by - 12:30 AM

sunset at Suzhou, China
Beijing, Shanghai and Xian admittedly are the most visited and known municipalities of China.  Have you ever heard of Suzhou? I never did.  Until I was pressed for time that I have to ditch a tour to Huangshan and made a research on any destination nearest Shanghai municipality that is worth visiting and culturally significant.  This is my first solo travel and yes I wanted it to be a soul-searching activity.  And so I thought.

I had the slightest hint of hesitance as I boarded the bus with terminal at Pudong International Airport en route to Suzhou. Yet I succumb.  I had no expectations for this city except the vast grasslands and forests pictured in my mind to greet me. This is due to the fact that I only knew of the classical gardens which makes Suzhou known worldwide.

But once I step out of the bus, a 360-degree turn/abandonment of expectations emerged.  I was literally caught by surprise.

breathtaking cloud formation as I walk along the streets of Suzhou
1.  UNESCO World Heritage Site Gardens 

For chasers of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Suzhou, China is the most accessible from Shanghai.  The inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site tickles the curious minds of every visitor. Speaking for myself, I have really been wondering as to why a garden shall be dubbed as a world heritage site.  Is it different from the usual gardens back home?

a performer plays flute at the Master of the Nets Garden

The classical gardens of Suzhou, China is undoubtedly one if not the major reason why tourists visit the city of Suzhou. Though it may appear ordinary, the fact that is has spanned for centuries well-preserved in its original state is worth the admission.

The Humble Administrator's Garden
2.  Canals along famed history and culture streets

downtown Suzhou

Suzhou is oftentimes dubbed as the Venice of the East or the Venice of China.  The city's canals and stone bridges significantly contributed to its status as one of the major tourist attractions of mainland China.  Armed with no itinerary I have to walk for miles and ride a cab at times to further explore the city and a constant view are the residential houses and aligned willow trees on canals.

one of the stone bridges of downtown Suzhou at night

featuring one of the many tea houses aligned along the 800 year-old Pingjiang Street

Pingjiang Street and Shantang Street of Suzhou, China made it to the list of China's famous history and culture streets featuring elegant bridges, flowing waters and unique architecture.  For time constraints, I was only able to visit the former.  

Looking for a laid-back and relaxing getaway?  The centuries-old streets of Suzhou is the best place to be with.  Now, I sounded like a brochure on that tone.

3.  Street foods you can't resist

I never stayed and dine in a restaurant or a fast food chain while exploring the city of Suzhou during daytime. My meals were all wrapped and eaten while I stroll along the city unmindful of my feet complaining for exhaustion.  I may not be adventurous when it comes to street foods and exotic ones at that, but I have to feed myself or else I'll end up having ulcer.

Fortunately, street foods at Suzhou, China easily pleased me. Truly, a gastronomic treat in an instant. Everything deep-fried!  Just the way I want it to be.

4.  Effective and Efficient mode of transportation

In any destination for wandering, time and money is well-managed not to mention itineraries are attained (if there is one), when one gets acquainted with the best mode of transfer from one destination to another.

Public buses routes run into all parts of the city.  Fares are flat rated, usually 1 Yuan for a non- air-conditioned bus and 2 Yuan for air-conditioned ones.  Further, it is essential that passengers have exact coins once boarding.

at one of the bus stops

Rail transit
For most of the time I have moved from one destination to another through taxi.  Taxis are an easy way to get around the city and that regular taxi starting price is 12 Yuan.  In Suzhou, I never encountered problems with taxi drivers relative to change of fare to the last centavos (no rounding off) and so with the directions to my desired destination.  Though robbed of English communication skills, they will try to understand with all their might as to where I am headed to.

For some, pedicabs and bicycles are the most convenient way to explore the city.  A lot of tourists prefer pedicabs and that it is advisable to negotiate first before riding to avoid misunderstanding.  The usual rate is 2 Yuan increasing between 3 to 5 for a longer trip.

Pedicab along the Pingjiang Road
Bicycles for rent are available along the major highways.  Rental fee is 2 Yuan for four hours and 5 Yuan for the whole day. To rent a bicycle, guides provide that you'll need to leave a deposit and present identity card.

bikes for rent

5.   An unimaginable nightlife so exists

near the red light district
Just when I thought I was in some kind of retreat and cultural immersion where I will be faced with a traditional rural life, I was met by a Filipino friend who studies and lives in Suzhou.  "At last I can talk in Filipino!", I said to myself as I met her at Li Gong Di.  Initially, I just want to drink in a place where there are foreigners so at least I can communicate in English and place orders for a dish that I want to.  I had no decent meal since I arrived at China.

I was given instructions by my friend on how to get there with Chinese characters written on her text message to me so I can show it to the driver.  Searching for the district is no hassle, as soon as I saw the 1912 Bar Zone signage, I knew I was on the right place.  It was Friday night and I saw a lot of young professionals and so I declare this is the place I want to be.

