Sitting on the lower delta of the Yangtze River and the shores of Lake Tai is my city, Suzhou. What I love about it is the fact that this is where tradition meets modernity. Suzhou boasts 2,500 years of history and many classical gardens that are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. But it is also home to the Suzhou Industrial Park, a joint venture between China and Singapore that has brought economic buzz to the city and added shiny skyscrapers and swanky malls.
Suzhou has also earned itself the nickname, the Venice of the East. With countless canals and rivers snaking through it, more than 30% of the city is water. So, no sojourn into Suzhou would be complete exploring the many bridges that span the waters, allowing residents and visitors to navigate the city. Let me take you to some of the more note-worthy bridges among the over 3,000 bridges in my city.
The Best of the Best
One of my favourite bridges in Suzhou is Precious Belt Bridge (宝带桥). The stone arch bridge where the Grand Canal crosses the Dantai Lake is listed among the most famous of multi-arched bridges in the world. First constructed in 816 AD in the middle of the Tang Dynasty and spanning 316.8 m with 53 supporting arches, it is also the longest preserved ancient multi-arched bridge in China. History has it that the bridge got its name because the local prefect, Wang Zhongshu, sold his precious belt to help finance its construction. I come here every Mid-Autumn Festival to enjoy the spectacular view of the full moon against the backdrop of the distant mountains, wide fields, and sparkling waters.
Suzhou’s beauty has inspired many poets throughout history. Among them is Tang poet, Zhang Ji, who’s ‘A Night Morning by Maple Bridge’ (枫桥夜泊) tells of a melancholic traveller listening to the tolling bells of Hanshan Temple while moored at the town of Fengqiao for the night. The poem has since immortalised Maple Bridge, making it Suzhou’s most famous bridge and one well worth visiting. There are shops all around the bridge styled to evoke life in the Qing dynasty. There are also exhibition halls displaying the history of the area.
Two other bridges are also worth a photo stop or two. One is the oldest bridge in Suzhou called Wuque Bridge (乌鹊桥). Over two thousand years old, this bridge in the south of the city has a beautiful background. Legend has it that it was built by magpies (hence its name in Chinese which means magpies) so that the star-crossed lovers, Niulang (Cowhand) and the fairy, Zhinu (Weaver Maid), can meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, a day the Chinese celebrate Valentine’s. Couples often come here for romantic rendezvous.
The other bridge is Wumen Bridge (吴门桥), the highest one-arch ancient stone bridge in the Jiangsu Province. Built in the Song Dynasty, it proudly spans the famous Grand Canal.
The Best of the West
Not only does Suzhou have ancient bridges rich in history and tradition, we have modern ones as well. Among the newer bridges, one curious feature stands out. We have over 50 bridges that are replicas of famous ones around the world, concentrated mainly in the Xiangcheng district in the north-east of the city. The most popular is the replica of the London Tower Bridge . Interestingly, the bridge has been modified to suit local needs. For example, instead of two towers, the Suzhou version has four towers and no raising mechanism. At the top is a café serving English coffee to take you, for a moment, to England.
Other famous replicas include the Sydney Harbour Bridgeat one third the size of the original and, nearby, the replica of the Pont Alexandre III Bridgein Paris.
The Best of Old Towns
No visit to Suzhou would be complete without stopping at the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园). After all, the city is famous for its elegant classical gardens and this one is its largest at 52, 000 sqm and, naturally, its most famous. Made up of three sections set around a large lake, the World Cultural Heritage site and also one of the Cultural Relics of National Importance under the Protection of the State is a maze of pavilions, pools, and islands connected by countless bridges. Here is where you can sit in the shade of 21 lovingly preserved heritage trees and admire over 700 Suzhou-style bonsai plants.
Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Master of the Nets Garden (网师园), the smallest of Suzhou’s classical gardens. First constructed in 1140 by Deputy Civil Service Minsiter of the Southern Song Dynasty, it is where art, nature, and architecture come together in a 5,400 sqm masterful tribute to greenery. Look out for the charming Yinjing Bridge, a stone bridge less than a foot wide.
The Best Bites Around
End your stay with a stroll along Pingjiang Road (平江路)in the northeastern part of old Suzhou. Duck under willow branches bowing over the 1,600-metre cobblestone path by the canal as you take in the old whitewashed houses and little bridges across the canal. There are cafés, restaurants, tea houses as well as street food stalls you can stop at.
Do try the Squirrel-shaped Mandarin Fish (松鼠桂鱼), the city’s most popular delicacy. The fish is scored in such a way that it fans to resemble a squirrel’s tail when cooked. Soaked in a sweet and sour sauce and eaten with shrimp meat garnish and dried bamboo shoot, the fish is crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside. Seafood with an emphasis on fresh ingredients is quintessential Suzhou cuisine.
Perhaps as a fitting metaphor of the city’s ability to bridge past and present, East and West, I find Suzhou’s bridges fascinating. I hope you will visit this water city and drop by the Ascott Midtown Suzhou. I will get you connected to the city’s many bridges and attractions!
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