Updated: Jul 1, 2020
One might think the rain season in Shanghai is like any other rain seasons in the world, but in fact, this rain season from late June to early July is a unique thing for the Yangtze Plain, Taiwan, south Japan and South Korea. In China, it is called the "Plum Rain Season” (“梅雨季节” in Mandarin).
It gets it's name from a certain type of plum (“梅” in Mandarin) ready for harvesting at this time in the Yangtze Plain area (which includes Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang and others). Since "plum" and "mold" share the same pronunciation in mandarin, some people call this season the "moldy rain season" which - if you don't have a good A/C in your apartment that regulates the humidity - can become quite unpleasant.
During this period 25% of the annual amount of rain pours down on the city. So, not only will you have to maneuver through areas covered with ripe plums that have fallen from the trees, it also rains a lot and you have to be careful not to come back from a weekend trip with mushrooms growing in your bathroom...
This years season will approximately last from beginning of June to beginning of July - basically the time of year I'd usually consider to be warm, sunny, with a lot of outside activity preferably by the sea. However, since it's hot, humid, rainy and there's almost no good reason to go outside these days, what better thing to do than to leave the town for a couple of days?
Therefore, we've visited Suzhou last weekend. It's Shanghai's neighboring town to the West with roughly 10.7 million inhabitants, known for the vast amount of beautiful gardens, canals and lakes. The train will get you from Hongqiao to Suzhou in about 30 minutes but you have to be aware that Suzhou is quite large area-wise and only has a pretty rudimentary metro network so DiDi is the way to go.
It's been our first visit to Suzhou and I am sure there is a lot more to see but here are the three sights that fascinated me the most...
Suzhou was built in 514BC under the order of the King of Wu. In the Qin and Han Dynasties (221BC - 220AD), the scale of Suzhou City has been expanded and a large number of private gardens were built. The construction of the Grand Canal during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 AD) made Suzhou the mainstay of water and land transportation, attracting a lot of merchants and other kinds of businesses. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), Suzhou became the second largest city in China after the capital Chang ’an. The double chessboard pattern - streets parallel to rivers - was being developed further. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD) additional temples, the city walls and other landmarks were built to provide a rich urban facade along the rivers and canals.
More and more gardens were developed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 AD) and according to historical records Suzhou boasted “garden pavilions in over half of the town”. When the Opium War broke out in 1840, the opening of the trading port caused many western-style buildings to be built. After the founding of People's Republic of China in 1949, Suzhou was re-planned, retaining the original chessboard pattern, increasing the gardens, and expanding outward.
1. The Humble Administrator's Garden and the Grand Canal
The Humble Administrator's Garden (Chinese: 拙政园; pinyin: Zhuozhèng yuán) is a Chinese garden in Suzhou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most famous of the gardens of Suzhou. It is the largest garden in Suzhou and is considered by some to be the finest garden in all of southern China.
There are certainly better times to visit the garden but it is still beautiful, even during plum rain season and the garden not being in full bloom.
The Suzhou section of the Jiangnan Canal, also called Grand Canal (China), includes ten city gates and over 20 stone bridges of traditional design and historic areas that have been well preserved, as well as temples and pavilions. There are a full 24 waterways in Suzhou near the Grand Canal. In 2015, both 800-year-old Pingjiang Road Historical Block (平江路) and 1,200-year-old Shantang Street Scenic Area (山塘街) were added to the list of China's "National Historic and Cultural Streets".
Pingjiang Road runs parallel to the Pingjiang River for 1.5 kilometers and is lined with homes and some tea houses. Shantang Street, over twice as long at 3.8 km, is described by the BBC as retaining "the alluring qualities of an old canal-side street: whitewashed buildings are completed by red-tasselled lanterns that swing softly in the breeze, adding to the charm of the river bank".
Both roads, Pingjiang and Shantang, are beautiful in itself, even without the hustle and bustle and all the extra lighting at night. We strolled down these streets in the early evening hours and were able to get in and out of the little shops and tea-houses without trouble, getting in touch with some of the locals and enjoying some free samples of whatever they had to offer.
2. Tongli Water Town
Built in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Tongli Ancient Town is nestled to the east of Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal near Taihu Lake.
Tongli is one of the six famous ancient towns to the south of the Yangtze River along with Zhouzhuang, Yongzhi, Xitang, Wuzhen and Nanxun.
Here's what chinahighlights.com hast to say about Tongli: "Its rivers, streets, bridges, civil residences and gardens are integrated perfectly as one, earning it the name of "the Oriental Venice" due to its unique water town scenery. Tongli has been open to the public since 1986, and the architectures and cultural relics of the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, such as pavilions, towers, temples and gardens can be seen everywhere."
The vast amount of different sights, monuments, wood carvings and "Halls" were each impressive on their own, but I most enjoyed visiting Tuisi Garden in the East of Tongli. Designed by Yuan Long and built from 1885 to 1887, Tuisi Garden is held in the plain but elegant style of the late Qing Dynasty, and half of it is covered by water. All the buildings are situated close to the surface of the water in the garden.
It was listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO in 2001, and it is a classic architectural example of the south of the Yangtze River. Don't miss out on the little café nestled in the back of Tuisi Garden. They serve fantastic Chinese tea and even good coffee if you like.
Here's a little hint: don't listen to your concierge! They will most likely recommend Zhouzhuang over Tongli. Both water towns are approximately 45 minutes from downtown Suzhou by car. Most Chinese seem to prefer Zhouzhuang since it has been "remade" and "modernized". If you want to enjoy the original flair of an ancient water town with all it's perks and quirks, Tongli is still the place to go.
3. Tiger Hill
The Tiger Hill is known for its natural environment and historical sites. The hill is named "Tiger Hill" because it is said to look like a crouching tiger. Another legend - that is allegedly backed by historical records - states that a white tiger appeared on the hill to guard it following three days after the burial of the King of Wu Helu.
The hill has been a tourist destination for hundreds (some say thousands) of years, as is evident from the poetry and calligraphy carved into rocks on the hill. The Song Dynasty poet, Su Shi (no joke!) once wrote the following lines: "It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill."
The Yunyan Temple Pagoda and the Sword Pool are well-known features of the hill. With a history going back more than 1,000 years, the simple, archaic and imposing Yunyan Temple Pagoda, also known as the Second Leaning Tower on earth, stands aloft at the top of the hill, serving as a symbol of ancient Suzhou for years.
On the foot of the hill you can find one of the three major Bonsai Gardens of Suzhou. These gardens are well maintained and extremely beautiful as there seems to be a lot of pride in growing and taking care of these special trees. The other two Bonsai Gardens are located in the Humble Administrators Garden and the Lingering Garden.
Unfortunately, the area around Tiger Hill is currently under heavy construction since in the north a new highway is built and in the south the old Tourism-Area - including restaurants, souvenir stores and the compulsory wedding-equipment-and-photography shops - is being completely redeveloped. Therefore, it's a bit hard to get to the entrance but a good DiDi Driver should get you there without problems.
I'll leave you with a few spots that deserve an honorable mention: if you haven't had enough of Gardens, Hills, Halls and Bonsai, go visit the Lingering Garden. It's a classical Chinese garden, usually not as crowded as some of the other places mentioned above, a bit smaller, but with some beautiful limestone and yellow-stone rock formations.
And finally, if you want to go shopping, visit Suzhou Center mall. It's huge and you'll find everything you need, including good food and a nice view of the evening skyline.