Gardens. More gardens.
The Chinese have a saying, "In heaven there is paradise,
but on earth Suzhou and Hangzhou." During my stay in Shanghai I took
a quick trip out to Suzhou (pop. 600,000) and one of China's oldest cities,
founded in the 6th century BC. It's alternatively called the
"Venice of the Orient". An attractive, prosperous city dominated
by gardens and canals, Suzhou is 75 kilometers west of Shanghai, about
an hour by express train. With such close proximity to Shanghai it should
come as no surprise that Suzhou is experiencing rapid development. However,
the powers that be have pushed all development outside the core city.
The central area is but twelve kilometers square, surrounded by a moat,
which dates to the 12th century. A few kilometers outside the city, high-rises,
industrial parks, office parks, and the like dominate the region. I left
Shanghai late in the afternoon May 1, spent all day May 2 in Suzhou, and
returned to Shanghai the following morning.
Throughout Asia, a common game run by taxi drivers is to
pull commissions from hotels. They bring in a passenger and demand that
the hotel gives the driver a percentage of the rate for one night. Inevitably,
hotel operators cave in to the taxi drivers lest they face the unpleasant
prospect of too many empty rooms. The real loser is, of course, the traveler
who must contend with taxi drivers who may refuse to take you to certain
hotels, or pay the resulting higher room rates that are charged to cover
the commissions. In China I first encountered this problem in Suzhou.
I arrived by train just after sunset. After a little bit of aimless wandering I found the taxi line. Next to the taxi line was a gathering of motorcycle taxis and pedicabs. As with everywhere else in China the pedicabs were most aggressive. Of course I had no idea what was a good hotel in Suzhou, but a good review came in for the Friendship Hotel, located in the southern part of the city, so I figured I'd give it a look.
I requested it to the first cab driver. "You don't want. Hotel no good. Maybe you want..." and he mentioned some hotel I had never heard of. I shooed him away. The next cab came along, again I repeated my destination, "Friendship Hotel," I said. "No, hotel closed. Go another hotel," he responds. I shooed him off. The same scenario repeated itself several more times. There was no question in my mind what was going on here, and it was obvious the Friendship Hotel had not yet caved into the extortionist demands of the Suzhou taxi mafia. I was now more determined than ever to stay there.
Meanwhile, all the while I'm having difficulty getting
a cab, the motorcycles and pedicabs were circling closer like a pack of
vultures waiting for me to succumb. Finally after about six cabs refused
to take me where I wanted to go, one driver finally agrees to take me
to the Friendship Hotel. As she starts to pull away from the station she
makes a phone call on her cellular and a few minutes later stops to pick
someone up, a young man of about eighteen, her son maybe? He turns to
me and asks in broken but still intelligible English to reconfirm where
I wanted to go. I showed him my book which had the hotel listed in both
English and Chinese characters. I thought that was strange but I was promptly
driven in a straight line to the hotel I wanted.
I walked into the front lobby of the Friendship Hotel,
which by the way, was immaculate, the first taxi driver's comments not
withstanding, approached the desk and inquired about the cheapest rooms.
Posted on a board were the four different room sizes and rates, ranging
from about 275 yuan ($34) to 795 yuan (almost $100). As with most eastern
Chinese cities, budget guesthouses were virtually nonexistent. The man
behind the desk shook his head, "Sorry, no have cheapest rooms."
Marvelous. "What do you have?" I really didn't want this conversation.
It was evening, it was dark, and I was hungry. I had no desire to run
around Suzhou looking for an alternative which may not have existed anyway.
"Just a moment, please." Another man arrived
who I guessed to be the manager. There was also a young woman behind the
counter; the three of them huddled.
After checking in I turned to the manager and asked him
point blank, "So when did the cab drivers start demanding money from
The hotel had a restaurant but it was being used for a big wedding party. A smiling hostess, though unable to speak a word of English, pointed down the street to where there were a number of restaurants. One establishment had mixed in among all the Chinese characters the word 'restaurant' in bright red neon light. Probably a good chance for having an English menu so I walked in. About six young employees were assembled near the door. An even mix of boys and girls, they all looked to be high school or college aged, much like you'd expect to see working at any family style restaurant in America.
I somehow communicated to them the need for an English language menu, or perhaps more likely they just figured it out. Regardless, instant activity began. They talked at each other, poked around, looked through drawers. After a minute or so, another girl comes over from the dining area. "Good evening," she says to me in English before talking to the others. She turns back to me, "Have English, we look, just a moment." Several more minutes pass and nothing turns up. I was eminently impressed with this whole episode. There must have been six or seven of them looking every possible place for an English language menu, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves, as if this was the most exciting thing they'd done all week. Finally, someone appeared from a back office holding a dusty, frayed at the edges, English language menu. They all cheered. You'd think they found lost treasure or something. Maybe they had.
