Highlights of Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai

We took the high speed superfast very comfortable bullet train to Shanghai from Beijing, with the trip lasting about 5 hours. Shanghai makes a great base for further exploration of the south China cities of Suzhou and Hanghou. Here are the highlights of a visit to each of these south China cities

Shanghai

One of the world's largest cities, Shanghai features ultramodern skyscrapers galore in its downtown skyline. Shanghai contains some of the tallest buildings in the world and we enjoyed panoramic views from above the clouds atop the attractive tiered pagoda-shaped Jinmao tower with its extensive observation deck.

Jinmao is currently Shanghai's third tallest building and the world's 23rd tallest. The tower, located in the city's financial center area, contains 88 floors because 8 is a lucky number to the Chinese. The high speed elevator brought us to the 88th floor in 45 seconds where we were treated to grand views of the high rise buildings on both sides of the Huangpu River below. The building contains the deluxe Grand Hyatt Shanghai, the tallest hotel in the world. The hotel boasts an imposing atrium which rises from the 56th floor up to the spire of the building. Brightly lit by neon lamps, the atrium with its curved ceilings, glass panels and bronze and stainless elements presents the appearance of majestic rings of light.

Outside several daring individuals were walking outside on the 60 meter long, 1.3 meter wide Skywalk without rails. However, visitors are harnessed to a rail system This Skywalk is the world's highest path alongside a skyscraper.

Shanghai also hosts the Maglev, the world's fastest train and part of the city's metro network. Inside the train, we watched the monitor in the train showing that the top speed reached was 430 kilometers (270 miles) per hour! The Maglev, magnetic elevated train, connects the Shanghai airport to other parts of Shanghai. The Maglev trip was a very cool experience, even though this route is currently very short.

Unfortunately, the Shanghai Museum was closed during our Monday visit so instead we visited an embroidery exhibition center. We first observed one artist who was working at the gallery entrance. The pictures were of very high quality and looked much like oil paintings. There were embroidery versions for sale of many famous artworks, as well as original works. The embroidery version of the Austrian Gustav Klimt's The Kiss was particularly beautiful and looked much like the original that we had seen in Vienna. The gallery staff indicated that there was some room for negotiations from the listed prices.

One of the highlights of our time in Shanghai was the one hour Huangpu River night cruise. On the cruise, we glimpsed the dazzling and charming night view of Shanghai. The European colonial buildings lining the waterfront Bund, and the skyscrapers and boats were all spectacularly illuminated in a wide variety of colors. It is one of the most beautiful city views at night that we have ever seen.

Shanghai also is home to the world's second largest Starbucks. On Nanjing Road, the huge store contains in house roaster, three coffee bars, and a tea bar. Since its opening, this grand coffee shop has been a tourist attraction for locals and out of towners. The city also has underground markets comprised of specialty stores, selling traditional Chinese arts and crafts, medicines and souvenirs including glasses, T-shirts, fake designer clothing, jewelry, watches, luggage and much more. You can even buy a tailor made suit. Bargaining over prices is expected.

Suzhou

From Shanghai, the bus to Suzhou took about one hour to travel about 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the northwest. Suzhou is designed a UNESCO world heritage site and justifiably famous for its exquisite canals, bridges, pagodas and beautiful stylized gardens.

Located on China's Grand Canal it was a transportation hub for trade. The merchants moved into the village and soon transformed it into a rich and beautiful town.

Suzhou fame lies in its gardens, and the attention to detail is staggering. The Lingering Garden, first planted in 1593, is one of the nine classical gardens included as a UNESCO site and it is one of China's most beautiful gardens. It creates stunning natural landscapes within a limited space. The garden covers 5.6 acres and is divided into several sections. Each section has its own theme, bodies of water, traditional structures, corridors, artificial hills, rockeries and planted areas. The sections of the garden are connected by a long covered walkway where the walls are engraved with calligraphy. The Lingering Garden is quite different from a European or U.S. style garden.

