Fishermen still cast their lines in the crumbling canals of the ancient city of Suzhou, and at dawn, gaggles of elderly woman can be seen performing tai chi in the shade of willow trees. The shadows of the city’s countless pagodas and ancient stone arches reach across the roofs of tiny canal cottages and into the bustling markets as another day starts in one of China’s most historic cities.
Nestled in the reaches of the Yangtze River, on the banks of Lake Taihu, Suzhou is one of eastern China’s most beautiful cities. Despite China’s relentless march towards modernity, Suzhou – once dubbed the Venice of the East because of its canals, stone bridges and manicured gardens – retains a sense of tranquility that has lasted since its heyday during the Song Dynasty.
Originally built in 514BC, modern day Suzhou was once part of the great city of Helu, the capital of the kingdom of Wu, created during the Spring & Autumn period by King Helu. Elements of the former city can be seen in Suzhou’s 2,500-year-old city walls and at the Panmen Gate, at one time the only way in or out of the city.
“There’s something undeniably surreal about walking down a street that people were walking down 2,500 years ago,” says Suzhou-based designer Ryan McLaughlin. “That sort of historic legacy permeates everything in Suzhou, from the heavily touristed areas on postcards to the grimy back alleys full of artisans. Getting lost here is an excellent way of stumbling backward in time, and wandering through the city an excellent way of exploring Chinese history first hand.”
The creation of the city’s canal system, including the Grand Canal, helped bolster Suzhou as a trading port. In fact, the Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, is the longest man-made river in the world and passes through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang down to Hangzhou.
With one foot in the past and another in the future, Suzhou is a popular weekend escape from Shanghai and other large Chinese cities. The modern, high speed ‘G Train’ now cuts the travel time between Shanghai Central and Suzhou’s modern new train station to just 40 minutes, making it perfect for leisure travellers and businessmen bound for the city’s sprawling Suzhou Industrial Park.
The zone, a large scale joint project between China and Singapore, is home to the Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, one of the first Sino-British universities in China, as well as high-end residential properties, IT businesses and the highly acclaimed Suzhou Culture and Arts Centre.
Based around the large Jinji Lake and a pleasant tourist propsect in itself, Suzhou resident Steven Millward says that the Industrial Park is a chance to delve into modern Chinese society, where you’re more likely to see a Ferrari than a trishaw. “Go to sample some of the fantastic high-end restaurants, bars, and shopping,” recommends Steven. “There is everything from famous German breweries to a Nepalese jazz bar.”
With its restored canals, tiny waterside homes and expansive gardens, Suzhou is a popular tourist destination. Once the centre for China’s silk trade under the Song Dynasty, the city is now one of four protected Chinese cities. Thousands of tourists arrive each year to explore the canal towns and the city’s ornate gardens, many of which were recreated after being destroyed during the Japanese invasion in 1937.
A must-visit is the modern Suzhou Museum, which comes in two parts: the original museum housed in the former palace of Prince Zhong of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, and an extension designed by I.M. Pei and inaugurated in 2006. The museum boasts fascinating collections of Chinese art, ancient paintings and calligraphy, and is surrounded, naturally, by tranquil gardens and ponds. It’s a perfect retreat to inspire as well as unwind – not unlike the city of Suzhou itself.
Located in Global 188, the city’s tallest building and most prestigious landmark in the heart of Suzhou Industrial Park, Fraser Suites Suzhou is quickly becoming the city’s byword for luxury. The Gold-Standard serviced apartment property is the first joint project between Frasers Hospitality and SPG Land, the ground-breaking developers behind the architectural icon.
Business travellers can start right at the exquisitely faceted top, where four floors of leisure amenities await with luxurious options in entertainment or relaxation. Aptly named ‘The Pinnacle,’ the airy, naturally lit space houses the Sky Lounge, two exclusive meeting rooms, a golf simulator, kids’ club, tai chi court, spa, cigar bar and library, all with stunning views of the modern city as a backdrop.
When it’s time to retreat to your private haven, choose from the tower’s 276 one-, two- or three-bedroom serviced apartments, each stylishly outfitted in contemporary designer furnishings and boasting breathtaking views from its floor-to-ceiling windows. Each suite has a separate living area and a fully equipped kitchen, with comprehensive home entertainment systems featuring LED TVs and iPod docking multimedia players and wireless Internet connections.
Feeling restless? Stay active with an inspired setting for the swimming pool, gymnasium and private garden; take a tranquil stroll along Jinji Lake and its waterfront parks; or hit nearby Zuo An commercial street for your shopping needs. If you ever need to venture further afield, there’s easy access to central Suzhou and a 40-minute speed train ride to Shanghai and beyond.