The single English speaking girl seated me at a table. Though she was working an entirely different part of the restaurant from the small table she gave me, she cheerfully waited on me anyway. Once again, I'm thoroughly impressed at the Chinese ability to grasp the concept of customer service. Though certainly not all businesses in China have figured out customer service, not by a long stretch, but those that have figured it out have very much outdone their western counterparts. I wonder how many restaurants in America would go to such lengths to serve one non-English speaking Chinese customer? This restaurant practically tore their place apart looking for a single menu to serve a single customer even though it could be weeks or months until they see a foreigner again. They could have so easily just shrugged their shoulders and said, "no have" and sent me on my way.
There are a lot of strange things on Chinese menus, aside
from every conceivable internal organ served every conceivable way, you
could eat snake, pigeon, eel, even rat, but there it was, somewhere in
the middle of page six, "dog, 40 yuan". My mind flashed images
of my own happy dog. I looked suspiciously at my waitress, "Dog?"
I said in a drawn out, slightly disapproving tone.
Suzhou is famous for its gardens and canals. Numerous traditional
Chinese gardens are all over the city. Chinese gardens are comprised of
small courtyards, rock formations, plants, small ponds, bridges, walkways,
gazebos, and more. At some of the gardens one can also tour the accompanying
residence which will provide an interesting glimpse into how the Chinese
upper class lived centuries ago. In one busy day I saw one hill, one temple,
and three gardens.
The day started with a trip to Tiger Hill. This is a manmade hill northwest of the city. It is the burial place of He Lu, the founder of Suzhou. Legend has it he was buried with 3,000 swords and a white tiger to protect him. Atop the hill is China's version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Built in the 10th century it is an octagonal pagoda that goes by the name of 'crooked tower'. Though not leaning as dramatically as everybody's favorite pizza box decoration it's still an impressive sight. There is also a temple with a large reclining Buddha bearing a swastika. A swastika inevitably elicits a negative reaction from most westerners. However, one should keep in mind that it is an ancient symbol, and the traditional swastika rotates counterclockwise. The Nazi version rotates clockwise.
Next stop was the West Garden Temple. Here the main attraction
is five hundred different seated Buddhas. Every image has a distinct,
vivid facial expression, with accompanying hand movements that are unique
from all the others. Each of the five hundred figures corresponds to a
different year, and the one that corresponds to the year of your birth
is 'your' Buddha.
lunch I visited three of Suzhou's gardens. The three I visited were the
Garden for Lingering In, the Blue Wave Pavilion, and the Garden of the
Master of the Nets. The Garden for Lingering In is renown for its many
rock formations and the Blue Wave Pavilion is Suzhou's oldest dating from
about the 10th century. The Garden of the Master of the Nets is Suzhou's
smallest. It was originally laid out in the 12th century. Perhaps
Suzhou's best garden, it's as much residence as it is gardens. Lining
the walls of the various rooms are many calligraphy paintings and scenic
watercolors; well-maintained antique furniture fills the rooms. If Chinese
parents have a reputation for strictness and severity I found out why.
In the sitting room, on opposite sides of a small table are two chairs
for the father and mother of the family to sit in. These are small, wooden
straight-back chairs that don't look at all comfortable. A few hours in
one of those chairs would turn any parent into a despotic tyrant.
returned that evening to the same restaurant. Why not? The food was great,
they busted their butts to serve me, and I knew they had an English menu.
Again, they proudly showed me that the English menu was still in its rightful
place in the drawer with the other menus. They had now cleaned off the
cover, too. I had the same pig's leg but ate different soup and I forget
what else. Again, I stuffed myself fully.
I wish I could say more about Suzhou, but my time there
was only forty hours. Spending the day running around looking at gardens
and pagodas, I never really had the chance just to wander the streets,
but my impression of the city is a good one. It strikes me as a very livable
place and one I'd like to return to for a few days more sometime. I recommend
anyone visiting Shanghai to at least get out here for a day if possible.
It's a reasonably clean (except maybe the canals), attractive city that
still maintains much of its old city charm. The small, old city feel is
something the residents are trying to keep, clearly evidenced by the zoning
regulations that have designated all new development to outside the city
core. But one can't help to wonder about Suzhou's future when its distance
from Shanghai is a mere one hour by express train and a whole lot less
Beijing / Chengdu / Dali-Xiaguan / Deqin / Guangzhou / Guilin / Haba-Baishuitai / Hailuogou-Moxi / Hong Kong / Huashan / Kangding-Luding / Kunming / Lijiang / Shanghai / Simatai / Songpan / Suzhou / Tengchong-Baoshan / Tiger Leaping Gorge / Xi'an / Yangshuo / Zhangjiajie-Wulingyuan / Zhongdian
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.