Visit Suzhou for its world-famous gardens and its beautiful silk and visit  Tongli China for its charm and its canals

Suzhou and Tongli China: From silks and gardens to the marriage museum

A small lotus pond, surround by fragrant flowers and sculpted trees, reflects the images of three elegantly dressed Chinese women chatting idly in an ornate pavilion. The midday sun shines down on the women, as they wait for their family to join them for a serene Sunday walk around Suzhou's magnificent Master-Of-Nets Garden.

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Suzhou, China, located in the Jiangsu Province, lies 46 miles to the east of Shanghai. Suzhou is known as the "Venice of the East" with ancient canals laced throughout the city and neighboring towns. The city is also famous for its beautiful traditional Chinese gardens and silk production as well. It is here that the Chinese refer to "Paradise on Earth," and visitors who explore this splendid city agree.

Classical Chinese gardens are serene by design; they incorporate a delicate balance of four main elements of rocks, water, plants, and architecture. These elements create not only a beautiful garden but also a harmonious environment to experience. In Suzhou, one of the most lovely and interesting gardens that express this philosophy is the Master-Of-Nets Garden. The garden was originally created in 1140 during the Song dynasty to reflect the life of a solitary fisherman and evolved, reaching its current formation in the Qing dynasty. The garden is well preserved and maintained and is of such significance that UNESCO listed it in 1997 on the World Heritage List.

Upon entering the garden, visitors are fascinated to see living quarters in concert with the gardens. These living spaces heralded such names as The Hall of 10,000 Volumes (once a supreme library) and The Cloudy Mountain. These exquisite rooms are filled with mahogany furniture and art from the Qing dynasty, as well as art expressing symbolism in the form of emblems, such as bats and cranes. In addition, a few of the buildings were receiving rooms due to social status; one each for men and women. The women's receiving room is replete with intricate silk panels to block the wind and opium beds where the women reclined on divans and rested while they awaited a summons for their presence.

Interspersed with the living quarters, the gardens take various forms with amazing limestone rocks created by nature and man; a 920-year-old tree that ultimately leads the visitor through enchanting roofed walkways and pavilions. Located in the center garden, a small pond resides with lotus leaves and a colorful structure that used to be an opera house that reflects in the mirrored water.

Today, people from around the globe visit the Master-Of-Nets Garden and artists come to paint the picturesque setting as well. These artists produce incredible work (often captured on delicate silk) and are the best in Suzhou. Several artists display and sell their work in a small building located at the end of the garden walk.

Suzhou is the silk capitol of China and a visit to the Silk Spinning Mill is a must to see how silk worms produce the fine thread that is spun into gorgeous silk material. Guests are able to visit the factory and are provided with a marvelous tour that starts with a fascinating explanation of what silk worms eat (Mulberry leaves) and how silk cocoons are harvested, sorted, washed and spun. These small worms are rather like a caterpillar and are extremely soft to touch. The tour garners admiration for how difficult a process silk material requires to create and the artistry involved in dying and weaving the fabric into complex patterns, scenes and designs.

At the conclusion of the tour, visitors are allowed to peruse the mill and purchase lovely silk sheets and comforters that are warmer than down feathers and without allergens (much less expensive than U.S. prices!). The mill also proffers table and house linens, as well as the most gorgeous silk clothing and scarves of pure sensuous fabric and classical design.


After a visit to the silk mill, a tour of the small water town of Tongli will further your knowledge and appreciation of the region's water canals. This small town is a mix of canals (49 bridges), shops, museums, gardens and restaurants that line the canals with outdoor seating. This charming town is truly a small version of a Chinese Venice and the best way to experience it is to take a gondola ride through the canals. The peaceful ride will carry visitors past cultural scenery, stone bridges, cobbled lanes and Ming-style homes. After your ride, take a stroll down by the antique market stalls that sell everything from traditional Chinese musical instruments to stone Buddha carvings, jewelry and numerous souvenirs.

While in Tongli, visit the tiny Marriage Museum. Kiosks and plaques provide a history of how Chinese families once arranged marriages. Display cases are filled with wedding garments and personal items for a bride and groom and the tiny shoes that were worn when foot binding was prevalent in China. Located a few blocks from the Marriage Museum is a lavish courtyard mansion that is now a museum, the former residence of Chen Qubing. The museum displays the history and lifestyle of the family with ornate rooms and open wall spaces that looked over sculpted garden courtyards. The Tuisi Garden, or the Retreat and Reflection Garden (Retreat Garden), is a small pond filled with koi fish is a beautiful place to stroll and relax. These scenic gardens are painted often and are the embodiment of westerner's visions of beautiful Chinese landscaped ponds and gardens.

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Patrice RapleePatrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular correspondent for travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure. Travel-Excursion

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: September 23, 2016

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