Jenny's Bar was the name of the restaurant/bar where we had our dinner.  I immediately ordered my favorite beer even in the Philippines (in the absence of red horse), Tsingtao, bottled similar to that of the old  pale pilsen bottle and not the long green bottle I am accustomed to.  With a german sausage and chicken on my plate, my dinner was served with satisfaction.

The resident band members were Filipinos and so as with majority of the patrons.  It was a feeling as if I was just in Metro Manila.  Whatever happened to the cultural immersion and rural living. (?))

Then my friend got an invitation from her classmates and dorm mates of varied nationalities for the launch of a certain fusion bar. Who am I to resist such invitation? (tao lang po! hahaha!) Fortunately, I was not wearing slippers although with shorts --- informal as it is, but who cares.  The fusion bar caters to the expatriates and residents of Suzhou of a high social status.  And here I am looking like a pauper for a social gathering of the elites.  Since it's free and at least I look like a foreigner, thank goodness I was not refused admission.

Fortunate or destiny, I was at the launch of the newest fusion bar of Suzhou named Revel.  I met some residents of Suzhou as introduced by my friend, danced at the center stage with thoughts that no one knows me and with intakes of beer and vodka I can still account at least.  I can't go home wasted as I am unfamiliar with the road leading to my hotel.

After that night, the Amorsolo-like painting depicted in my mind of a rural life in Suzhou drastically changed. Surely, it was a memorable night that makes me confident that I can go back anytime to Suzhou and party again with new found friends.

6.  Urban Jungle out of the picture

roads and canals can merge and be well-maintained
Suzhou is considered one the richest cities of mainland China.  With economic development and progress comes the notion of a complicated city, with traffic jam piling up, tall buildings and streets overcrowded and the likes.  Contrary to such, a clean and well-maintained street is what greets every visitor, far from what we define progress or an urban jungle for that matter.  Gardens and trees aligned amidst tall buildings and multinational corporations makes the city of Suzhou one of the most livable cities in the world.

a clean highway with surrounding trees
7.  Ancient chinese culture discovered for free.

Unlike most national museums I have visited in Southeast Asia, the Suzhou Museum is open to the public for free --- no admission fees.

the Suzhou Museum
The Suzhou Museum showcases ancient Chinese art, paintings, calligraphies and handmade crafts.  Since we entered the museum at our own volition and without any tour guide, we have to learn everything on our own, which for me involves taking numerous photos at all corners and research afterwards.

jars from a certain ancient dynasty

bronze sword
military conference hall
There are quite a number of collections on display which for scholars and those wanting to learn the Chinese history and ancient civilization may end up knowledge overload.  But for me, the mandatory visit is enough to appreciate their well-preserved culture with a commendation that being free of charge, it only means a wider coverage of awareness to all tourists and local residents.

entrance to the museum
8.  A commercial district that does not conform with the norms.

Commercialization have always been set with high rise buildings, chaotic roads and overcrowded streets as facade.  Guan Qian Street, where authentic chinese restaurants, church, banks, malls and other commercial establishments are situated does not follow the norm of what commerce and trade should appear considering that Suzhou is one of the richest cities of mainland China.  Structures are maintained at a low-rise and laid-back atmosphere.  

With my usual stint of running out of cash on hand on all travels, I was lead to this district where Bank of China and HSBC are situated and which ATM Machines recognizes my BDO Savings ATM Card to enable to dispense cash.

9.  Multi-national corporations and brands that we are familiar with do exist in Suzhou.

With a limited research made, I had no idea Suzhou is likewise a home to famous brands and multinational corporations which gives tourists an assurance that we can never be lost.  In a country who does not care speaking English, this surely matters a lot. (at least for me)

As I thought this was a rural life that I have chosen for a transient stay, my logistics and shallow research failed.  With the classical gardens in mind, the whole city has been prejudged as ultimate rural living, proven wrong by my transient sojourn in the city of Suzhou.

10.  Friendly and accommodating residents

The last time I was in China - Beijing - they don't care what I'm talking about.  But in Suzhou, I have made new friends and even bystanders and taxi drivers made me realize that language is not a barrier.  I speak English and if they don't understand and I get irritated I converse with my dialect in the Philippines, Waray, but they continue to smile and find ways on how they can understand and decipher what I wanted. For this sojourn, I have always been mistaken as either a Chinese or Japanese citizen (should I be happy? hahaha!), but contrary to most friends' advice of non-disclosure when asked of what nationality I am, I declare with conviction, I am a Filipino. And they have no issues relative to such.  The kind of environment in China that I envisioned was achieved.

Suzhou is truly one of the cities highly recommended for a visit.  According to my friend, there is SM Suzhou, which explains why Filipinos are welcome in this side of the Chinese territory.

Special thanks to Charlyne Tan, Michelle Yu and friends for this unforgettable trip to Suzhou, China.  

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