Chinese Buffet – Part 15: Suzhou Museum & Gardens

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Located less than an hour from Shanghai by train is Suzhou, a water town that’s been called the “Venice of the East.” One of China’s most ancient cities, with a history that dates back 2,500 years, Suzhou is known for its canals and gardens. I took a day trip (50 RMB round trip via train) to see for myself.

I had hoped to find one of the sightseeing boats I’d read about. Supposedly they depart from the canal near the train station and run through the city’s network of waterways. But there was massive construction taking place in the canal right across from the station — it was dry and full of work crews. Instead, I set out on foot down the main street that cuts through the city – Renmin Lu. Eventually I snuck down some side streets and walked along the canals, sensing a slight resemblance to Mediterranean life here and there along the waterway:

I suspect in cooler weather it could be great fun to spend several hours exploring the alleyways and bridges of Suzhou, but since my time was limited, I wandered with a fairly tight agenda. I wanted to be sure to fit in visits to some of Suzhou’s famous World Heritage recognized gardens. I took a shortcut across the main pedestrian shopping street (Quanqian Jie) and headed south, in search of The Master-of-Nets Garden. Tucked away down an alley full of trinket vendors, this quaint garden was nice and quiet when I arrived. Several guidebooks say it draws the most tourists because it is so charming:

The only group roaming around the grounds was a sketch class. I sat and observed some students as they drew. The crickets sang softly and a slight breeze cooled me down. It was exactly what I expected an ancient garden to provide — shade mixed with silence. I would have liked to linger longer, but I was in desperate need of water…and had an appointment.

I headed off to meet with Peter Goff and see the site for The Bookworm’s newest location. Superbly located along a canal just off Shiquan Jie (a popular bar and restaurant strip), the latest branch of this English-language lending library cafe is set to open in September. We took a short tour of the prime canal-side location where the building renovation is underway:

After our meeting I asked Peter to point me in the direction of the Blue Wave Pavilion. I liked the sound of this garden and knew it was nearby. He directed me towards Canglangting Jie. The garden is also known as the Canglang Pavilion. Spacious and peppered with rock formations, it was also quite empty. I think the hot temps were definitely keeping folks away. But the greenery of the garden actually made it a perfect temporary escape from the hot sun:

At this point I knew I still had a few hours to spare and decided I would switch gears from gardens to museums. Renowned for its silk manufacturing, I debated a visit to the city’s silk museum. But I had recently read an article about the new Suzhou Museum and was craving a contemporary art fix. I jumped in a taxi heading north:

Designed by international architectural superstar I. M. Pei, the new Suzhou Museum opened in October 2006. The original museum, established in 1960, was the former residence of Prince Zhong Wang Fu. This older part still exists at the rear of the museum, but the new “face” created by I. M. Pei brings a bold new look to this corner of the city:

The contemporary design takes its inspiration from the traditional courtyard and ancient gardens that Suzhou is famous for. It houses over 30,000 works from Suzhou and the surrounding Wu region. The four permanent collections include sections on Wu calligraphy, painting and relics.

I. M. Pei’s family lived in Suzhou, in an area that neighbors this museum and is part of another of the city’s ancient gardens. Fans of modern architecture or the work of I. M. Pei should not miss this masterpiece:

I sat by this creative wall waterfall and lotus pool, reflecting on the design elements I had encountered during the day:

From ancient gardens to renovated buildings to modern museums, I sensed a continuity to my Suzhou travels — it seems that what’s old is always new again.