Known historically as the meeting place of Chinese high society, artists and writers, the small city of Suzhou is famous for its art forms and beautiful gardens. Located a breezy 25 minute bullet train ride from downtown Shanghai, it’s a nice destination for a one or two day escape from big city life to see its charming canals, pagodas and humpbacked bridges.

Getting from Shanghai to Suzhou was an experience in itself and, in hindsight, a forewarning of the challenges that awaited me for the remainder of my time in China. After being seen off by my super helpful French Airbnb host, I arrived at the Shanghai train station and encountered my first obstacle: for the life of me, I couldn’t find the ticket office. The queue to enter the terminal was clearly marked, but nowhere was there any indication (in English) of where to buy a ticket! Ordinarily I would’ve pre-purchased online, but train (and air) travel in China is actually super strict, and foreigners are required to show their passport to purchase.

After finding the Information booth empty and trying unsuccessfully to ask multiple non-English speaking security guards where the ticket office was, I calmed down and started watching the flow of pedestrian traffic. It took a few minutes, but eventually I found the underground ticket office a block away across the street. (Note to fellow travelers: this was not an anomaly; the Chinese do not put their ticket offices in clear or obvious locations.)

Upon entering the ticket office (now a good thirty minutes after I’d first arrived at the station) I encountered my second obstacle: all information provided was only available in Chinese. Now, a quick timeout here. I’m sure that most people reading this are thinking, “No sh*t, you’re in China! Learn some Mandarin!” Well, to those lovely readers I kindly respond a) yes, thank you, I’m aware I’m in China. b) up to this point every place I’ve visited on my trip has provided English translations at airports and train stations and c) you know, I really meant to learn some Mandarin… but time just got away from me (sad face).

As most of my friends and family can attest, I’m somewhat (at times obnoxiously) obsessed with attempting to learn foreign languages in a short amount of time, and between trying to pick up Turkish then Arabic in the weeks prior, I’d let my Mandarin Coursera classes fall through the cracks. Then, once I’d arrived in Shanghai and learned how extremely difficult Mandarin is (after four days I could barely say hello and thank you), my brain went into full shutdown mode and my tongue pretty much froze whenever I’d even attempt a word. It didn’t help that the English spellings of Chinese words are completely nonsensical.

Even the name of the town I wanted to visit, Suzhou, was a curveball. Instead of the (somewhat) obvious English pronunciation ‘soo-zoh’ (‘soo-zoo’? I’d try them both on locals and receive only blank stares), the Chinese actually pronounce it ‘Soo-joe’. After eventually admitting to myself that my English pronunciations would get me nowhere, I was reduced to my own Chinese version of the game ‘Spot the Difference’, squinting at length at random Mandarin signage, then trying (usually in vain) to match the characters up with the names or words printed on whatever Chinese literature I had in hand.

Needless to say, I basically felt like I’d just solved the mystery of the Rosetta Stone by the time I’d actually procured my train ticket (to the right place! for the right day!) from the non-English speaking ticket vendor. And it only took an hour!

The train ride itself was uneventful, as was the taxi ride to my hotel (note to self: ALWAYS have accommodation’s address in Chinese). But I was surprised upon arriving that the hotel’s name wasn’t posted in English; hesitantly I got out of the cab, not sure that this was where I wanted to be. Upon closer inspection the hotel’s street address wasn’t in English either. Once I’d actually entered and learned I was in fact at the right place, I was immediately grateful that I’d had an honest cabbie and hadn’t tried to get there on my own. (Full disclosure: it was around this time that I developed a brief dependency on Tsingtao and Starbucks. Ordinarily not a huge fan of beer, I found myself wanting nothing more than a giant bottle of cheap Tsingtao at the end of the day to unwind. Similarly, once I learned there was a Starbucks nearby, I hiked 20 minutes out of my way every morning to get my latte fix, a small price to pay for any semblance of familiarity for this fish out of water. Even fuller disclosure: I gained five pounds over three weeks in China due to stress eating. Well, that and their heavy use of oils, but I digress…)

The first stop on my itinerary was the Pan Gate scenic area. Historians believe the city of Suzhou dates back almost 2,500 years, and the gate at Pan Men is part of the ancient city wall built in 514 BC. The Ruigang Pagoda, built in 247 AD, and Panmen Gate are pictured below.

