My boyfriend Siqi drove us to Suzhou for a short vacation when we had a long weekend for the Dragon Boat Festival national holiday here in China. Suzhou is famous for “Venice-like” water towns, ancient residential complexes with exquisitely landscaped courtyard gardens, and the city museum adjacent to the city’s most famous garden.
We didn’t plan very far in advance—in fact, we didn’t plan much at all—but we still enjoyed our time. The main tourist sites were completely booked and/or full of people, but we were lucky with the weather, and were able to amuse ourselves just fine by walking around in the historic district. Now that we’re more familiar with Suzhou’s geography, we know where to go when we go back, which is easy to do since Suzhou is just next door to Hangzhou.
I took photos mainly of:
- modern infrastructure on the highway (see separate post: The Road to Suzhou)
- new and old Suzhou buildings, including shops and their wares (see below),
- a few signs with amusing English (see separate post: Suzhou Signs),
- a Taoist temple (see separate post: The Xuan Miao Temple),
- Lake Tai (see separate post: Glimpse of Taihu).
Happy Dragon Boat Festival!
The actual holiday fell on a Thursday. The government gave everybody Friday off, but converted Sunday into a working day. This system is similar to the system in the US that moves many of the Federal holidays to the closest Monday to give people a three-day weekend, although admittedly the result is not quite the same.
The Dragon Boat Festival itself, I’m told, is something to do with the drowning of a famous poet. The celebration apparently involves watching races in dragon boats and eating zongzi, which are steamed leaf-wrapped triangle-shaped glutinous rice dumplings with meat or something sweet like dates or red bean paste inside. (One of my colleagues asked me what the English word for zongzi is. There isn’t one. To translate the word, you need a whole sentence.)
I didn’t see a boat race, but my employer (Zhejiang Lab) arranged a package of food gifts that included zongzi. The process to claim this gift package involved clicking a link in the company portal to go to the Labor Union page, then following a couple more links, getting a password, scanning a QR code in a phone app, and entering the password and a delivery address. A few days later, a box arrived, containing 6 zongzi, 4 salted duck eggs, 3 mysterious little “cakes”, and 10 packets of filter coffee, all in pretty packaging.
Road Trip! Woohoo!
I used to travel more.
Until Dragon Boat Festival 2023, I hadn’t been on a road trip in five years. I often went with my ex-husband when he had an academic conference, and his parents used to take us somewhere for Christmas every two years, and he likes planning trips so we went on other trips besides those. My last trip with him was the 2017 trip to Australia and New Zealand. In the same year, I went to Australia with friends, and with my parents on a road trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Apart from a trip to visit my parents in the US in December 2019 / January 2020, with brief stopovers here in Hangzhou on the way there and on the way back, I didn’t go anywhere else until I moved from Singapore to Hangzhou in December 2022.
Siqi and I set out in his car early in the afternoon on Thursday. While he drove, I took lots of photos of car license plates, because I’m an insatiable collector and apparently that’s what I’m seriously collecting these days, although I’m also taking lots of photos of bridges, tollbooths, tunnels, power lines, and other infrastructure. (It’s a little difficult to collect things like stamps, coins, bills, DVDs, or books in English here. Adapt, improvise, overcome.)
I put the infrastructure photos from the road trip to Suzhou in another post: The Road to Suzhou.
Arrival and Check-In
After exiting the highway at a tollbooth and traversing a concrete overpass or two, we arrived at a more picturesque sort of place.
The hotel we chose is a reasonably large establishment; we chose it for its location, dedicated parking, and breakfast buffet, and because I recognized the brand (which unsurprisingly is an American hospitality brand: Wyndham). They upgraded us at check-in for some reason.
Pingjiang Historical and Cultural Area
We went out to explore Suzhou’s Pingjiang Historical and Cultural Area on foot. From having briefly used Baidu’s “streetview” eyeball feature on this area of the map, I had concluded that this place was just an old neighborhood, not a tourist area. (I was wrong, there were lots of shops and restaurants!)
On our way, almost immediately after leaving the hotel, we found a second-hand bookstore!
Siqi bought a hardcover book of historical maps of world empires.
