Lying about 50 miles west of Shanghai, south of the Yangtze River delta, the picturesque city of Suzhou is one of the major Chinese historical conurbations to be found in the coastal province of Jiangsu.
Suzhou was founded in 514 B.C. and from its beginnings, it developed a Venice-like air, crisscrossed by numerous canals, offshoots of the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou, which runs through the province.
Of particular note are the steep, humpbacked stone bridges that are still a popular way of crossing the city's canals.
Some 150 remain, of more than 6,000 originally built. The best-known is the Precious Belt Bridge, dating from 816 and featuring 53 arches.
Silk and sandalwood
The wealth of Suzhou grew around the production of silk, and today visitors can visit the factories where silk is produced. The deftness of local women getting thread from the cocoons of the silkworm is amazing.
Another traditional craft native to Suzhou is embroidery, with the special double-sided variety an art unique to the region; some of the commissioned works take up to a year to complete. The local Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute is staffed with embroidery masters.
Suzhou is also known for the production of intricately carved fans made from sandalwood; they retain their fragrance for many years and make great souvenirs.
Suzhou is a city of gardens, most planted during the Ming Dynasty, from 1368 to 1644. Of the original 250, around 100 are still extant. Four gardens are included on Unesco's list of World Heritage Sites. They have very evocative names: the Master of (or Fishermen's) Nets Garden, the Humble Administrator's Garden, the Surging Wave Pavilion and the Lingering Garden.
The Master of Nets Garden is quite small, an exquisite residential garden with the plantings and pavilions built around a central pond. In the evenings, a local cultural show is held in the different pavilions, featuring opera, drama, singing and the playing of traditional instruments.
My favorite is the Humble Administrator's Garden, which, despite the "humble," is quite extensive. It demonstrates superb use of water, rocks and buildings, including small pavilions and pagodas, to accentuate the simple lines and the openness in the use of the space.
The seductively named Lingering Garden is famous for its classical round doorways, known as moon gates, which provide natural frames through which to view the garden.
The gardens are very popular with visitors both local and international and can get very busy, so it is best to arrive early before the crowds.
Suzhou also boasts many temples and other older buildings to remind the visitor of the city's long pedigree (although the new Economic Zone is full of modern factories that reflect the inflow of capital from other countries).
Two of the best examples are the Cold Mountain Monastery, built in 502 and immortalized in poetry, and the Xuanmiao Temple, first erected in 276 and then rebuilt from 1174 to 1189.
To the north of the city lies Tiger Hill, built as a tomb for a local ruler; a tiger was reputed to have guarded the tomb. A leaning pagoda, waterfalls, springs and landscaped paths are other features.
When traveling, I am always intrigued by local markets. Wandering along the narrow city alleys of Suzhou, I found wonderful displays of fresh produce, bags of spices, tiny hardware shops and even shops devoted strictly to selling lollipops. On one street, I came across five cobblers with their lasts and ancient stitching equipment laid out on the pavement; I had a pair of shoes deftly resoled and heeled for a minute sum.
On the outskirts
Close to Suzhou lies Lake Tai, one of the larger lakes in China and a popular recreation spot. You can watch a Chinese junk or the myriad barges, many propelled by a pole, bringing in water grass from the lake.
Nearby towns like Dongshan are being rapidly developed as getaway spots, with comfortable hotels that provide a place for rest and relaxation for locals and visitors alike.
Driving to Dongshan and elsewhere in the area, visitors will note the rich soil, rice paddies and fields of vegetables and mulberry plants still being tilled, planted and reaped in the time-old fashion -- back-breaking work. Another rural town worth visiting is Changsu, home to a thriving lace industry.
Suzhou has many excellent hotels, including the Bamboo Grove Hotel, Aster Hotel Suzhou, Sheraton Suzhou Hotel and Towers and the Nanlin Hotel.
For more on Suzhou and on Jiangsu province, contact the China National Tourist Office in New York at (888) 760-8218 or Los Angeles at (800) 670-2228 or visit the CNTO online at www.cnto.org.