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Six Harmonies Pagoda in Hangzhou
Photos by Mary King

For centuries Suzhou and Hangzhou were known as China' heaven on earth. Mary King checks out the Middle Kingdom's celestial cities.

A famous Chinese poet coined the proverb that states: "In Heaven there is Paradise, and on Earth there is Suzhou and Hangzhou." After visiting the two places in the 13th century, Marco Polo claimed that Hangzhou was one of the most breath-taking cities in the world and that Suzhou was a beautiful bustling town with great sages, magicians and highly skilled craftsmen. Unfortunately, such fine epithets do not ring true for today's visitor, but certainly both cities - with their impressive Zen-style gardens, temples, lakes and canals - are worth seeing and definitely offer a pleasant retreat from the smog and industrialization of most other major Chinese towns and cities.

Garden party
The history of Suzhou, which is situated in Jiangsu Province just 100km west of the port city of Shanghai, goes back some 2500 years. During what is called the Spring and Autumn Period (722 to 481 B.C.), Suzhou was the capital of the state of Wu, but it was in the 16th century that the city reached the height of its glory with the development of more than 100 picturesque gardens. At one point Suzhou was dotted with numerous bathhouses, 359 bridges, 12 pagodas and more than 50 temples, earning it a reputation as the "Garden City" and "Venice of the East." Today, delicate bridges still span canals that crisscross the town in all directions. Unfortunately, the picturesque town is now being ravaged by modern construction as large hotels, department stores and touristy restaurants offering karaoke TV raise their ugly heads in increasing numbers. But despite the fact that Suzhou is striving to pander to the whims of tourists, the visitor need only roam into the heart of the town's labyrinthine back streets to discover some of its Old World charm.

Laundry hangs across the alleyways, flapping in the breeze like colorful flags, as the locals gather around their whitewashed houses to chat and play cards or Chinese chess. Strolling through this maze I got to witness every-day life in Suzhou. Once a woman jogged past swiftly while loaded down with two baskets of vegetables swinging from a bamboo pole. Then a boatman sculled his sampan under one of the canal bridges as an old woman tossed yet another bucket of garbage into the murky waters.

Goldfish on sale in the market in Hangzhou

The North Temple has the tallest pagoda south of the Yangtze River, and from the top of its ninth story you can enjoy a fine aerial view of the city and the surrounding farmland where tea, rice and wheat are grown. For many tourists, the main reason for visiting Suzhou is to see its stunning gardens that, like their Japanese counterparts, are regarded as highly aesthetic works of art and were designed by master gardeners. Reflecting the personal tastes of the officials and scholars who commissioned their design, the gardens characteristically give an illusion of a natural scene with ponds, rockeries, moss and sand. Suzhou's gardens are considered to be the best in the southern China.

The four most famous gardens in Suzhou, and a must-see for any visitor making a trip to this city, include the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuo Zheng Yuan), the Blue Wave Pavilion (Cang Lang Ting), the Garden for Lingering In (Liu Yuan), and the Lion Grove (Shi Zi Lin). Suzhou also boasts many local performances and operas, including Kun opera, Pingtan, Su opera and Wuge opera. Gastronomical delights to sample before leaving town include Biluochun tea, Baisha loquats, Dongting oranges and Lake Tai fish.

Hanging in Hangzhou
There is no better way to travel from Suzhou to Hangzhou than down the Grand Canal by boat - a 16-hour journey that offers you a view of life on the waterways. It's also a lot less stressful than taking the trains, which are overcrowded, smoke-filled and seem to serve as spittoons to the local passengers. Hangzhou, which lies to the south of Suzhou in Zhejiang Province, has a population of 5.8 million souls. Hangzhou is one of the China's oldest cities, as it was the capital of the states of Wu and Yue during the Spring and Autumn period, and the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty from 1127-1279 A.D. As it offers more scenic beauty, with its lake and peaceful walks in the hills to the west, Hangzhou is a bigger tourist magnet than Suzhou, and it's more geared to the needs of visitors.

Hangzou's Peak that Flew from Afar

One of the highlights of visiting Hangzhou was a boat trip on West Lake. The lake, which is about 2km long and wide, is split by two causeways. It's scattered with various pavilions and bridges of interest. The Temple of the Inspired Seclusion is considered the city's most prized tourist attraction. Originally built in 326 A.D., it has been destroyed and restored 16 times due to war and other calamities. It would have been reduced to ruins during the Cultural Revolution had it not been for the intervention of then-Prime Minister Zhou En-lai. Facing the temple is the Peak that Flew from Afar, a hill that has more than 300 sculptures, some dating back to the tenth century, chiseled into its surface. Another interesting site is the Six Harmonies Pagoda, which lies southwest of the city and overlooks a bridge spanning the Qiantang River. The 59-meter-high pagoda is named after the six principles of Buddhism. It was listed as an important cultural relic in 1961 and from its top you can enjoy a commanding view of the river which sweeps past this once heaven on Earth.

When you go:
Suzhou: Sheraton Suzhou Hotel & Towers. Tel: (0512) 510-3388; fax: (0512) 510-0888 or 519-0918; email: sheraton.suzhou@sheraton.com  
Hangzhou: www.orientaltravel.com/hotel/city/Hangzhou.html  


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SEPTEMBER

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391: The betels and the stones
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AUGUST
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
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JULY
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
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374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
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367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
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360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
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