Famous for its gardens and its silk, the ancient and moated city of SUZHOU, just sixty minutes from Shanghai by train, lies at the point where the rail line meets the Grand Canal. The town itself is built on a network of interlocking canals whose waters feed the series of renowned classical gardens that are Suzhou's pride and glory. The three most famous gardens – Wangshi Yuan, Shizi Lin and Zhuozheng Yuan – attract a stream of visitors year round, but many of the equally beautiful yet lesser-known gardens, notably Canglang Ting, are comparatively serene and crowd-free.
With the imperial capital close by at Hangzhou, Suzhou attracted an overspill of scholars, officials and merchants, bringing wealth and patronage with them. These were the people responsible for carving out the intricate gardens that now represent Suzhou's primary attractions. They have been laid out here since the Song dynasty, a thousand years ago, and in their Ming and Qing heyday it is said that the city had two hundred of them. Chinese gardens do not set out to improve upon a slice of nature or to look natural, which is why many Western eyes find them hard to accept or enjoy. They are a serious art form, the garden designer working with rock, water, buildings, trees and vegetation in subtly different combinations; as with painting, sculpture and poetry, the aim is to produce for contemplation the balance, harmony, proportion and variety which the Chinese seek in life. Almost everything you see has some symbolic significance – the pine tree and the crane for long life, mandarin ducks for married bliss, for example.
You can enjoy Suzhou by simply roaming. The traditional commercial centre of the city lies around Guanqian Jie, halfway down Renmin Lu, an area of cramped, animated streets thronged with small shops, teahouses and restaurants. Stray from the main streets and you'll come across pagodas, temples, lively shopping districts and hectic canal traffic. Distances are a bit too large to rely purely on walking, but cycling is an excellent alternative as the terrain is pretty flat.