If I were to summarise China, it would be a cocktail of contrasts and contradictions, most certainly served shaken not stirred. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in Shanghai and Suzhou, two megacities that are quickly linked by high-speed rail and offering up a mix of traditions, towers and tourist crowd pleasers.
For me though, Suzhou was the cherry on top.
Shanghai might be the poster child of modern-day China, with the electrifying view from The Bund at night showcasing the countries 21st-century spirit, but you never have to stray far from a sky-high tower to find an intimate moment with the countries traditions.
It was my third visit to this bustling city, and I’ll never forget how intimidating it felt the first time I ventured to The Bund solo. Crowds gathered to take selfies with the iconic backdrop, sellers tried to hawk catalogues of shoddy goods and massages with benefits, and I stumbled my way through the visit in appalling unorganised fashion. This time, I was more prepared and had I not been, I think I would have been in better company with our G Adventures tour group than attempting my first China visit solo.
That said, the view of Shanghai from The Bund doesn’t get me as excited as it does for many. While the towers can often be obscured by fog and pollution by day, the bright lights have always broken through on my evening visits and, dazzling enough; it misses a particular wow factor that you can find in Hong Kong or Singapore. But if you venture up the Shanghai Tower, now the highest viewing platform in the world and one of the reasons it made Lonely Planet’s Best In Travel list 2018, you’ll find yourself transported to a mystical view of clouds above the fantastic towers below you.
Tradition meets modern in Shanghai
The Bund, with its historic buildings and imposing wide shopping streets, for me is better enjoyed at street level, casually strolling around and soaking up one of the busiest spots in this city.
Although Shanghai isn’t a city you could explore by foot in its entirety, cycling, the metro and affordable taxis make getting around painless, especially with all English announcements and machines available.
But do go and get lost in Shanghai, no matter how overwhelming it may feel. When you find a traditional hawker serving up street food at a criminally low price outside office blocks, or a monk looking out of a temple next to billboard advert for Apple, you’ll be served up that unique cocktail of contrasts I mentioned before.
Nowhere did I feel this more than at Jing’an temple, where a group of Monks prayed to my right and neon advertising flashed to the left from the highrises all around. You can see how China is evolving, growing and embracing a change while still, for now, keeping its traditions alive, even in these cities that are continually growing. A stroll into Yu Gardens, home of more temples amongst old-style gardens comes with a side of Starbucks, continuing the battle of west-meets-east and old-meets-new as China powers towards becoming the world’s superpower.
A coffee in the leafy French Concession, where Tianzigang is packed out with boutique shops amongst colonial architecture that again feels like a different world. Shortly afterwards I’d find myself asking a residential apartment block guard how to access the Museum of Propaganda, a collection of posters from the years that resides in the basement of a blink and you’ll miss it tower block. Sometimes China left me confused, but the answers would usually present themselves eventually.
To be honest, Shanghai isn’t a city I love, but it is a city that fascinates me, and it’s the perfect introduction to China’s fast and ongoing story of growth.
Don’t miss Shanghai:
French Concession / Tianzifang – Grab a coffee, hit up the shops, relax under the trees
The Bund – Take in the grand architecture and open spaces before hitting up the shopping streets
Go up a Tower – Whether you opt for the uniquely shaped Pearl, home of Burlesque in the city or power up Shanghai Tower, the worlds highest viewing platform, booking in advance is advisable
Acrobat Show – A bit kitsch, and an inclusion in my tour package, I wouldn’t say it is a ‘must do’, but the acrobat arts that have been refined in Shanghai are pretty impressive
Jing’an Temple – One of my favourite temples in the city, walk around all the rooms and hopefully you’ll find Monks amongst the Buddha statues
Yu Garden – Visit early and try to avoid the crowds, peaceful and serene at mid-day it was not
Museum of Propaganda – Weird and wonderful and perfect for a rainy day, it’s a little tricky to find so don’t be scared to ask
Stepping off a night-train that had been home for the previous 14-hours was a relief. You don’t realise the scale of China until you are chugging along on the over-nighter chugging a beer to help you sleep.
