Finally, after sixteen hours on a sleeper train, a metro ride, and short walk, our G Adventures group arrives at Suzhou Overseas Chinese Hotel. A beautiful garden with a gazebo and small pond surround the hotel entrance.
Master of the Nets Garden
The Master of the Nets Garden is the smallest but most impressive of the Suzhou residential gardens. In the 1100’s it was known as the Hall of Ten Thousand Books, because the studies in the central garden were bursting with reading material. Then, in the 1600’s it became known as the Fisherman’s Retreat.
In 1997, the Master of the Nets Garden was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization encourages preservation of irreplaceable cultural and natural heritage while providing life and inspiration around the world.
The garden is divided into 3 sections: the central garden, inner garden, and residential section. The central garden is filled with pathways, vegetation, and buildings surrounding a pond. Each rock, tree, and structure is perfectly placed to create a tranquil retreat. As we explore the main garden, we notice all of the rooms in the surrounding buildings lead to the pond, including the Ribbon Washing Pavilion, Peony Study, and Moon and Wind Pavilion. One of the structures in the garden can only be accessed by Yinjing Bridge, a small stone bridge less than 12 inches wide .
Enjoying the many shaded areas and a break from the heat, we follow the maze of pathways to another area of the garden. Walking into the residential section, we hear beautiful singing. Thinking it is a recording playing in this area of the garden, we are surprised to find the sound coming from a security guard. He shows us how to use a touchscreen menu to learn the history behind some of the paintings and artifacts found throughout the garden.
The Grand Canal
As our time in the tranquil garden comes to an end, we walk back to the bus station. Our next stop is the “Venice of the East” or as the Chinese refer to it, a traditional water town. Walking over a small bridge, we look down the canal lined with houses before arriving at the enormous entrance announcing the beginning of Shantang Street, also known as the Seven Mile Shantang.
Following the sidewalk to the water’s edge, we reach the Grand Canal, running 1,200 miles from Beijing to Hangzhou. The sidewalk surrounding the ornate red building is etched with Chinese symbols.
Excited to explore, we walk by shops and restaurants. Lanterns hang from the store fronts above the stone paths. Tour boats awaiting passengers and umbrellas floating above outdoor tables line the edges of the canal. Seeing an illuminated sign for beer in the window of Echo Coffee Bar, we walk inside. We quickly learn coffee bar means alcoholic beverages are available. Passing the dimly lit bar we walk through a glass door. Seating is scattered throughout an outdoor garden surrounding a small pond. Looking quite small from the outside, we are amazed at the amount of seating areas inside the restaurant.
Exiting the restaurant, we walk by more store fronts before entering a small bar filled with strings of lights, memorabilia decorating the walls, and a small stage at the far corner. We have a seat at a table near the entrance and point to a picture of dumplings and a Chinese beer. We enjoy the eclectic atmosphere while a mix of English pop and Christmas music fills the air.
Walking farther down Shantang Street, we enter a less crowded restaurant and sit on a bench covered in decorative pillows at a table as rain begins to fall outside. Not being prepared for rain, we finish our meal and walk quickly to find the closest shop selling umbrellas. Among many other items, we find a plaid umbrella for fifteen Yuan, about $2.50 US dollars.
We join our group members at an outdoor table protected by a giant umbrella and watch the changing scenery of the canal. As the sunlight begins to fade, red lanterns flicker on one by one. The reflection of the lights shimmer in the water. Nearby shops illuminate the stone walkway with their glowing signs. We notice very few restaurants and store advertisements are in English, as we listen to the rain fall.
As our group members leave to take a taxi back to the hotel, two new customers occupy the table next to us. Neither the young man or woman look away from their phones while sitting down or ordering. The waitress returns bringing five beers for the man and chicken wings for the woman. Putting on clear plastic gloves from her purse, she carefully begins eating her chicken wings. Never looking away from his phone or speaking to the woman across the table, the man finishes his five beers in record time. The waitress returns and the woman orders a giant bowl of ice cream for herself as they continue dining without speaking or eye contact. Amazed at this social encounter, we decide it’s time to end our evening at the canal and begin the walk to the metro station.
*For more information on our tour check out: G Adventures China Express.
- Day 1: Fly into Beijing
- Day 2: Beijing: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
- Day 3: Great Wall Mutianyu and travel to Xi’an
- Day 4: Xian: Terracotta Warriors Guided Tour and travel to Suzhou
- Day 5: Suzhou: Master of the Nets Garden Tour and overnight train to Shanghai
- Day 6: Shanghai: Orientation Walk of the Bund
- Day 7: Shanghai: Carte Blanche
- Day 8: Fly out of Shanghai