Oh, Suzhou (say it with me: “suejoe”). My hopes for you were high. I bought into what I read about you…your beautiful gardens crowned with UNESCO World Heritage status and your canals said to be reminiscent of those of Venice. I thought a day trip from bustling, loud, crowded Shanghai would transport me to a beautiful, calm oasis filled with nature and other beautiful things like the silk that you too are known for.
Oh, how I was wrong. So wrong. Delusional, in fact. Yes, I did my homework. I read up on you, Suzhou, on TripAdvisor and various other websites and blogs. From these, I understood that you are a major city, but I carefully selected points of interest that I thought could be covered in a day. I knew where everything was located and assumed it would be easy to walk and taxi between sites. After all, getting around any place other than Haiyang should be a breeze. Who would worry about such a thing? I guess, looking back, I should have. Okay, go ahead and snicker…we all know the saying about those who assume.
The day of gloom and doom started back in Shanghai at the train station. That place where high-speed trains quietly and efficiently zoom in and out all hours of the day. We were on two of those trains, but not the ones we wanted. All because a grumpy attendant screwed up our tickets…a story too long and boring to go into. While the ticket debacle meant we had a shorter day in Suzhou then we wanted, we still made it there just fine and still I thought we could visit all the places I had mapped out. Once there, we were happy. We had arrived at our destination and forgot about the journey. The sun was out; the temperature mild. We exited the train station and snapped a few photos of the impressive wall that stood just across the river from us.
Then we embarked on the twenty-minute walk towards our first destination of the day: North Pagoda Garden, aka Bao’en Temple. It was the first Buddhist temple I ever visited. I liked climbing the wooden stairs up a few floors and walking out onto the parapet to take in views of Suzhou. Sure the Chinese tour groups were a little off-putting due to the loudspeakers their guides were shouting into, but they didn’t completely ruin my experience. I still enjoyed exploring the buildings on the property, each one featuring rows of golden, decorated Buddhas meditating in different poses. There were a couple of people even praying before them, kneeling on maroon velvet pillows, and bowing to the statues before them. At first, I felt like I had invaded their privacy, but I knew my quiet presence couldn’t be worse than that of the tour groups. It also couldn’t have compared to the groups in the courtyard just outside the buildings who were being shown some type of ritual, which involved lighting long sticks of incense and bowing in front of more Buddha statues. After a short stroll through the garden, we left, checking site one of my list.
Another twenty-minute walk on narrow sidewalks that lined ho-hum streets dotted with little shops and local restaurants took us to what I fear most about traveling in China: crowds. This shouldn’t have been shocking given the sheer amount of people living in this huge country, but it was. Since arriving in China, I have been lucky. I haven’t encountered the hordes of people I’d been warned about. Not in the airports, definitely not in Haiyang, and not even in Shanghai either the first weekend we were there in December or while there over CNY. In my pea-sized brain, I had envisioned a fairly dead Suzhou. Yes, it was CNY, but wasn’t that a holiday celebrated at home, on the couch, amongst tons of food and relatives seen maybe only once a year? Who would leave the comfort and warmth of their home to go see gardens and canals in the winter? I assumed not many. Again, wrong.
Upon seeing the massive crowd and traffic along the main drag around two of the sites I wanted to visit, I knew we should never have come to Suzhou. Once we crossed from the tranquil side of the street to the busy side, we were swallowed up into the crowd and pushed down the street to destination number two: Suzhou Museum. The reviews on TripAdvisor really got me pumped up about walking through this. In comparison to others in China, Suzhou Museum was said to have detailed information on the placards that accompanied the objects on display. And, supposedly, the English translations were pretty good — no small feat from what I’ve observed in other places in China. Plus, I read that it was a beautiful building designed by I.M. Pei — the same guy responsible for Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, DC’s L’Enfant Plaza, and the glass and steel pyramid that stands in front of the Louvre. Sadly, the huge line outside of the museum gates deterred me from even attempting to visit, so I consoled myself with a roasted sweet potato…
…and then moved on to The Humble Administrator’s Garden, a place with a long history considering it was built in 1509 during the Ming Dynasty by an Imperial Inspector named Wang Xianchen. While I’m sure on some other day the garden would be beautiful and clearly deserving of its World Heritage status, I found it to be just another lackluster and crowded place in Suzhou. So, yes, I know what you are thinking: why would you go to any garden in the dead of winter? Well, again, I thought I was being smart. I thought there wouldn’t be too many other people there dumb enough to go visit gardens in the winter. Besides, I knew that Chinese gardens are much different from the lush, flowery gardens of Europe. I knew I wasn’t going to be walking into the Phipps Conservatory or Longwood Gardens of the USofA. But I wasn’t expecting to walk into a zoo, which was my experience of The Humble Administrator’s Garden. I couldn’t take two steps without bumping into someone or — more accurately — getting bumped into by others. For a historic and international landmark that the garden was touted to be, I was shocked to see parents letting their Chinese toddlers use the gardens as their own toilets. And in what historic site can you eat and drink and throw your trash on the ground? None that I was aware of until visiting this one.
After finally figuring out how to get out of the garden (believe me, it’s a maze), we headed towards GuanQian, which is one of many shopping streets in Suzhou. We decided to go there because it was clear that we weren’t going to sites in other parts of the city. The roads were packed with cars, buses, bikes, and pedicabs. Every taxi we saw had someone in it. Every bus was jam-packed with people. Too bad for us. If we really want to (which, for the record, we don’t), we’ll just have to go back to see Pan Gate, Tiger Hill, and the other classical gardens of Suzhou. My husband was smart enough to go over to the bus stop at GuanQian to figure out which bus could get us back to the train station since we clearly wouldn’t find a free cab and since our feet were too tired to get us back there. Thank god he can read some Chinese characters because there was no pinyin in sight on the schedules.
Once we knew the bus number we needed to look for, we headed down the pedestrian only GuanQian and took various side streets to look for the little shops where I was hopping to find a trinket or two, but once again, I failed. The crowds were still too much for me to deal with and it had gotten colder, so I was pretty much done. We knew we had some time to kill before the bus would arrive, so what else could we do but admit defeat and laugh about it over blizzards. Come again — blizzards? Yeah, you heard me right. Nothing could have provided more comfort in that moment than a Georgia Mud Fudge blizzard from DQ. It felt like the perfect ending to a lousy day, which was quickly coming to an end, though not soon enough. The cherry that topped off our Suzhou experience happened on the bus ride back to the train station when a little girl of 7 or 8, sitting across the aisle from where I was standing, puked. Oh, Suzhou…oh, Suzhou.