The Humble Administrator's Garden
The Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou's most famous tourist attraction, is widely regarded as the quintessential Chinese garden. Its design is duplicated in many gardens throughout China, and there's even a replica in the New York Metropolitan Museum. Which helps explain why I wasn't much impressed with the original: it felt like every other garden I had ever been in. Strange rock formations: check, Chinese pavilions: check, murky ponds with fish: check 每 nothing was more beautiful than anywhere else.
I concluded that Suzhou (in my opinion) doesn't have any must-see attractions 每 such as Beijing's Forbidden City or Xian's Terracotta Warriors 每 so I resolved to gain an intimate knowledge of the ordinary, everyday Suzhou that locals know.
Keeping away from the hot tourist spots, I tried to lose myself in the 2,500-year-old city: I left the gardens and hit the streets. I passed by fancy Malaysian and Indian restaurants alongside simple porridge joints. On main avenues Hyundais bustled back and forth, while in old alleyways kids doodled on walls and old ladies took afternoon naps in broken chairs.
"Venice of the East"
When I started feeling tired, I knew it was time to get out of the alleyways and stick to the banks of the city＊s canals, keeping an eye out for a gondola dock.
There are many canals in Suzhou, and it's easy to understand why Marco Polo called the city the "Venice of the East" during his visit. Built for drainage rather than transport purposes, the canals nevertheless offer a romantic and lazy way to get around the city.
After agreeing with a gondolier on price, I hopped on board his craft and off we went. Gliding down nameless canals and under arched bridges, I saw banks crowded with Suzhou-style buildings: two stories, white with black tile roofs. As we passed by scenes of residents hurrying home 每 ringing bicycles, honking cars, kids running 每 the boatman broke into song. A made-up song in a strong southern accent about the hardships of poling a boat to make a living, and his hopes his granddaughter can earn a place in big cities like Shanghai.
Renewing the Spirit
North Temple Pagoda, like the name indicates, consists of a pagoda and a temple. I was drawn there early the next morning by the throngs of elderly practicing Tai Chi beneath the huge Laughing Buddha statue in front of the pagoda.
It took only four minutes to climb the narrow wooden steps of the 76-meter-tall pagoda to the 6th floor (the highest allowed for visitors). I was amazed. In front of me was an old section of the city. No high-rises in the eye＊s reach, just a sea of white walls and black tiles. Mentally blocking the sights of cars, I imagined I had traveled back in time. Not even the kids running up and down the pagoda steps and shaking the whole structure could ruin my moment of discovery.
Behind the pagoda is a simple and neat little temple. Tired from climbing, I sat on its steps next to an old monk reading the morning paper. From my perch warmed by the morning sun, I enjoyed the smell of incense in the air and giggled when a local lost a badminton game to a sporty monk. When I moved to a rock next to a temple pond, I eavesdropped on a young monk deliberating in a nearby pavilion. Sipping on some of the temple's green tea (5 yuan per person, unlimited refills), I chuckled when an old man lost to another at chess. I looked at my watch. I knew I would soon have to leave the city. But no matter, we would part dear friends.
Text/photos by Xie Tingting, click here to see our Photo Gallery of Suzhou