Unusual Destinations: Summer Surprises in Suzhou

Unusual Destinations: Summer Surprises in Suzhou
By Patrick Donahue , eChinacities.com

What’s next in Suzhou? You’ve done it all; you’ve walked through classical gardens, peeked down dark hallways of houses in the old town and been to Tiger Hill. Believe it or not, there are still lots of obscure and interesting corners that capture the city’s charm and history.

1) Zoo and Pet Streets
Have you checked out the renovated zoo? It has been cleaned up and offers a quiet, green environment to see the last known living Yangtze River Turtle, a host of other exotic animals and some very naughty monkeys. It sits in the northeast corner of the city inside the moat and has a lovely promenade along the water. A lake where you can rent electric boats lies in the middle of the zoo, offering a cool space to sit, read a book or gaze lazily at passersby. In addition, there is an amusement park with a variety of fun rides for kids and parents at very reasonable prices, with a parking at the north entrance. If, after visiting the animals, you decide to have one for yourself, the zoo’s main entrance conveniently exits out onto Suzhou’s second pet street. Just south of the zoo, along the canal, is the recently opened Couples Garden, which offers some of the most intimate corners of Suzhou’s renowned gardens.
The original “Pet Street” is in the center of the city, just north of the temple complex. This is a lively bazaar where vendors sell everything from pampered poodles to live maggots. Gold fish come in every size and hue. There is a constant choir of calling cats, vocal vendors and cackling cockatoos all cramped together in a ‘hound hutong’ .

2) Plant Market
Neighboring this animal kingdom is the plant market, quiet and cool with a rich selection of house and garden embellishments. It also has a wide variety of water plants and aquarium accessories. The narrow passage along the plants divides the garden section from the antique furniture and decorative rock sellers. These geological aficionados are connoisseurs of cavities and textures. They sit around with their cohorts in bamboo chairs drinking tea, smoking and staring at stones, occasionally commenting on crevices or color. Unlike the rest of the city, you feel life changes here with the speed of weathering rock.

3) Water Park
If plants and animals are not your thing and you are looking for some relief from the heat, splash out at the water park on the west side of town, just south of the amusement park. There is the wave machine that generates gentle surf on one end of the pool or a small tsunami at the other, and a huge funnel slide that will give a thrill to the most daring. It is a great way to cool off, get some exercise and have some fun on a sticky afternoon with friends or family.

4) Confucian Temple Shopping
For a taste of old China and a sampling of its people on the weekends, head to the Confucian Temple on south Renmin Lu. This is a collector’s paradise of old and not so old antique sculptures, paintings, jewelry, stones and oddities all spread out on the grounds around the temple buildings. More interesting than the knick-knacks are the sellers themselves that hail from all over the country. You can see squint-eyed Mongols polishing very large black stones they have transported thousands of miles to sell; Muslims from the west wearing two or three layers of mismatched suit coats and decorated pillbox hats; trendy young people trying to make a yuan from hawking beaded earrings and silver jewelry. It is a fascinating mall of merchandise and humanity all brought together under the temple garden trees. Well worth a visit. Get there early though, as they start packing up around 4 p.m., leaving only a pile of Styrofoam and plastic bags in their wake.

5) Shahu Ecological Park
If you want to get away from the crowds and get into something closer to nature, take the public bus along Modern Avenue, east to the end of the Suzhou Industrial Park.(SIP), and get off at the Shahu Ecological Park. This is the SIP’s largest park area, and although the trees and rocks have only been around for 15 years, it’s still green and big enough to find an isolated corner, put up your day tent under a tree by the lake, open a bottle of chilled wine and begin the book you promised to read. Total cost minus the wine: 4 RMB.

6) Jade Belt Bridge
Want a bridge to Suzhou’s history? Take a ride to the southeast corner of the city to Jade Belt Bridge. This series of arched bridges at the junction of the Grand Canal, and the extension of the east city moat is said to get its name from a prized jade belt offered by a lord to pay for the construction of the bridge. Crossing the bridge takes you to a small island. If you venture around to the back you can offer a prayer in an old temple where you will probably find some equally ancient ladies tending to the temple or preparing food. It is a great place to watch the activity on the Canal. Barges ply up and down loaded over the scuppers with sand and gravel, much as they did hundreds of years ago. If you look north you can distinguish one of the huge flood control gates which protect the old city from the variances of the Yangtze that feeds this part of the canal system.

7) Guihua Park
If you follow the canal north, you come to the southeast corner of the old city and the tower gate. This is one of the old accesses through the wall of the city where comings and goings were controlled and taxes collected. This corner of the city is now Guihua Park. At the foot of the tower, just inside the wall, is a working lock controlling the water level inside the city, as well as allowing boats to move from the moat to the city’s canal system. The park has mature trees, play areas with swings for kids, fountains and a wonderful brass sculpture of life-sized figures. It portrays the building of the city wall with planners, earth pounders and scaffold builders frozen in action, but with pain and sweat still alive on their features. A pleasant end of the day excursion can be had on the lovely hills of the island along the south moat. This green area takes you all the way along the south side of the old city to Panmen gate with its multistoried pagoda. Outside the gate complex is the restaurant supply market for the city. There are many specialized shops full of ceramic wares and stainless steel, as well as a wet market and lots of fish restaurants where you can sample Suzhou’s specialty of hairy crab or squirrel fish.

8) Jinji Lake
At the end of the day if you’re looking for some space and fresh air head up to Jinji Lake in the SIP and step into one of the restaurants with a terrace that overlooks the sound, light and water show on the lake. This ballet marries synchronized water fountains, inspiring music, colored lights, a laser show and real fire racing across the water. It is quite a spectacle, and if there is a bit of wind you might even get a refreshing gentle spray from the gigantic column of water that shoots up through the ring of fire on the lake. Time it right and you can have your dessert with an extravaganza of fireworks right over head. Bring the evening to a gentle close by savoring an after dinner drink and enjoy watching red lanterns being carried into the night sky by their flickering candles. The meaning of ‘living the good life’ might, just then, take on its truest form.

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