrounding walkways and pavilions.
life carries on as it has for centuries.
The first evening, it was pelting down with rain, but we managed to link up with some other friends of Jacque's for a great dinner in a Moslem restaurant, recommended by Max, the only male in our group.
We had also expected to catch up with Fiona and Kim, two teachers from Suzhou High School, however, due to problems with mobile phones, we did not connect with them until the next afternoon. We thoroughly enjoyed the flavours afforded by this different cuisine. I will be back!
Saturday was a little finer, so Jacque, Karen and I set out to explore. Both Jacque and Karen have been to Suzhou a number of times before, so their first priority was to go silk shopping! After that, we walked around the old areas of town near the canals and the famous Humble Administrator's Garden. The whole area was under construction/renovation, with old buildings being reconstructed in the old style. The local government is going to considerable lengths to preserve the local architectural style. This is even evident in the design of the bus shelters! Rather that than the modern white-tiled montrosities
A fine example of a carved gateway, found in the Master of the Nets Garden. It is formally known as "The Gateway With Richly Carved Earthen Ornamentation"
that seem to be so popular in other parts of China!
It was quite a weird feeling walking around, and noticing more foreigners in one afternoon than I had seen all year since I arrived. Apparently, there is a 66,000 strong ex-pat community here! Amazing in such a relatively small place!
Finally met up with Kim and Fiona at their apartment at Suzhou High School. The grounds were very pleasant with trees, gardens and a "lake". Very tranquil, but I am informed teeming with mossies and other biting insects at certain times of the year! That's when you remember that Suzhou is part of the Great Canal System and at one time was crisscrossed with a lattice-work of dozens of canals. Although many of them have been plugged in recent years to make way for modernization, there are enough remaining to see why this city has been nicknamed the "Venice of the East".
A visit to Suzhou is not complete without exploring at least one of the numerous classical gardens. In its heyday during the 16th Century, Suzhou boasted almost a hundred of them. The gardens were built as extensions of villas by aristocrats, famous
There are still over 20 small canals within the old part of Suzhou, giving a timeless and tranquil feel to the increasingly bustling city.
scholars, actors and painters. They were built as a retreat from the hectic life elsewhere and at one time to avoid the riots involved with the underpaid and badly treated silk workers!
From my research, I suggested we go to "Master of the Nets", the smallest of the Suzhou gardens. Many people had said they liked this garden better than the larger ones. As an added bonus, it was located about a 5 minute walk from where we were staying. Jacque and I agreed that we liked the idea of going early in the morning to avoid the crowds. It proved to be a great decision, as we had the place to ourselves for most of our visit! I was also pleased to find lovely "arty" type postcards in the Gift shop- the first I'd seen in China! The gardens themselves were impressive in their wonderful use of space. The complex is wedged between residential buildings, but you never feel encroached upon or cramped in any way.
Another Suzhou "must see" is Tiger Hill, located in the northwest of town. Tiger Hill is an artificial hill surrounded by villas and gardens, and features the leaning
Boat on Canal
Small boats like this still ply the waters of the remaining canals. More modern versions take the hordes of tourists for a relaxing hour or so "float" down the canals finishing at various points of interest, including The Humble Administrator's Garden.
pagoda known as Cloud Rock Pagoda at its summit. It is a very popular spot for local tourists and is also the final resting place of He Lu, who was the founder of Suzhou. I thoroughly enjoyed a few hours wandering through this complex, admiring the wonderful design of both the buildings and the gardens surrounding them.
There are so many other places of interest available in Suzhou, but they will have to wait for another visit. It was a great weekend, despite the rain ( it often rains in Suzhou, so I'm told!). I now have a number of new "foreign friends" and an open invitation to stay in Suzhou anytime I can get away! Can't complain about that!
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