The best day trip from Suzhou
The best day trip from Suzhou 苏州
The Jiangnan 江南 Region
I have a nostalgic hankering for Jiangnan towns (Jiangnan 江南 means south of the Yangtse River).
I suppose this feeling comes from our first visit to Suzhou and Hangzhou in 1990, when we made an amazing trip along the Grand Canal on a local boat, on the now discontinued service between those two towns.
There was something dreamlike about the mishmash of canals, white buildings, eave roofs, arched bridges and winding cobbled lanes.
In 1990, the Jiangnan towns provided a glimpse into old world China. Back then, local residents still occupied the ancient buildings that lined the canals, and it was possible to stroll the waterfronts and savor a community ambience that had probably existed for centuries.
The onslaught of mass domestic tourism in the 2000’s and the crass commercialism that comes with it has unfortunately put an abrupt end to that picturesque way of life (picturesque for the western traveler at least).
Even until the late 199os, mega cities such as Suzhou, still pocessed a warren of ancient streets where time seemed to have stood still. From the kitchens of beautiful white-washed houses with their decorated doorways and stunning courtyards, smells of garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil wafted out. People lived and worked on the canals as had their ancestors. I can remember spending hours on the bridges watching the river traffic and river markets.
In modern day Suzhou, any trace of the past community life along the canals has all but disappeared. In its place, plush restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up near the historic sites to cater for mass tourism. In the surrounding small historic towns, much of what was local, has been given over to tourism and converted the towns into theme parks and places to buy souvenirs.
In many Jiangnan towns, the local residents have been evicted from their houses and moved to housing complexes on the outskirts or even further afield. A new breed of entrepreneurs has filled their places setting up shops, restaurants, discos or hotels.
You only have to visit pretty but touristy towns of Zhouzhuang and Wuzhen to understand what I am talking about. Improvements in transport and the proximity of the historic towns to huge population centers such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou make many of the Jiangnan towns weekend playgrounds for city dwellers.Read more
Between December 1990 and January 1991, Adam and I travelled the Yangztse River from Shanghai to Chongqing; a journey that took us 9 days then. At that time, tourism along the Yangtse was in its infancy and we, as poor backpackers, couldn’t have afforded a cruise ship anyway. So we travelled on Chinese passenger boats that made very few concessions to either comfort or tourists. There were no sightseeing stops or side excursions; we even managed to miss one Gorge altogether, as the boat went through it at night.
In those days, foreign visitors were charged much higher prices for transport, hotels, sights, etc., than Chinese people and had to pay in Foreign Exchange Certificates (a special currency only for foreigners or foreign transactions), rather than Renminbi (the People’s money), which is why many backpackers resorted to black- marketeers. To get his hands on a couple of discounted, Chinese-price tickets for the first leg of the journey, Adam had to follow a Chinese man into the toilets of the Seaman’s Club at the Pujiang Hotel (known as Astor House Hotel after recent makeovers) in an action reminiscent of an old spy movie.
It was winter and the weather was cold and wet; the river often shrouded in impenetrable mist. Continue reading “Travelling the Yangtse River, 1990-1991 (From our Diary)”
In the winter of 1990 we took a local ferry along the Grand Canal, travelling from Suzhou in Jiangsu province to Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. For me, not Margie, it was one of the most memorable trips in my life. All the more so, because it is a trip that can never be repeated in the same way, as there has been virtually no local passenger transport between the two cities for over a decade.
Before I give my own version of the journey, here is how our treasured 1988 copy of Lonely Planet described the canal ferries:
“Travellers have done the route from Hangzhou to Suzhou on overnight passenger boats (with sleeping berths) or on daytime 150-seater ferries. Some people regard this trip the highlight of their China trip. Others have found the boats dirty, crowded and uncomfortable, with a fair percentage of the trip taken up by high canal banks. Some words of advice; you need a good bladder since toilets are terrible; you need some food; and try to get a window seat, both to see the scenery and escape the smokers on the boat.”