Besides the historic land and water gate, the scenic area includes a large lake and garden with walking paths throughout.

The next stop on my to-see list was the famous Humble Administrator’s Garden. Built in 1509 and the most well known of Suzhou’s gardens, it’s considered to be the most impressive due to its sheer size.

I loved the diversity of the Humble Administrator’s Garden in particular and easily spent a few hours roaming through while appreciating the different scenery inside.

There’s no better way to end a long day of walking than to enjoy a hot bowl of spicy noodles, so that’s exactly what I did. A HUGE thank you to the kind teenager behind the counter, who went so far as to do a cow impression to communicate that yes, I had just ordered beef noodles. (Please note at this point in the day this didn’t even faze me, I was just happy to understand! Also: Chinese pickled cabbage is delicious.)

It was around mid-morning the next day that I officially started to come undone. After (painstakingly) inquiring into the availability of an English tour with my hotel and learning there were none offered, it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen a single westerner in two days! Three years of living on the border of San Francisco’s Chinatown (which I would soon learn is the largest in the world outside of China) had made me impervious to situations where I was literally surrounded by (San Franciscan) Chinese; it happened so frequently I stopped noticing, just as I’m sure they didn’t notice me either. But this wasn’t San Francisco.

Suddenly I became very aware of people trying to take my picture; I’d been warned this could happen, particularly due to my height and blonde hair, but I wasn’t really expecting it until arriving in the more rural parts of China. It had actually started weeks prior in Egypt (albeit infrequently), and I’d initially thought it was fun. Who doesn’t want to feel like a celebrity for a second? But, unlike in Cairo and Luxor where people would always ask first, oftentimes my only warning in China was a loud *click* in my periphery followed either by a guilty-looking photog lowering his camera and trying to play it cool as I turned in his direction or worse, a follow-up shot right in my bewildered face! I shudder to think how many vacation albums my startled face has graced in the last month.

On my second day in Suzhou, after two large and particularly aggressive swarms of tourists held me up for individual shots (with all requests having to be communicated through hand gestures, they would just swap out one after another speaking rapidly to me in Chinese, the line appearing to go on forever!), I started declining people’s requests. I felt rude at first, but felt justified after soon realizing just how much all that attention had been negatively affecting this introvert’s mood. Afterall, how was I supposed to get my zen on in these amazing historic gardens when surrounded by people and cameras?

The site of the swarming at the beautiful Lingering Garden is pictured below. Once I started to refuse pictures (and avoid large tour groups entirely) I immediately felt better and was actually able to enjoy the scenery.

My last stop in Suzhou was to historic Shan Tang Street, the so-called ‘first street in Suzhou’. (Please note this was the only English tourist sign I saw in three days; I almost keeled over in the street from shock.)

The ancient riverside pedestrian road is over 1,100 years old and runs on the northern bank of the Shan Tang River.

Half of the 2.2 mile long road is built up with houses and shops, while the other half follows the meandering river under arched bridges and past old residences.

Thanks to Communist rule, over the last several decades many of China’s historic buildings and sites have fallen into disrepair only to be replaced by unattractive and uninspired modern architecture. Unfortunately the sites within historic Suzhou are no exception to this trend. While the personal interactions I experienced there (not to mention getting there in the first place) were challenging, I’m really happy I was able to see such a beautiful and unique part of China’s history firsthand, while it’s still around to see. Suzhou is a super easy and fun day or overnight trip from Shanghai, and highly recommended if you’re into gardens and looking to take a brief step back into time.

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie