Suzhou, China – “The Venice of the East”

Suzhou canal living--lilac trees

Suzhou, known as the “Venice of the East” is, says  Insights Guide: China, “built around a latticework of 24 canals, home to small intimate garden spots tucked away behind houses and hidden between narrow streets.  Even when it rains, as it often does, the narrow streets and cobblestone walks exude a softened, misty aura that make Suzhou such a relaxing romantic diversion” (219).  After reading this description  and being encouraged by Melinda, Barry and I knew we wanted to venture out to see this city of now almost six million people, but one that still retains pockets of old-world China: canals, pagodas, beautiful gardens, and humpbacked bridges.  Melinda came in fromShanghai to meet us since she wanted to see more of China before she leaves the country as her teaching commitment is almost completed.  So the three of us met up at the Mingtown Youth Hostel to explore Suzhou.

On Pingjiang Road, a tourist, old-China walking street in Suzhou--with Melinda

Litter pick-up boat on the canal

Lazy afternoon. Suzhou men drinking tea on the canal

Up-scale teahouse on a canal

Melinda showing off the t-shirt from her favorite Pennsylvania dinner: Tom and Joe's. She especially recommends the sauerkraut and pork...on Thursdays.

A canal lane

Even the laundry adds color

Bride and girl

Daily life: washing mops and wedding photographs

Wedding photos near a Suzhou canal

The wedding photos require many helpers

Wedding photos are very important for the new couple

Many couples go to Suzhou for their wedding.

The bride and groom

The wedding party

The musicians

The wedding guests arriving in bicycle rickshaws

Besides the canals, Suzhou is also famous for its gardens, some over a thousand years old.  These parks combine rocks, water, trees, and traditional buildings to reflect the Chinese appreciation of balance and harmony.

We went to Suzhou’s largest garden, Zhuozheng Yuan (The Humble Administrator’s Garden).  Wang Xiancheng, a disgraced court official,  had the garden built in 1513 on the spot where the poet Lu Guimeng had lived during the Tang period.   Although Wang was humbled by being sent to Suzhou, his beautiful garden lives on.

Water, pagoda, and stones in the Humble Administrator's Garden

Pagoda and spring flowers

Spring flowers

An 82-year-old Chinese woman and her family talked with us

Workers in the garden

Melinda, me, and rocks

Barry with his new Ronaldino hat, the best bargain among the three of us that weekend. Is he a movie star--or a Mafia don?

Colorful ducks

Boy trying to catch the cottonwood tree seeds floating through the air

Many beautiful cherry blossoms

Flowers everywhere

A park visitor - another kind of flower

Back along a canal

Food, of course, is another important pastime when traveling.

Lunch with Chinese English teachers who were on holiday.

One of the guys who became "traveling friends" and our attentive restaurant owner

Live music at lunch

The musician's instrument.

Chinese instruments include the two-string fiddle (erhu). Four-string banjo (yui qui), two-string viola (huqin), vertical flute (donxiao),  horizontal flute (dizi), piccolo (bangdi), four-stringed lute (pipa),  zither (guzheng),  and ceremonial trumpet (suona).  We saw and heard many of those instruments during our Suzhou weekend.

Our restaurant on the canal

The food is often quite good although some of the translations seem strange to us. Born fried steamed buns and Biledsemen duryales with osmanthus flowers are two choices.

Would you like to try Roast Duck Fruits?

Each day we heard this man playing/practicing in his doorway

Chatting in the sun

Suzhou is also a good shopping town.  At least, Melinda and I shopped, and Barry got the best bargain with his hat  (10 yuan, about $1.25).   Melinda and I wanted to get silks and pearls.  What we learned, however, is that if the price is good, what you think you are buying may not be what you expect.  I still don’t know if the lovely pearl earrings I bought are real.  My students say it doesn’t matter.  If you like what you buy,  that is good enough.  My silk bathrobe turned out not to be silk.  I do like my new jade and silver earrings although the shop didn’t allow bargaining.

My new jade and silver earrings

Besides the shopping, beautiful canals, gardens, and people, we also enjoyed, you may be surprised to learn, Chinese opera. Developing out of China’s long ballad tradition, says Lonely Planet China, Chinese opera has been formally in existence since the Northern Song dynasty.  There are over 300 types of opera inChina. Beijing opera is the most familiar to Westerners.  “The traditional Chinese music scale differs from its Western equivalent.  . . . Tone is considered more important than melody.  Music to the Chinese was once believed to have cosmological significance and in early times, if a musician played in the wrong tone, it could indicate the fall of a dynasty “(79).

We heard our lovely Chinese opera performed one evening in a teahouse where people, old and young,  stopped in to listen and drink tea.

Lovely voice, lovely music

The flautist was incredible too

A woman from the audience got up and sang

The audience: People brought their children, young people stopped in for a cup of tea or two. The teahouse was crowded for much of the night.

Barry and Melinda--Suzhou night

Suzhou weekend

Boys at the bus station

Waiting for our bus back to Lin'an

Melinda, Barry, and I had a wonderful weekend in Suzhou. Think about adding it to your list of places to visit.

Zài jiàn! Renée


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About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

5 responses to “Suzhou, China – “The Venice of the East””

  1. Dean Louie says :

    Wonderful writing and photos Renee!

    Suzhou, is a very pretty town, one to visit when Shanghai gets hot in the summer!

    Thanks for keeping in touch, have a wonderful journey!

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Dean: I hope everything is going well for you and you have a good summer ahead. Did you get to see Suzhou too? “Hi” to everyone at UHMC. Aloha, Renee

  2. Patricia Adams says :

    Hi, Renee and Barry, I love reading about your adventures and seeing all the beautiful photos. It’s as though I’m right there with you!

    It was fun to see your mention of my retirement age too–I hope it inspires someone else to enjoy life as I have–and am–not thinking about age limitations.

    It’s lovely to see John, all grown up, there with you–and off on adventures of his own. You all look great in the photos. Love to you all!

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Patricia: I am inspired by you–and when I talk about you, I think it inspires others to avoid thinking of age as a limitation. I hope all is going well with you. Barry and I are likely to be back in Maui for at least a visit at the end of this summer. Johnny is doing well, and we are eager to see what he does next. Thanks for reading the blog. It’s my way to share my great fortune to have this opportunity. Aloha to Patrick. Enjoy Oahu. Love, Renee

  3. suzhou attractions says :

    Suzhou gardens or the venice of the east as it is also known is a
    peaceful place to vissit when your in Jiangsu Province, China.

    You can easily arrive there from Shanghai or Nanjing two
    big cities that are close by. You can take thee highspeed g-train, d-train,t-train or k-train.
    Its is also possible to arrive by bus if you are coming from a more remote place
    that doesnt have a train line. There are many gardens in Suzhou and we offer amazing
    local tours of this Unesco World Heritage Site with friendly local guides who
    have been well trained to give you the best possible experience.

    Afterwards we will take you to tthe local restaurant with good quality fresh food that you will find amazing.

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