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Serenity with Convenience
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If you were to ask the average expat
in Shanghai if they have visited many places in China, they are likely to shake their head and say: "Nah, just Suzhou and Hangzhou."


What exactly is wrong with these neighboring cities that would make people so dismissive? True, these places in Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province respectively may not be as exciting as say, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, but the short distances between both and this city make them promising candidates for the quick trip or weekend getaway. What about the oft-quoted Chinese saying that "Above is paradise, and down on Earth are Suzhou and Hangzhou."


As a relative newcomer to the city, the newly fangled CRH bullet trains were the first form of rail travel I have done in the country. The verdict? They are fantastic. Comfortable, spacious and quick to boot - Suzhou is a swift 45-minute hop from the Shanghai Railway Station; a drive to Shanghai Pudong International Airport could take longer. While tickets are relatively inexpensive, they are still dearer than the old express trains, meaning you are less likely to be sitting next to those who lug their possessions with them in those huge checked plastic bags.


The scene that awaits around Suzhou Train Station cannot be described as pretty. After the pleasant train ride to promised serenity, the cacophony of renovation and road works leads you to wonder if you ever left Shanghai.


Thankfully all that is put behind once the locus of arrival is out of earshot. The cradle of Wu culture is less developed than Hangzhou, but is picturesque in its own right. The older, inner city is somewhat sleepy and obviously suffers none of the congestion Shanghai residents grapple with each day.


In fact, Suzhou has often been described as the "Venice of the East" with its myriad canals. Marco Polo once said that the city was "great and noble ... It has 1600 stone bridges under which a galley may pass."


Given such circumstances, it would be a grave injustice to the once-thriving metropolis of industry and commerce in the southeastern coast of China not to take an idyllic cruise down the numerous waterways.


Gondolas are obviously the preferred choice for travelers seeking an authentic experience, but the motorized boats travel further from the more touristy areas. A voyage from tourist spot Shantang Street at night is an absolutely sublime way to enjoy the cool night breeze and to soak in the tranquility of Suzhou by night.


There is an obvious otherworldliness during such a jaunt. The calm, well-spaced lights embedded in the stone bank reflect idly on the unfathomable water as passengers peer vicariously at ordinary citizens carrying on with their lives. After the day-to-day scrum that is big city living, such mellow quiescence is greatly appreciated.


In the waking hours, however, there is also plenty of leisure to be had. "The Land of Abundance" boasts a wealth of scenic gardens that were once literally playgrounds of the wealthy. Now greatly treasured UNESCO Heritage Sites, a few of these luscious enclosures, such as the Humble Administrator Garden (Zhuo Zheng Yuan), have been restored to their former glory.


Unfortunately, visitors to these sightseeing spots may find themselves struggling with the pack of tourists that descend upon these opulent oases. The point of peace is lost on many as tour leaders blare quick descriptions that do not really mean anything over loudhailers as they trespass through the premises.


It is possible to find respite, if only for a while, in the more secluded corners, and enjoy the beautifully landscaped flowerbeds and stone ornaments. Birds chirp happily away and insects buzz busily about. One almost feels disinclined to swat them away. Almost.


Next to the Zhuo Zheng Yuan is the iconic I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum. The master of modernist architecture, known for the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the Louvre Pyramids in Paris and Raffles City in Singapore, is a Suzhou native, and his iconic design is one of the main reasons people visit the landmark.

Inside holds a modest collection of art, ranging from local favorite ink wash paintings to calligraphy, as well as antiques such as ancient pottery and handmade crafts. Not as impressive as the building itself, but still worth viewing.


After all that trekking, a meal is in order. Song He Lou is one of the more popular establishments, with an impressive history of more than 100 years. Jiangnan (Regions south of the Yangtze River) cuisine is mainly river fare, with the surrounding Taihu Lake providing a rich source of freshwater fish. Expect less oil and sugar but more salt than Shanghainese food.


At this juncture a stiff drink is probably in order, so a quick hop over to Shiqian Street brings you to the institutional Pulp Fiction Bar. The venue is exactly as it says on the tin, considerably cheaper than Shanghai counterparts and also a lively atmosphere. Ask for the Welsh barkeep whose name sounds almost made up and cannot be replicated in English. The lad came here on holiday and loved it so much that he stayed.


If you are looking for luxurious lodgings, then the newly opened Shangri-La Hotel Suzhou is just the ticket for a hot bath and a sound sleep, along with other five-star amenities, among them a state-of-the-art gym, swimming pool with steam and sauna rooms, a tennis court and mini-golf course.


The first international deluxe hotel in the city's New and Hi-Tech Development Zone occupies the 28th through 51st floors of the looming Metropolitan Tower. The 390-room property brings all the bells and whistles associated with the Shangri-La brand.


Food and beverage outlets are also aplenty, meaning if you want to miss what the city has to offer and stay in, you can. The all-day diner Cafe Soo offers international buffet, Shang Palace serves modern Cantonese and Huai Yang cuisines and the Japanese Restaurant Suntory, operated by the group of the same name.


Hotel bars are far from popular across Asia, but given Suzhou's circumstances, Club Red Bar is really a top-notch space. Featuring two karaoke rooms if that is your thing, the main bar area is tastefully done, with an extensive cocktail list and reasonable prices to boot. Expect to pay as much as a downtown Shanghai bar charges a drink.


Admittedly, it would be a waste not to see more of the Chinese mainland; the country offers such diverse beauty across an amazing vastness. However, that being said, coming to Shanghai without a trip to Suzhou would be so much more of a shame.


(Shanghai Daily by Aubrey Buckingham July 4, 2007)



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