Before our trip, we were recommended to visit Suzhou and Hangzhou as side trips from Shanghai, as they are both just a couple of hours away and have reputations for being both very beautiful and important historical places in China. After a couple of days in Shanghai, we first headed to Suzhou. Labelled “The Venice of the East” this city is famous for its Venetian style canals and ancient, classical gardens. I could indeed see a resemblance with Venice upon arrival on the historic PingJiang road, a street lined with picturesque white-washed houses which back onto the canal (you can even ride a Chinese style gondola here). The PingJiang Road is classically beautiful, it can't be denied. However, in all honesty, Suzhou wasn’t really for me.
The PingJiang Road is a really long street (over 1km long) which is placed smack bang in the middle of the booming city of Suzhou. Outside of this 'old town' area the city, as we experienced it, really isn't anything special. This 'Venice-like' area is also a huge tourist attraction with locals from around this area. While the architecture of this water village is very elegantly enchanting, it seems to have really shamelessly sold out to tourism. I think the fact that we happened to be there at the weekend further increased our indifference to the place, as it was just absolutely jam packed with tourists. (Many of whom were fully grown adults wearing a variety of bizarre foliage related hair clips.. but that's another story).
Quickly tiring of the crowds on the Pingjiang Road, we decided to check out The Humble Administrators Garden, seeing as Suzhou is home to some of the most renowned Chinese gardens in the region, we felt that it would be a great antidote to the hustle and bustle of old town Suzhou. Right? Well, not quite. After reluctantly handing over 90RMB (roughly£9) for the privilege of walking around this UNESCO world heritage site, we entered and joined a throng of people even more densely packed in than the old town area.
The garden is indeed classically beautiful and historically important (built during the Ming dynasty, in 1505). However, it is almost impossible to appreciate the unique tranquility of a garden from within a human sandwich. I would have thought, especially being a UNESCO 'protected' site, they would limit the capacity. Particularly given the extortionate charge to enter. However, this is China. Crowds sadly come as part of the package and are hard to avoid at times. We are both usually very optimistic travellers, always finding the best of a place. But Suzhou had us beat by lunch time, so we headed back to our hostel, Mingtown, to spend an afternoon relaxing in the lovely common area (where I had my first opportunity to catch up on some blog posts from Japan - every cloud).
I really did try to see past the unbearable business of Suzhou while we were there. Hey, I'm no stranger to crowds - I lived in Hong Kong for three years and I was in Yangshuo for Chinese New Year, yet still absolutely love both places. Also, I am fully aware that the sheer size of China's population does mean places like this will be really busy, especially during holidays/ weekends. However, there was just something about Suzhou that didn't sit right with me. I really feel that they have sold out to tourism to an extent that it has lost an elegant nobility I could sense was buried somewhere underneath the selfie sticks and novelty dumplings.
I wasn't going to write this post originally, as I do tend to stick to writing about places I have enjoyed. It is also very rare that I come across a place where I think 'I wouldn't come here again'. However a part of travelling is that there will be places you love, and others, which may well be loved by many, just won't do it for you. It's all a part of the individual journey.