On Saturday, I voyaged south to Suzhou (苏州), a town known as the Venice of China. It is a charming canal town, all winding alley ways and white-washed walls. The weather cooperated and it was a balmy 65-70 degrees and sunny. October is still considered high season in Suzhou, but we visited close enough to November that the town didn’t feel mobbed. It is smaller than Nanjing, around four million, and the center is mostly two- and three-story buildings, which felt like a pleasantly human scale.
The big draws in Suzhou are the charming canals and some gorgeous, ancient gardens. There are five or six scattered around the center of the city. The largest is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, 3.5 hectares, but that one was both the most expensive and most popular. We opted for smaller, slightly less popular gardens, but I would love to see the Humble Administrator’s Garden this spring.
We began the day at 9 in Nanjing’s train station, got a high speed train to Suzhou and arrived at 10:15. From the train station, we headed to the Garden of the Master of Nets (网师园), a pint-sized but charming area constructed around a private pond. This garden, dating to the 12th century (restored in the 18th by an official-cum-fisherman), is well-preserved and a bit of a labyrinth. It was constructed so as to give the illusion of being a larger space, leading you through windy paths and a mix of indoor and outdoor. The study, known as the Peony Study for the spring flowers that grow outside, was used as the model for the Ming Garden in New York City’s MOMA.
From the garden, we walked north to lunch at a fantastic dumpling place. There were two long lines. The first, to get a ticket. There is no menu. You tell the clerk how many people and she rings you up. Then you get in the food line, winding around the tiny restaurant to the kitchen window, where you present your ticket. You are handed a plate of pork dumplings a person, and go to a nearby window for broth to dip in. These dumplings were top notch.
Well-fed, we continued to one more garden, the Couples’ Garden (藕园), which was larger than the Garden of the Master of Nets. It was equally lovely and also featured a pond, around which ran labyrinthian paths and different wood-panels rooms with intricate carvings. Like the first garden, this one featured imposing rock sculptures, which you could climb to get a different view. Their design and landscaping, the focus on carefully positioned rocks and bridges and rooms, etc., was unlike Western gardens that I have visited and fun to see.
From the garden, we walked down a canal to a metro stop. The canal is famous, named Pingjiang Lu (平江路) and was a fun, touristy place to stroll. From there, we came back to Nanjing and headed to a Yunnanese place for dinner. It was a lovely trip, and I hope to return to Suzhou for the spring flowers.