Looking for possible dinner options on our way, we found a new mall. It had not one but two Burger Kings inside… one on the ground floor and one on the third or fourth floor. The mall was mostly disappointing, except that it had flippy sequins on the wall for people to play with, and I found some pretty amusing signs. We proceeded beyond the mall to the historical and cultural area, where some doors were shops and some were people’s houses. Or both, probably.
We turned around when we got to the super busy area, and went back through a darkening street that was pretty much all private houses.
We crossed the big under-construction road near the disappointing mall and entered a thriving modern retail district, getting hungrier all the time. We stopped at a drink stall to buy a couple of the photogenic bamboo cups of tea with whipped cream that we’d been seeing people with. (Delicious!)
With new energy, we strolled around the brightly lit buildings. One was the entry to an old temple complex (more on that later), but the rest of the buildings were new. We went in an antique store selling scholar’s rocks, stone carvings, and jade jewelry, and managed to avoid buying any teacups.
Thursday Dinner & Movie
We found a good restaurant serving Suzhou-style food. However, not only was there a long queue, the owner came and told some of the people at the end of the queue to leave because the restaurant would not be accepting any more diners for the day. Oh well.
We were ready to eat just about anything—possibly including KFC, if they still had any tables. That was when we found it.
An Italian restaurant.
Don’t laugh, it was totally authentic, and also totally empty. It had fresh roses on the table by the window, and portraits of cats on the wall. It was perfect.
We had lemon water, red wine, fresh mozzarella salad, handmade Bolognese pasta, and freshly made Naples-style prosciutto pizza.
We climbed carefully back down the steep stairs and caught a taxi (on the street! without using an app!) to a movie theater (not the one in the photo above) where we watched The Flash (with English audio and Chinese subtitles). It was entertaining but not great—about what you’d expect from DC at this point.
We fortified ourselves for what turned out to be a long day of walking with breakfast from the hotel’s international buffet.
Our goal was to go walk to see one of the famous gardens, but we didn’t buy tickets because we weren’t sure when we’d arrive, or if it would rain.
I took a bunch of photos at the Xuan Miao Temple, so I gave it its own post.
Interesting Old Streets
Beyond the temple, we walked through interesting old streets.
We saw people (mainly women) dressed in historical-style clothing, some with historical hairdos. In fact, there were costume rental shops and people on the street doing the hairdos!
Crowds of Tourists
When we reached The Lion Garden, we decided that even if we could tolerate waiting in the long hot line to get in, we probably wouldn’t enjoy the inside of the garden much, having to share it with so many people in front of and behind us. So Siqi bought us another two cups of milk tea and we kept walking. We went in the direction of the Suzhou Museum and Humble Administrator’s Garden. We went in some of the tourist shops but didn’t buy anything, although I did pay to get my photo taken with Monkey! We eventually turned around and took a new path back towards the hotel.
Animal, Mineral, or Vegetable?
After a rest and a drink, and purely by accident, we stumbled on a street full of absolutely fascinating stuff. What caught my eye first was scholar’s rocks, but other shops sold plants, birds, rabbits, crabs, and even crickets.
I bought some rocks: some small pitted irregular translucent white and amber pebbles rubbed smooth by the sands of the Gobi desert.
On the way back to the hotel, we visited a shop selling Suzhou embroidery. I saw some pieces that looked similar in style to one I almost bought secondhand on Carousell on Singapore… but it was of course much more expensive.
Dinner and Another Stroll
We went to a big new restaurant to try some Suzhou food. We ordered a kind of tofu bacon soup, some cold noodles, some colorful dumplings, some corn, and some yellow flower wine in a decorative ceramic bottle.
After we ate, we did yet more walking! We visited a shop full of luxury wood furniture, and a shop selling nostalgic snacks, including these:
Then we found an antique shop selling the most interesting scholar’s rock I’d seen yet.
We didn’t buy this amazing, expensive, and terrifyingly fragile rock, but the sales guy did manage to sell Siqi two wood items and a white stone disc.
After breakfast and checkout, it was time to start heading back. The rain that was predicted for Friday finally materialized.
The rain made the driving more of a challenge than we’d hoped, and we didn’t spend as much time on the shore of Taihu as we would have liked.
See Glimpse of Taihu for photos of the lake and the drive home.