One of my day trips from Shanghai found me in Suzhou (sometimes known as Soochow), about an hour and a half away, along the exotically named Yangtze Riverine Expressway. Suzhou is often called “The Venice of the East”, a reference to the ubiquitous canals crisscrossing the city; it even has a leaning tower (which by all rights should make it the Pisa of the East, but that’s another story for another day). Marco Polo is quoted waxing poetic about Suzhou (although it was “Suju” to him): “It is a great and noble city; it has 6000 bridges, all of stone, and so lofty that a galley, or even two galleys at once, could pass underneath one of them.” I stopped counting at a couple of dozen, but I have no reason to doubt Marco Polo’s account; there are graceful arched stone bridges at every turn.
Since the tenth century, Suzhou has been the center of the Chinese silk industry, a position it jealously guards even today. There is a fine silk museum displaying antique and modern renditions of traditional designs. Countless silk factories, embroidery workshops, and tapestry makers offer tours to visitors, in hopes of separating them from copious quantities of their yuan. I am no connoisseur, but to my untrained eye the workmanship is unparalleled, and the prices reflect this. A small embroidered picture could easily set you back a simlar amount to what its creator makes in a month.
The fine thing about Suzhou, though, is the complete lack of boutique-y pretentiousness about the place. Sure, there are some touristy areas, but for the most part, the city is unashamedly charming, lovely almost by accident. The colors of the city are the colors of working people and nature: the sky reflected in the water of the canals, the flowers that break forth in cracks of old concrete, the drying clothes hanging from every window, the whitewashed walls and black tile roofs. Just a marvelous place to while away a few hours…or a few years.