Another highlight is a one hour cruise along the ancient canal from the city to the picturesque Grand Canal. The Grand Canal is the world's longest manmade waterway and one of China's greatest engineering projects. We relaxed in a wooden boat as we cruised down scenic byways and soaked up the atmosphere of the old town. This allowed us to see Suzhou as traveling merchants such as Marco Polo did centuries ago. Along the canal we saw pagodas, decorative balloon and murals. We waved to the residents who lived along the canal. The boat floated under humpbacked and arched stone bridges and whitewashed houses with black rooms lining the streets and alleyways that intersected with the streets. Here we had a chance to see into houses that reveal the simple life activities of the Chinese living along the canal, drip drying their laundry, eating their meals and the like.

Suzhou is also known as the silk capital of China. During the Tang and Song dynasties, this city was the center of China's silk production. Through the Ming and Qing dynasties, it continued to be the city that produced the highest quality silk and Suzhou even provided silk to royal families. We visited the Suzhou Silk Factory, the largest silk factory in China, where we were told about the processing of silk. We first attended a short demonstration explaining silkworm breeding and the process of making silk from the wriggling silkworms to the looms to the finished products. We were shown a wide variety of silk products. In this government run factory shop, there were repeated pitches from the employees to buy high quality silk products of various types, including bedding.

Hangzhou

About 175 kilometers (108 miles) southwest of Shanghai, Hangzhou is most famous for its huge picturesque lake. The city's beauty and fresh air has been admired for centuries. Scores of local and international tourists visit the city and West Lake is considered by many to be the most beautiful lake in China and the West Lake Cultural Landscape has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The highlight of our stay in Hangzhou was our serene one hour boat ride on the West Lake. We cruised by temples, gardens, artificial islands and a large octagonal five story pagoda. The lake is fringed by hills, shady parks and caves.

The area around Hangzhou is also famous for its fine green tea. We visited the Number 1 Tea Plantation and tasted its well-known Dragon Well Tea. Hot water is poured over the tea leaves and then we tasted it when slightly cooled. Green tea is reputed to be excellent for your health with Dragon Well as the best tea in China. The plantation is surrounded by rolling hills of tea leaves and lush green forests. Inside the plantation, we strolled by attractive statutes, including one of a grey huge tea pot pouring water into a pond. This plantation is government owned and we listened to a series of "deals" to induce us to buy large quantities of tea leaves.

Most United States and European tourists explore Shanghai and Southern China as part of a group due to challenges with the language and requirements from the Chinese government. While we learned much about Chinese culture from this trip, we would have preferred to spend more than one or two days in each of these cities to get a broader and deeper experience.

If You Go

  • Touring: A local guide is essential, as English is not spoken widely, even in major hotels, restaurants or at sites.
    Also take a business card from the hotel desk when you leave. Make certain is has the address in Chinese
  • Currency: Credit cards are often not accepted by restaurants or merchants. It is good to have some Chinese currency available instead.
  • Bathrooms: Major hotels and restaurants have western toilets. Otherwise, the toilets are squat style. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer are not necessarily provided, so we carried those with us. Some rest rooms are identified with the number of stars indicating its rating by the Beijing Tourist Administration.
  • Hotels: Since the sites are spread out, there are many options for lodging locations.
  • Invitation Letters: An invitation letter from a tour company or other entity in China is normally required to enter the country. The invitation letter lists the trip itinerary including flights, hotels and cities to be visited.
  • Chinese Visa: A special visa is also required to enter China. The tourist visa is available from the Chinese Embassy. The cost was $140 per person. Our Chinese Visa was inserted as a page within our passports. We had to make two trips to the Embassy's passport office, showing our passport and invitation letter.
  • Tour Handbooks: One handbook is helpful for trip planning purposes. We used Moon's Handbook for Beijing & Shanghai by Helena Iveson.
  • Passports: Passports are required to buy certain tickets, to check-in at hotels and at several check points.

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Saul Schwartz lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Fern. He loves to travel throughout the world and share his experiences through stories and pictures. Saul has published many articles, but most focus upon his passion to travel. Photos courtesy of Saul Schwartz



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