According to Wikipedia, there are 14 cities in China with a population of more than 5,000,000. Suzhou is one of them. Pronounced sue’ joe and not far from Shanghai, this trading town on ancient routes is historically a place of canals & gardens. Marco Polo judged it one of China’s most beautiful urban centers.
Ruth & I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou in 45 minutes. On the way we passed orchards and fields, huge factories, a billboard advertising Hondas, and countless highrises with wash hanging on lines outside windows. We crossed a multi-lane expressway under construction. The passengers, all Chinese except for us, chattered constantly, comments only interrupted by frequent laughter. Times were good.
During the Tang and Song Dynasties (618 to 1279), Suzhou became a major center for silk production. Chinese silk making is more than 4,000 years old and still a big industry here. Touring the Silk Museum was the most interesting thing we did. In one room, live silkworms were munching away on mulberry leaves. Silkworms, like Shih Tzus, can no longer be found in the wild since they can’t survive on their own. Because a lot of the information was in English, I was able to learn for the 1st time the difference among Damask, satin, silk, velvet, and brocade. The gift shop was huge and the clothing for sale exotic, very expensive, and not exactly wash & wear.
The second most interesting activity was getting lost. This caused us to pass down many streets with tiny open-air shops crowded together. Looking stuffed & chaotically organized, they tended to specialize. The best was what appeared to be hardware stores with parts for everything on the planet.
Number 3 was hiring a boat and cruising the canals. Very occasionally, it was possible to imagine that I was in Venice although Suzhou’s canals were often wider and less creepily claustrophobic. It’s not hard to understand why Suzhou’s called “Venice of the East”. Our host insisted on singing what sounded like Chinese folk tunes as we sailed even though we couldn’t understand him and he was tone-deaf.
The Suzhou Museum had lots of impressive cloisonné animal figures–Pekingese dogs, etc. Its bronze swords, porcelain bowls, and old maps showing this city’s canal system were self-explanatory, a good thing since there was very little English.
There were lots of formal gardens with names like Lion’s Grove, Master of the Nets, and Humble Administrator’s Garden to explore; but, after a while, they all seemed very traditional and similar. Garden to Linger in was built by a doctor as a place to recover from illness, a very good idea.
It was a hot summer day so we stopped for bottled water. Having been warned that kiosk & small shop owners sometimes recycle plastic bottles and refill them with tap water. I realized that my cap came off without a hard twist and a pop so I didn’t drink it. This influenced our decision to settle for American fast food for dinner, but the pasta and shrimp at Pizza Hut didn’t taste like it would have back in the U.S.