A Farewell to Summer

The end of summer means a return to my regular work schedule. As a result, Jun and I now have different weekends. To celebrate the end of a wonderful summer, we decided to take a few extra days off and travel to Suzhou. Suzhou is an old city near Shanghai that is known for its classic gardens and canals.

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Day 1

We arrived in Suzhou early in the morning and went straight to the hotel to check-in. Since it was early our room wasn’t ready. We left our luggage at the hotel and decided to explore the area. Near the hotel was the Panmen Scenic Area located at the southwestern corner of the old city wall. There are a number of buildings and gardens here next to the wall. It was a beautiful place to start our trip. While there were a lot of areas visited by other tourists, there were a number of quiet spots where Jun and I could enjoy Panmen.

Soon it was lunch and Jun and I went to a local dumpling place and ate a variety of them. The dumpling, overall, were great. I especially liked the vegetable dumplings. We did discover that food in this region tends to be sweeter than in other areas of China. It was a bit of a shock to the taste buds. It did, however, serve as a warning about what we should eat on our trip.

After lunch we chose a slow path back to the hotel. Anything along the way we thought interesting we would stop and visit. We actually stopped at a few places. One of them was the Confucius Institute in Suzhou. It is part museum and part research institute. In the back of the Institute—hidden from the street—is a local market where people can buy trinkets. It’s a really fascinating dichotomy between the Institute and the market in such closed quarters.

Across the street from the Confucius Institute are two interconnected gardens: Keyuan and Canglang Pavilion. Both are unique in their own ways. They are two of the many gardens in Suzhou. Keyuan has a more organized garden with lawns and vegetation. Canglang has more organic and meandering layout with a number of rocky outcrops. It was a neat contrast to see these two gardens. They highlight how diverse the gardens in Suzhou are.

After visiting those two gardens, Jun and I were ready for a nap after having had to get up at 3:00 in the morning. We went back to the hotel to get our room keycard for our nap. When we got there we had to wait a bit longer. As an apology the hotel gave us complimentary breakfasts for the rest of our stay. That was a nice little surprise. We got to our room and took a relaxing nap.

After our nap, we took a walk along the Grand Canal near the Panmen Scenic Area. The Grand Canal was created as a means of ferrying goods between key cities in China centuries ago. The walk was nice, and we got to see the shift of the city from day to night. As we were walking we were looking for a place to eat. We decided on a little restaurant that sold local food. Jun ordered some nice dumplings, but I ordered a rice cake dish that was really too sweet. As a result we decided to go to a Vietnamese place nearby. The food there was quite nice.

From there we went back to the hotel to end the day.

Day 2

The second day of our trip was one of gardens. After breakfast Jun and I walked to the main area for gardens in Suzhou. On the walk there Jun and I got to talking about the region and how we were close to West Lake in Hangzhou. West Lake is important to Chinese culture as it has inspired Chinese literature, music, and art for centuries. I have had many people tell me that I should go and visit. Jun said that by high speed train it’s only an hour and a half from Suzhou and that we should just go. I readily agreed and he quickly bought train tickets on his phone. That was done and we had a plan for Monday.

The first garden we went to was the Master of Nets Garden. The garden is known for the fusion of nature, art, and architecture to create a unique whole. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a replica of a portion of this garden . It was quite beautiful and interesting.

From there we went up the road to an alley with a temple and a museum dedicated to stone monuments. The museum is built on the site of the remains of Luohanyuan Temple. The most significant part of the temple left standing are the two twin pagodas that rise high above the remains. The day before Jun and I had seen an old picture of the pagodas at the Confucius Institute and we both wondered where in the city they were. By accident we had found them on our walk!

From there we went to Pingjiang Road, which is an old commercial street next to a canal. The buildings in this area are built in the traditional architectural style of Suzhou. It was nice to walk along the street and pop into some of the shops. We decided to stop at a café and rest for a bit while enjoying some cold drinks.

