Our CEO David Steward recently visited China on a 14-day adventure, journeying for the most part with Gate1 Travel to hotspots like Shanghai, the Yangtze River, Xi'an, and Beijing. While there, the tourism board of Suzhou -- a canal city west of Shanghai -- graciously took Shermans on a whirlwind tour of the city’s best spots. Join us:Suzhou's moniker is "the Venice of the East," and a look at the "downtown" scene pictured above makes it clear why. Despite all the development, the canals still define the heart of the city.
Local residences are scattered along the canals right in the mix of hotels and other tourist destinations. There's always a set of stairs leading down into the water.
Suzhou is home to nine famed gardens dating back as far as the 11th century, collectively listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as the Classical Gardens of Suzhou.
Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan) is one of the most popular and one of the largest gardens in the bunch, clocking in at more than 250,799 square feet.
While we typically think of flora when it comes to gardens, there are four elements to the typical Chinese garden: water, rock, trees and plants, and pavilions.
This classic sitting room, onsite at Lingering Garden, is divided into sections with silk panels that function as one-way mirrors, allowing residents to see who's entering from the inside.
When you're exploring the sights of the garden, don't forget to gaze down, too. Here, beautiful patterns line the pebbled grounds.
Impressively details, these designs are created with pebbles from local stones.
The gardens are designed so that visitors can rarely see the entire landscape. With windows and partitions such as these, you get a taste of what's to come.
Lingering Garden, like many others, hosts a series of cultural performances throughout the season. Here, a massive stone formation from nearby Tai Lake -- also a common sight throughout classical gardens -- marks the dance floor for a traditional water sleeve choreography.
Here, programming may include traditional instruments, opera, and more.
Another popular spot is the 2,500-year-old Tiger Hill, whose peak is known for a massive leaning pagoda (Yunyan). On the way to the pagoda is a stop-worthy bonsai collection that beautifully combines all the natural elements of the region.
Don’t miss Sword Pond here, where, as rumor has it, 3,000 swords were buried with King Helu.
Time your visit in the springtime and you’ll find whimsical pops of color in the flora and trees.
There's also the Master of Nets Garden, dating back to the 12th century. Later the home of an official-turned-fisherman in the 18th century, it's the inspiration behind the Ming Hall Garden at New York's famed Met Museum. (Gate1's Suzhou side trip makes a stop here.)
This is what what taxis look like in Suzhou. While this boat is motorized, others are propelled manually with a single oar.
Suzhou is 42.5 percent water, so it's not surprising that boat taxis are still a popular way to get around.
A popular local culinary specialty in Suzhou is fried "squirrel" fish: a lake fish often served whole with a sauce that's sweet and sour. We highly recommend the rendition at Song Helou's restaurant.
If you love tea, the Dong Ting Shan (East Hill Mountain) region is known for its biluochun tea, and plantation tours are aplenty. Here at the Dongshan Tea Plantation, about an hour outside of the city center, we learned about the entire tea-making process from bud to brew.
An afternoon with tea master Yan Jielong reveals that biluochun leaves are cured in a wood-fired wok to remove the moisture. As they're heated, the leaves take on a signature spiral, snail-like shape.
In Chinese, black tea is referred to as red tea (hong cha).
While you're in Dongshan county, head over to the Building of Carvings -- also known as Chunzai Tower or the Engraving Building -- to admire some marvelously intricate woodwork and stonework.
The 1922 complex is styled after Ming Dynasty manors.
Getting There: The bullet train is a boon for exploring the vast country that is China. Zip from Shanghai to Suzhou in about a half hour -- a trip that would otherwise take 90 minutes to two hours on the bus.