Known as the Venice of the East, Suzhou in east China’s Jiangsu province is praised for its lush gardens and enchanting waterways. Miles of narrow, interconnected canals criss-crossing the old section of the city provide endless opportunities to explore and discover. Alleys and major walkways lined with quaint single-storey houses retain their local flavor while catering to the needs of the modern traveler (i.e. better bathrooms and coffee shops). And small wooden boats give visitors the chance to see a different side of Suzhou at a much slower pace. The absence of major industries pumping pollutants into the air leaves the heavens an unnatural blue.
I visited this canal town during China’s National Holiday in early October and expected the tiny alleys and narrow canals to be packed. I was pleasantly surprised to find the opposite: a dearth of tourists that allowed me to explore the old city without bumping elbows with noisy Chinese travelers. The skies were clear, no rain or smog clouds in sight.
Venturing away from the main city corridors, where malls and McDonald’s were plentiful, I spent an entire day getting lost in side streets and following river passages from one neighborhood to another. For hours I watched the small wooden boats come and go. I enjoyed the skies — those immaculate blue skies — and fresh air – well, almost fresh air.
Locals reside in many of the houses not claimed by hostels, cafes and souvenir shops. As they have for hundreds of years, they use the waterways in their daily chores. From fishing and washing laundry and dishes, to dumping out wastewater and — as I assumed from the smell — disposing human waste, the canals are still a vital part of these peoples’ lives, although the waters show the wear and tear signs of modern use.
Still, Suzhou is a throwback to older times and a nice respite from city life. And did I mention the skies?