From there we went off on a side alley and ended up at an amazing garden: the Couple’s Retreat Garden. This garden was my favorite for two reasons. It was the quietest of all the gardens we visited. And the gardens were lush and breathtaking. I enjoyed my time there.

From there we walked along the canal and eventually ended up at the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It’s the largest of the Suzhou gardens and is renowned for its beauty. The only downside to being famous is that everyone wants to visit here. When we got there it was difficult to enjoy the garden with all the other tourists crowding every area of the garden. I mentioned to Jun that it reminded me of a visit to Disney Land with all the people and noise. While it was beautiful, the visit was not all that enjoyable.

We soon left to have a late lunch and a break from the visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

After lunch we went to the Lion Grove Garden, which was the last garden we visited that day. Its name comes from the number of rock features that resemble lions. It was a nice garden with a nice play of color in the building features. It was a nice contrast to the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

From there we finished our sightseeing with a walk to the North Temple Pagoda. When we got there the park was closed, but we were still able to admire the pagoda. To be honest Jun and I were a bit done with visiting places. We decided to finish the day with dinner. As we were walking to the fish restaurant we wanted to try, Jun noticed a place that sold sweet dumplings (tangyuan). Jun and I are accustomed to the dumplings being small. We were both surprised to see these dumpling being huge. They were so nice and delicious. After we finished them we then went to dinner, which was also good.

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And that was the end of this busy day!

Day 3

The day started at the Suzhou train station for our journey to Hangzhou. It was a quick trip to Hangzhou East station, and Jun and I were soon on our way to the West Lake.

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We first had lunch at a local restaurant. This time I thought the food was good, but Jun was a bit unhappy with it. At that point we both agreed the regional cuisine was just not for us.

We decided that we would try to walk around the whole lake. As we were walking we took in the beauty of it. Along the lake are a number of temples, museums, and gardens that offered a nice diversion from the general beauty of the lake. The first place we stopped at was Qianwang Temple. The temple resembled many other temples, but it did have a number of interesting murals depicting parts of the history of West Lake.

From the temple we continued our walk until we got to Jingci Temple. At the high point of the temple you can see Leifengta, which is a newer structure at West Lake. Jun had visited once and said it wasn’t worth the ticket price to visit. I was fine with that. I was able to still take a nice picture of it.

From there we went up Su Causeway. There are a number of gardens off the causeway that are beautiful and peaceful. Jun and I just enjoyed spending some time there and taking in the views. We were fortunate too that we got to see so many of the lotus plants along the causeway.

At the end of Su Causeway, Jun and I took a break and had tea on an island near Bai Causeway. After finishing our tea we walked along that causeway on our way back to where we had started.

When we got back it was dinner time. We both decided to have something different, which ended up being sushi. We found this restaurant in an alley house that was quite romantic; an appropriate place to have dinner since it was Chinese Valentine’s day.

After dinner we went to the train station for our journey back to Suzhou.

Day 4

The last day of our trip! For a bit of change we went to the village of Tongli in the southern part of Suzhou. Tongli has a lot of canals and gardens in a small area. It was easy to get to by a combination of metro and a short bus ride.

When we got there we enjoyed walking around the side streets and seeing the canals. The first garden we went to took us by surprise. When we first went into Gengle Hall we thought it would be small and a quick trip. It turned out to be significantly bigger with a nice garden in the back. It was also a nice contrast to the other gardens in Suzhou with a more rustic feel.

The next place that was also of significant size was the Pearl Tower Garden. This one had a number of halls and a nice garden, but it also had a theater in it. Suzhou is also known for its opera, so it was nice to see this traditional garden theater.

There were a number of other gardens we saw, but they were nothing compared to Gengle Hall and the Pearl Tower. Soon our enjoyment of Tongli had to come to an end; Jun and I had to get to the airport for our trip back to Shenzhen.

Our vacation was a great way to end our summer. The whole summer had been amazing, and this was a wonderful way to say farewell.