Surviving a Weekend in Suzhou
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With two days to spend and some interest in culture and development, Suzhou is the perfect location for a getaway weekend. Travelling from Shanghai into the city is cheap, very fast and drops you fairly conveniently at the northern end of the Old Town; there are details below of journeys from other points, excellent accommodation choices and how to get about in Suzhou.
Whilst Suzhou proper boasts three distinct areas, the Old Town, Suzhou Industrial Park and Suzhou New Districts, only the first two of these are worth a visit; but it does take a leap of faith to tell your partner that you may be visiting an industrial park for the weekend!
The Old town dates back to 514BC, when the original walls established Suzhou as the major city state in eastern China. Nothing survives intact from this time, although the line of the walls and some of the gridiron planning almost certainly reflects the original layout. However there are many points of historical interest, some that have been preserved and reconditioned, others of which are wholly new but have been made to look ancient.
On the other hand, Suzhou’s Industrial Park is a brash, gleaming cityscape, co-designed by the Suzhou local government and Singaporean developers. It is unlikely it will have the same permanence as the Old Town but is well worth a visit to see a slice of Singapore in China. As the new rail links near completion the industrial park is looking to provide dormitory accommodation for Shanghai and its original thrust as a hi-tech manufacturing centre is taking second place to millions of new apartments. SIP does have its attractions however.
After dropping your bags off and freshening up, head down to Shi Qian Jie (Bar Street) and take in a meal at Yang Yang’s Dumplings. The food here is delicious and there are English language menus available. A cheaper alternative is Harbin Dumplings on Shi Zi Jie, a road paralleling Shi Quan Jie to the north. This leaves you free to discover the delights of Bar Street, which whilst it has its sleazier aspects, still has a range of drinking holes and clubs to satisfy most. For a relaxed drink, some light music and more snacks, the Bookworm is a real gem and the Tibet Bar, harder to find due to its second floor location, is equally relaxing. For young hardcore ex-pats, Pulp Fiction, nominally an Australian bar, takes some beating, with good music, pool and a friendly crowd, further down the street Jane’s Pub Bar offers a more upmarket version of the same thing. Dream Hollywood and Scarlet’s are two of the best nightclub bars.
Saturday morning should be planned in advance so that the hangover has time to heal over! Take a walk northwards along Ping Jiang Lu and its canal. This brings you out onto Dong Bei Lu and right up to the doors of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The Humble Administrator doesn’t appear to have been that humble, as you’ll realise having spent an hour in his garden!
A further walk to the west, along Dong Bei Lu, brings you eventually to Suzhou Museum. Entrance is free and there are collections of jade, china, silk, calligraphy and painting. The museum, an architectural wonder, was only completed in 2006 and the old museum, Zhong Wang Fu’s palace, is housed within the new complex.
Tiger Hill beckons and the number 2 tourist bus or a taxi will whisk you straight there. Tiger Hill was probably once an island, overlooking an extended East China Sea; and possibly the first point settled in the area; its alternative name is Surging Sea Hill. Today at 36 metres high it provides easily accessible views over old and modern Suzhou, but particularly the New District, a heaving splurge of industrialisation and commercialisation. Despite the views the pagoda and temple complex are interesting enough and there is often entertainment going on in the gardens. Avoid the many guides; most have poor English and they are really quite unnecessary, although obviously they’ll tell you otherwise! This is an ideal place for lunch, cheap snack bars abound around the entrance and the fare ranges from fried insects to kebabs!