In corroboration of this rather dry comment, one reader wrote the following: “The boat is terrible, dirty, cramped, its windows just above the waterline make it hard to see anything, but the ‘toilet’ won the prize as the worst in all China. It was a large bucket that was not emptied during our trip, which took 14 hours (including two hours when we were stopped by fog, which is very common in fall and winter).”
‘China A Travel Survival Kit’ 1998, Lonely Planet.
Here is our account:
A freezing fog hung heavily over a wintry Suzhou. Our spindly cycle- rickshaw rider whisked us through the dark silent streets, now and again letting out a tired groan as he heaved and hauled his rusty old bike over the many arched bridges that spanned the dank, black canals, his body tensing as he stood up to force the rickshaw over the final few centimetres, before slumping back onto the seat as the decent began. The eerie silence was often broken by the tingle of approaching cyclists’ bells, who, like the spectres you pass in a ghost train, flashed out of the darkness only to vanish again into the void. We passed clusters of hunched shapes, peasants on their way to market, weighed down by bundles, sacks and laden bamboo poles. They didn’t speak, preferring to concentrate on the task ahead. Bare light bulbs, or the rare lantern, lit up whitewashed houses and black slated roofs. The night hid their poverty and decrepit state and they looked romantic, as if belonging to another, more prosperous time.
It was four thirty in the morning and we were heading for the boat dock for the local five o’clock ferry to Hangzhou. Continue reading “Suzhou to Hangzhou by local ferry on the Granal Canal December 21st 1990”
Friday, September 7th 2001 / Nanjing- via Suzhou to ZhouZhuang (Zhejiang Province)
As planned, we take a taxi straight to the Bank of China- with our luggage. The driver is a bit worried as he can’t seem to understand where we’re going. In the end, it turns out to be a matter of a different tone …… The Bank is air-con, modern and efficient, the clerk speaks English – it’s straight in and out! Another taxi to the train station with a nice chatty driver, who spent a mere 16 years (!) in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution and thinks some of the changes in China these days are too fast.
However, as we pass a small park where people are practising ballroom dancing in the open air, it is clear that some things haven’t changed at all... Across from the train station there is an enormous lake where you can take out different kinds of boats, including mini-mushroom lookalikes and fake submarines. There is a terrific view of the modern Nanjing skyline. On the traditional side again, breakfast of lots of cold veggies and rice in a Chinese style self-service by the station. There, our luggage is X-rayed as usual, we’re lined up between the gates and marched row after row to the train. Our seats are padded with blue cushions, there are small tables in between and it’s air-con and strictly non-smoking.
Adam immediately strikes up a conversation with two nice ladies from Wuhan ( and their travelling companion). One of them turns out to be a party cadre in a department related to Chinese commerce. They ask him a lot of questions about life in Europe, including the inevitable ‘how much do you earn?’ and a lot about our non-existing haizi’ (or children).
Two and a half hours take us to Suzhou, we only walk from the train station to the bus station, where we are immediately whisked off on the 14.15 bus. There are computers, waiting rooms and gates here too, but the bus is a piece of shit, with those foldable plastic seats in the middle of the aisle. Fortunately only one puking lady who already had her bag prepared.
It takes another hour and a half to cover the 40 kms to Zhouzhuang. Getting out of Suzhou takes ages; what we can see is all modernised, no charm left (NOTE: we actually revisited Suzhou again in 2005 and managed to find a few nice areas still holding out). Once we’re out in the country there’s more life on the lakes and canals and everything is very green. According to Adam, it looks like Holland, but without the cows.
The bus station in Zhouzhuang is not where it is supposed to be and we are assaulted by a barrage of hotel women and cycle rickshaws. One obnoxious one keeps following us until I turn on him and send him packing. I’m quite proud of that, Adam, using his Chinese, is obviously too polite.
In the old town, a woman who wants us to stay at her family house leeches on to us, but I’m still determined to find ‘my hotel’. She keeps tagging along, confusing us and making us lose our way. We seem trapped in a maze of tourist shops and can only vaguely appreciate that the place must be pretty.