Suzhou was the destination I was least excited about on our two-week tour of China, but it ended up being one of my favourite stops. After a quick refresh in our hotel and admiring its gardens, this is a city famed for it’s UNESCO listed gardens after all, we all over-ordered and indulged in our first proper meal in nearly a day.
Prayers left on paper
Fed, watered and feeling surprisingly excited to explore the city we headed to the Master of the Nets Garden, one of the smaller gardens in the city but, thanks to its ornate details and design that maximises space, one of the most famous. We wandered amongst little bridges over the water, snapped too many photos and felt a sense of Zen that hadn’t been present on the previous few days travelling through Beijing and Xian.
The Master of the nets Garden
Although still a large city by most peoples standards, inside the older parts of Suzhou you can quickly feel like you are in a small village. Little canals link streets together, rickshaws slowly ride down bike lanes, and single-file traffic is a respite from the never-ending roads on the outer limits.
I was smitten in Suzho pretty quickly and knew I wanted nothing more than to get blissfully lost.
As the rest of my G Adventures tour group jumped on various Rickshaw tours, my feet took mine on a journey past street stalls where I ate snacks with names I couldn’t pronounce, little temples devoid of any tourists and people-watching with a coffee in hand alongside one of the small canals.
‘The Venice of the East’ is a nickname many have bestowed on Suzhou, but really, it holds it’s own and needs no comparison.
Strolling down Shantang Street, one of the main tourist hubs in the city bars spilt out on to the narrow streets by the canal. Lines grew for the large boats that ply the waterways, a far cry from the small gondolas on the littler streams, and entertainers dazzled crowds who take breaks from the numerous souvenier stores.
It wasn’t long until I was lost again, venturing beyond the wide street and into narrower territory, the scenery quickly changed to family businesses, one-human food stalls and lazy after work cups of green tea being sipped on the canal edge.
At this end of Shantang Street, the public toilets didn’t have doors, a line of locals squatted as neighbours playing on phones while others waited their turn. Childen launched stones and wood into the river and watched it float under the bridges. Laughter and screams of families replaced the bustle of tourist-tour chatter, and I was in my element.
These were the moments I would always remember from China; the moments when the language barrier didn’t matter when smiles and nods were plausible conversations. You have to find the heart of a country when you travel to it, and in China, a country so vast it often felt there was no one singular vein to follow. Each city has a different pulse, and that made this journey so magical: I never knew what to expect or what I would find in China, but Suzhou was the first moment I knew it would be a country I would come back to.
Temples in Suzhou
Don’t miss Suzhou:
Shantang Street – Buzzing tourist hub where bars, boat rides and souvenir shops reside
Master of the Nets Garden – This small, but perfectly formed garden is ideal for those poor on time
More Gardens – It is famous for them after all, Humble Administrators is one of the largest and grandest
Grand Buddha Ling Shan – Head slightly out of the city to the lake to witness this towering statue
Tiger Hill Pagoda – If you have the time, and don’t get distracted like me, head up to this scenic park and viewing area to look down on the city and visit the pagoda
Whether you visit China as part of a tour, as I did with G Adventures who have a range of options in China, or independently, I really don’t think you should overlook the chance to visit Suzhou given its proximity and ease from Shanghai.
Even if you just take advantage of the visa-free stopovers in Shanghai should they be available to your passport. I’ve flown through Shanghai with China Eastern Airways a few times, and they are not bad at all and use Shanghai as their base. For a ‘dip-your-toes-in’ China experience, those two cities are clear winners for me.
Beijing to Hong Kong tour details
A 14-day Classic Beijing to Hong Kong Adventure with G Adventures is priced from £1,899 per person including all accommodation (allow US$475 for meals not included), a chief experience officer, and transportation in destination. Price does not include flights. For more information or to book, please visit www.gadventures.co.uk.
I was on assignment with Lonely Planet during my trip to China with ground support from G Adventures.