Located under an hour away from Shanghai via high-speed rail, Suzhou is still defined by the waterways that once made it one of the world’s most important non-capital cities.

Shanghai resident Crystal Reid attempts to explore them all in a day

Photos by Ambrous Young

An ancient Chinese proverb refers to Suzhou as “heaven on earth”. Italian explorer Marco Polo once called it “the Venice of the East”. Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the city of 4.3 million in China’s eastern coastal province of Jiangsu still has a lot going for it. For one, it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing metropolises, and its newer parts boast the best in modern living, including high-end shopping malls, business parks and smart apartments.

However, I’m in Suzhou for an entirely different reason. To explore the city’s extraordinary roots, I’ve set myself the challenge of visiting all of the Old City’s waterways in 24 hours. Its moated Old City – with its white-washed walls and black roof tiles of Song dynasty (960-1279) architecture and a web of 21 waterways with stone steps and hump-backed bridges – remains Suzhou’s main claim to fame. These canals are fed by the Unesco-listed Grand Canal, the world’s longest dredged waterway at 1,776km from its head in Beijing to its tip in Hangzhou, as well as the oldest. Construction started more than 2,500 years ago to facilitate movement between the culturally close Wu people in Suzhou and the Yue people in Shanghai.

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Thanks to its position alongside the Grand Canal, Suzhou became an important cultural and commercial centre and the largest non-capital city in the world during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1366–1912, collectively). But since the introduction of rail and roads, the scant boats along its length now only carry the least urgent of cargo.

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Today, Suzhou’s waterways serve primarily as a draw for visitors. Cute snack shops and stalls pack the banks, while tourists avail of pleasure boats, which come with singing female captains.

“Suzhou is an ancient city with thousands of years of history, much of which has been very well preserved,” NYU Shanghai’s professor Yifei Li told me a few days prior to my arrival in Suzhou. The environmental governance and urban sustainability expert added, “But of course, as many people come to see these historic sites, a lot of tourism infrastructure has shot up, too.”

The area I plan to explore spans 3km by 6km, so it won’t be an easy task. But it should be enlightening.

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Day one

12pm

From my hotel in the centre of the Old City, I study a map and decide to tackle the waterways in two halves. Today, I’ll concentrate on the north of the Old City, as bisected by Metro Line 1 that traverses its centre.

Hua Yi, the rickshaw driver I’ve hired for the day, pulls the vehicle’s red canvas hood down to protect me from the intermittent drizzle as he peddles away, clothes pegs around the ankles of his smart work trousers to prevent them getting snarled in his chain. We’re heading north to the waterways around the Humble Administrator’s Garden, a not-so-humble imperial garden. Originally built in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), this maze of connected pools, islands, bridges and pavilions is the biggest of the more than 60 classical gardens that Suzhou is famed for and which are collectively a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Hua Yi drops me off alongside my first waterway of the day, a canal that resembles the wash pot of multiple paintbrushes and which flows to join another canal at the bottom of the garden. The tourist-centric streets here are alive with smells, sights and sounds. Cumin-encrusted lamb skewers spew meat-heavy clouds from a street-side barbecue; candied fruit of almost neon hues invite camera lenses; the mellow sound of the ocarina, an ancient porcelain wind instrument, wafts from a shop’s doorway.

2pm

Peeling off to the west, towards Suzhou Silk Museum, I find myself in a quiet alley of traditional buildings, their once-white walls long conquered by the dappled creep of mildew. The tranquil village-like feel here, far removed from the bustle of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, makes it all the more alarming when I hit a four-lane road that I must cross before reaching my next waterway. As I hesitate, a middle-aged woman wearing quilted pyjamas and rubber-soled slippers – a common sight in the Chinese winter, even at lunchtime – grabs my elbow and jostles me across.

“Is the traffic always this bad?” I ask. “Only in the last few years,” she says. “But everyone drives very slowly.” Slow or not, modern infrastructure and bustle has found its way into the city’s oldest quarters.

Now with the traffic behind me, I make a right and walk parallel to the canal, where soggy mops and doormats are slung across its encasing stone walls, and hungry lunchtime crowds fog the windows of the noodle shops along its length. In 10 minutes I reach Waicheng River, at the top end of the Old City. Beyond the landscaped park, where the first signs of spring are just starting to bud on cherry trees, the Sujin Residential District looms, modern and tall.

3pm

Back in the rickshaw I ask Hua Yi if he’s local. He’s from Yancheng, a city three hours to the north by car, but he prefers life in Suzhou. “I used to be an office worker, but I came to Suzhou as I can earn more money here,” he says. “I much prefer this job as I have freedom to work when I want.” Suzhou may no longer be a trade behemoth, but its reincarnation as a tourist hub is clearly serving the region – and its people – well.

My next stop is Pingjiang Lu, an 800-year-old street, now packed with souvenirs, that runs alongside the river of the same name. This is one of the few waterways that tourist boats are allowed to navigate, so I buy a ticket and hop aboard. Steering the wooden vessel with a single bamboo oar is Du Cheun Ling, a rosy-cheeked woman in an ankle-length raincoat and a plastic-covered conical hat, one of the singing female captains these boats are famous for.

