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by Joe O'Neill   - May 28, 2015
Residential houses face cafes over Shantang River

When I first visited Suzhou I was new to mainland China. We stayed in the wrong part of town, half of my group got food poisoning, and we saw more KFC’s than ancient gardens. It was Chinese New Year, 2013.

On my second trip, I saw boats winding their way down the tranquil waterways, lined by picturesque rows of red lanterns. I ambled through the paved streets of Pingjiang Lu (平江路) and the architecturally fascinating Suzhou Museum (Sūzhōu Bówùguǎn; 苏州博物馆). I chatted with fruit vendors and noodle shop workers. It was a relaxed Wednesday in May, 2015.

The first time we stayed at a Hanting Express (Hàntíng Liánsuǒ; 汉庭连锁) on Renmin Lu (人民路). It wasn’t far from Suzhou’s main attractions, but the cluttered streets, despite the nearby Marco Polo Hotel, weren’t ideal for discovering the ancient waterways that charmed the Italian traveller.
Much of downtown Suzhou looks like this

That’s not to say that wandering the streets was entirely without interest. Memories of ancient bridges sat over tiny canals, indifferent to the roaring traffic on Ganjiang Donglu (干将东路). A branch of KFC gave a nod to the traditional with a curved, tiled roof sheltering its doors. And Marco Polo himself would have been amused by this sign:
004.jpgStreet sign near our Hanting Express in 2013

We chose to visit the Lingering Garden (Liú Yuán; 留园). We opted for this particular classical garden because it was further from the town center, and we hoped to avoid Chinese New Year crowds. We were unsuccessful: we saw many other people, signs telling us to behave (‘Civilised behaviour of tourists is another bright scenery,’ one sign told us) and wintry classical garden scenes.

Chinese New Year, 2013, in the Lingering Garden

On my return to Suzhou I wanted to avoid streets crammed with scooters, uneven sidewalks and signs for ample bosom experts. From Suzhou Railway Station, I travelled one stop south to Shantang Jie (山塘街).

I followed the signs from the subway station and soon saw the trademark bridges, lanterns, and trinket shops that I recognised from other well-touristed canal districts such as Shanghai’s Qibao Ancient Town (Qībǎo Gǔzhèn; 七宝古镇) and Zhujiajiao (朱家角).

At first, though, I was hungrier for noodles than I was for photos, so I turned right into a melee of vendors, hats and sunglasses, black fish struggling in shallow water, caged chickens, fold-out tables struggling beneath rainbows of fruit, and finally, a noodle store.

Entrance to the food market section of Shantang Jie

‘Vegetable and pork fried noodles,’ I said to the young woman in a red apron, who sat at the front of the noodle store. The sign on her apron looked like the Manchester United football team’s logo, but it said ‘Fujian Dumplings’ in Chinese pinyin.

‘He speaks Chinese,’ the young woman said to a middle-aged woman in the same apron, with slightly curly hair. ‘Vegetable and pork fried noodles.’

‘Vegetable and pork fried noodles,’ the middle-aged woman called to the kitchen. An older woman came out of the kitchen and twisted her hips with a youthful dance step.

‘What does he want?’ she asked.

‘Vegetable and pork fried noodles,’ they repeated.

A man sitting opposite me wore a purple, pinstriped shirt and sipped his broth, listening to me and the younger woman as she asked me everything from why I came to Suzhou to how much money I made in Shanghai.

‘Are you from Anhui?’ he asked the younger woman.

‘Yes, how did you know?’

‘I’m from Anhui too.’ Then he turned to me. ‘Do you think she’s pretty? Pretty or not pretty?’ I thought about the most diplomatic answer.

‘Pretty,’ I said.

‘Are English girls pretty?’ he asked.

‘Many are,’ I replied.

‘English girls are very pretty, and the men are handsome,’ announced the older woman to the entire noodle shop, giving me a thumbs up. Then she said, ‘what does he want to eat? I forgot.’

‘Vegetable and pork fried noodles,’ shouted the younger and middle-aged woman.

The ladies in the noodle shop told me that there were two sides to Shantang Jie, the area where the noodle shop was, which functioned as an outdoor food market, and the tourist side, I waved bye and headed to Shantang Jie’s tourist area.
The less touristed section of Shantang River
The more touristed section of Shantang River

The tourist section of Shantang River is marked by red lanterns decorated with the Chinese characters for Shantang (山塘). Just over the bridge, the canal continues without any of these lanterns, as the first of the two pictures above shows.

Shantang River is actually man-made, and was dug during the Tang Dynasty as a section of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal (Jīngháng Dàyùnhé; 京杭大运河). It was in the Ming and Qing Dynasties that the river became crowded with stores on both sides. Today, the stores may be coffee shops, guesthouses and bars, but the tradition of a bustling waterfront has continued.

Coffee shops, bars and boats line the waterfront

From Shantang Jie, I took a taxi to the Suzhou Museum, which stands on the corner of Dongbei Jie (东北街) and Qimen Lu (齐门路). It’s also close to Pingjiang Lu and within a pebble’s skim of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The museum was designed by Mr. I.M. Pei (Bèi Yùmíng; 贝聿铭), who was born in Guangzhou in 1917. The museum’s design is intended to provide a modern take on the whitewashed walls common in Suzhou architecture.
Area Map of Suzhou Museum

View across the pond in the Suzhou Museum garden

Finished in 2006, the new museum is filled with exhibits from Suzhou’s long history, and is particularly rich with relics from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. On my visit though, I was most taken with the contemporary art exhibition, Concurrent Realms, of Chinese artist Yu Hong (喻红).
Fire, by Yu Hong, part of the Concurrent Realms exhibition (Photo credit:

I finished my day by ambling up and down Dongbei Jie (东北街). Everything from tea shops to oyster pearls nestled under the one story tiled roofs that line the sides of this charming street. My train was due, so I couldn’t explore the Humble Administrator’s Garden that day, but I knew it wouldn’t be my last time in Suzhou.

If you go:
  • Suzhou’s backstreets can be wonderful to get lost in, but familiarise yourself with the tourist areas first. They’re popular for a reason.
  • For overnight trips, stay near well-known areas such as Pingjiang Lu or Shantang Jie. It’s nice to leave your door and already be in the scenic areas, rather than having to fight your way across car-crammed roads.
  • If you can, avoid the weekends and public holidays. Go on a weekday and take time to stroll the streets, or order tea in a cafe and watch time slip by.
  • If you head out to Suzhou’s bars, avoid fried street food on the way home. My friends certainly will, after that food-poisoning incident two years ago.

About Writer

001.jpgJoe O'Neill grew up in Salisbury, England (often confused with Salisbury, Maryland, USA). He lived in Taipei and Seoul before moving to Shanghai, where he worked as a web editor for two years. When he's not writing, he can be found running, swimming, or downloading ebooks in the hope of getting a chance to read them. He holds a BA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Glamorgan (now called the University of South Wales).



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