June 3 – 5, 2009
I happened to be in Suzhou for a few days for business purpose. Each day I was able to sneak out for a couple of hours, so I visited three of the classical gardens along with the Pei Ieoh Ming-designed Suzhou Museum.
A quick note about the city and the museum before moving on to the gardens:
East of the old city core and Jinji Lake, the government of Suzhou has established a joint industrial park project with Singapore. Over the past 15 years, the once empty lot/farmland had been transformed into light industries, gigantic shopping malls, and countless apartment blocks. The whole district was finally up and running after 15 years of planning and building, so it remained a little like a ghost town at this point. But the scale of the whole project was impressive for sure, and the district planning seemed much more coordinated than the Pudong district in Shanghai.
The old city core, where most of the tourist sights located, was much different from its neighbouring new district. Unlike the wide boulevards of the industrial park, the roads of the old town were narrow and clustered. Most bikes and motorcycles that were on the road were powered by really quiet electric motors. For some reason these fast moving bikes were allowed to operate on pedestrian lanes, and a few times one got right at my back without me noticing .
Even with the electric bikes, the air quality was totally unacceptable in Suzhou. The smog was much thicker than Hong Kong, which is saying something. Constructions were happening everywhere, so you could literally see dust in the air. The many canals around town often serve as waste dumps for the residence above them, causing these waterways to permeate an awful smell. Another annoyance – a male walking on the street at night was like a tout-magnet, and I couldn’t walk a few steps before being asked to “have a good time with hot girls for only $xx”.
Overall, Suzhou is easy enough to navigate. It was perfectly safe to walk on the streets even late at night, unlike say Shenzhen. Riding the bus was relatively straightforward, though the connection between the old town and the industrial park district was poor. While the “heaven” described in Chinese literature is long gone – the cityscape of Suzhou is a carbon copy to most other Chinese cities, the city is worthwhile for a day or two for its many classical gardens.
This museum offered free admission. In a city where almost every sight charged an outrageous amount, this alone gave the museum a must-see status. Pretty interesting building, I should add, but the exhibits were underwhelming at best and many appeared so new they might be replicas.