Expert Help is Key to Making First-Time Visit to Suzhou, China Successful

by Brenda Fine

Sneaking photos of the tall white-haired lady (photo by Burt Fine).

Independent travel is a wonderful thing. One can come away with a great sense of accomplishment having experienced and “learned” the ins and outs of an unfamiliar venue and culture. But there’s also a lot to be said for having the help (and language skills) of a local person to help guide us through these unfamiliar settings. And so, for our recent visit to China, we decided this was definitely the right occasion to seek expert help.

After researching and comparing the literature and brochures of the top operators running tours in China, we found we were most impressed with the credentials and travel savvy of Wendy Wu’s China.

Canal boats awaiting passengers for canal cruises (photo by Burt Fine.

Why Wendy Wu? Our research revealed that in the past 12 years since the company was founded, Wendy Wu Tours has established itself as the leading China specialist in both Australia and the UK. And now the company founder Wendy is “wu-ing” the United States market. (Sorry, that pun proved just too hard to resist.) We studied the literature, read the testimonials from travelers who have joined their tours, and were impressed. And so we signed on for one of Wendy Wu “Short Stay” tours of two of the famous “villages” in the heart of the Yangtze River Delta, near Shanghai: Suzhou and Hangzhou. From there we would continue on to Shanghai to explore that dazzlingly modern city by ourselves.

I put “villages” in quotes because, although local residents may consider Suzhou or Hangzhou to be small when compared to the really huge China cities, these so-called “villages” actually have populations of around 6-8 million. (Given that the latest surveys show New York City having a population of some 8 million, these villages sound pretty big to me.)

Our guide, Yuri, points out the details of a rockery (photo by Burt Fine

We flew into Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport and were met by Yuri, our young and very savvy Wendy Wu guide, along with our driver, Mr. Zhu. Because there’s a lot of driving involved in this “Short Stay” tour, Wendy Wu provides Buicks (regarded as “big cars” in China) for her foreign clients. (Drawback alert here: the windows of these Buicks are tinted, so it’s very difficult to see details in the passing scenery, as everything appears shrouded in something akin to perpetual twilight.)

However, not to worry in this case because the “scenery” between these cities is mostly just modern four-lane (read: not especially scenic) highway.

One of the small narrow canals off the main waterway (photo by Burt Fine).

We departed the airport and headed directly for Suzhou, a “village” that also happens to the second largest industrial city in China (next to Shanghai). Its history dates back more than 2,500 years and today’s Souzhou still remains world-famous for its vast network of canals (which earned it the title “Venice of the East”), its classical gardens (of which there are more than 70, and which are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, and also earned it another nickname: “City of Gardens”) and also as an important center for China’s silk industry.

Sadly for us, we wouldn’t have enough time to delve into the fashion-y mysteries of ancient and modern silks. But we were able to focus, even if only very briefly, on the other two.

One of the elaborately carved stone latticework windows in the Humble Administrator's Garden (photo by Burt Fine).

Yuri began the tour with a visit to the gardens of the Master of the Nets (also known as the Fisherman’s Garden.) Locals and those who are knowledgeable about the symbolisms and intricacies of Chinese gardens consider this one, with its perfect balance of greenery, water and rocks, to be the quintessential Souzhou garden. It was here that we encountered the first of what were to be many “rockeries” — artful assemblages of limestone and other boulders, arranged in advantageous locations around the gardens to please the eye and soothe the spirits of those who behold them.

Duly soothed and enlightened, we then made our way to the Grand Canal where, thanks to Wendy Wu’s connections, our very own private canal boat was waiting. (Also waiting at the boat pier were great hordes of holiday merrymakers, so we were doubly delighted to be able to avoid the crowds, jump aboard immediately and enjoy the private ride.) We were amazed and impressed to learn that this canal flows from Hangzhou to Beijing! That’s a distance of 1,700 kms. Our comparatively short cruise along this Grand Canal also took us on a detour into several of the smaller tributaries, teeny canals so narrow that we could almost reach out and touch the ancient houses lining either side.

A classic moon gate frames a rockery at the Master of the Nets' Garden (photo by Burt Fine).

Later that day, we visited the Garden of the “Humble Administrator,” a man who seems to have been a not-so-very-humble Donald Trump-type in Suzhou during the Ming dynasty 1500s. However, rest assured, despite his extravagant display of what money could buy, there’s nary a glint of Trumpesque gilt or bling to mar this “humble” man’s glorious tributes to nature. His lavish gardens sprawl across six manicured acres and include winding paths that lead to elaborate pavilions, covered walkways flanked by latticework windows of intricately carved stone, (each window features a different cut-stone design so that each view through each window will be different). There are also lakes, a large central lotus pond, Koi ponds and – perhaps most dazzling of all —- an entire garden filled with dozens upon dozens of pots of perfectly sculpted little bonsai trees.

Perhaps because our day there was sunny and bright and probably also because it was a holiday, the crowds in these gardens were huge, mostly large family groups that included everyone from great-grandma to newborn infant. But among all the attractions that were to be seen here, the one that seemed to create the biggest stir among these Chinese visitors was —– me.

Huh? OK, maybe because I am tall and have white hair”?

A family feeding breadcrumbs to the kopi (photo by Burt Fine).

“Perhaps, ” suggested Yuri with a wicked giggle, “they think you’re Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada.”

All I do know is that here, as well as wherever else we went during our time in China, people stared, pointed, whispered behind hands covering their mouths, and pushed their children forward to stand next to me for a photo. Some even sneaked photos when they thought I couldn’t see them. After a while, my husband actually started taking pictures of the people who were photographing me.

Good-natured giggles all around.

Part of the problem of taking a “Short Stay” tour is that, well, one’s stay is short. We had to leave the next morning, and head to our next stop, Hangzhou, one of China’s famous “water villages.”

Canal boat (photo by Burt Fine).

This visit to China took place during the Lunar New Year. Definitely NOT the best time to try to go anywhere in China because, not only are many places closed for that entire week, but all those employees who are not working in those closed businesses are out on holiday. And they’re out doing exactly the same things that visiting tourists want to do – seeing the sites, visiting the popular gardens, riding the canal boats, taking the entire family to restaurants (again, we’re talking large groups from great-grandma all the way down to newborn), perhaps traveling to different towns, and overflowing the occupancy of the hotels.

So this becomes something of a cautionary tale. If you can possibly manage to travel during any other time of year, by all means do so. Also I should note that winter is very cold in China, even this far south. So if you wish to avoid crowds, and not have to huddle into your down coat everywhere you go, plus would enjoy seeing actual green and flowering things growing in the various gardens you visit, by all means try to plan your trip for months other than January-February.

For more information, contact Wendy Wu’s China, 877-993-6399 or visit

Friday, 21 October, 2011

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