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In between singing the songs of her ancestors and a few original numbers, she tells me how she grew up toiling on the land outside the city. “When I was little I would come here and see these little boats on the waterways, ferrying people and goods,” she says. “I always really loved them, and I also hated farming. The work was hard, and I would find leeches on my legs! When I got an opportunity to work on the boats, I jumped at it.”

4pm

Back on dry land, I quickly explore the four waterways leading somewhat perpendicularly off Pingjiang River to the east. The first three possess a much more local vibe, with bok choi and chives growing in canal-side window boxes and pet rabbits sitting snug under the umbrellas that have been lovingly opened over their cages.

On the fourth waterway, I find Couple’s Retreat, another famed garden. Within its walls, Chinese tourists pose awkwardly for photos by the ancient gingko trees, rockeries and the perfectly round “moon gate”.

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5–7pm

Lily Wang, a local history expert who runs tours for China’s Bespoke Travel and whose entire family hails from Suzhou, says when she was a child in the ’70s, Suzhou life revolved around the water much more. “Everybody had their own private boat, and they would sail to the lake to catch fish. There were also floating markets, and everyone’s upstairs windows would open over the water. You would lower a basket on a rope to buy things.”

The closest I come to experiencing this is during the last two hours before the light fades, while exploring the waterways around Shantang Jie. Along with Pingjiang Lu, the 3.8km, 1,200-year-old thoroughfare is listed as one of China’s National Historic and Cultural Streets. It lies just outside the northwest corner of the moat, a blur of red tasseled lanterns, pleasure boats and street snacks.

The small canals back inside the creeper-covered ornate Old City gate are more subdued. Young men fish for tiny morsels in the shadow of stone bridges, while stout women lower and retrieve buckets on string to refresh the plants in their ramshackle yards.

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Although the canals twist, turn and merge into each other, making it hard to see where one ends and another stars, I’ve hit 12 already. The north side of the old city is conquered but there’s still a lot to do. I’ll need a faster means of transport for tomorrow. I bid Hua Yi goodbye and he peddles off into the night.

Day two

8am

I start early and head south in a taxi to Panmen, a scenic area built on the grounds of Suzhou’s 2,500-year-old city gate. With the magnificent seven-story Ruiguang Pagoda – which started life as 13 stories in 247BC – looming overhead, a well-fed tabby cat slinks among bare-branched bonsai trees and a gaggle of retirees do tai chi with practiced concentration. I chat with one of them during a break.

“Suzhou has changed so much since I was little, I can’t believe it,” says Duan Wenying, a smiley woman dressed in loose velvet trousers and a leopard print-lined jacket. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s the water here was so clean we could drink it. There’s no way you can do that now, but Suzhou is still heaven, and we’re very proud to share it with others.”

9:30am

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I walk past Xumen, a gate in the southwest side of the moat dedicated to the architect of Suzhou’s waterways, Wu Zixu, who some 2,500 years ago ordered and oversaw the shovel digging of the criss-cross canals that feed into Suzhou from the Grand Canal. A statue of the formidable-looking man stands to the north of the small park here, his strong hands whisking aside the strands of a flowing beard.

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10am

I head to the opposite corner of the Old City in a mad rush to work my way around the remaining waterways. They aren’t much to look at, having been overlooked for tourism, but I do stumble across a string of breakfast stalls, just as my stomach starts to rumble. An old woman in a checked apron and a wooly hat cooks me a kind of pancake known as shou zhua bing on her blackened hotplate. “It’s good to see foreigners eating Chinese food,” she grins.

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10:30am

From Shiquan Jie, a smart street of newly built but traditionally styled high-end clothing shops and art galleries, I head to the last canal in this immediate area, with my running tally now at 19. Here, I find a flood gate, designed to stop any surge of water from the Grand Canal engulfing the city streets. The farmlands around Suzhou are prone to flooding but, according to Lily Wang, these ancient flood gates have always spared the Old City. “Even 2,500 years ago they knew to build these gates to control the level of the water,” she says. The original sliding door is still in use, although now it’s made of metal rather than wood and moved by mechanics rather than mules.

11am

I call a car on a handy Chinese ride hailing app and set off to Dinghui Si, a custard-coloured Buddhist temple near the semi-circular waterway that is my final destination. We go via Xiangwang Lu, a shopping street focused on jade jewellery, wood carvings and antiques.

The temple is guarded by two stone lions, beyond which visitors are urged to purchase incense sticks. Write your name on the red paper sleeve, deposit them in the box by the temple’s golden Buddha centrepiece and they will be blessed and lit by the head monk later in the day.

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 11:30am

At last able to relax with the finish line in sight, I stroll from the temple to my final waterway, taking in the tree-lined street of barbershops, silversmiths, restaurants and fruit stalls. By the river, a mother joggles her toddler in a pagoda-shaped seating area while a white-haired woman wrings out her mop on the steps leading down to the water.

Suzhou’s place in China and the world as a whole has changed dramatically since the invention of rail and road transport. But like all water towns in the region, it has been forced to adapt to survive. The purpose of the waterways isn’t what it used to be, but to locals and visitors alike, they remain the heart and soul of a fast-changing city.

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 Fly to Hongqiao, Shanghai with Hong Kong Airlines and take high speed train to Suzhou in only 23-35 minutes! Click here and explore the heaven on earth.