Like many mainland cities, Suzhou is struggling to hold on to its past as sleek malls, luxury high-rises and indus- trial parks intrude. But look beyond the rapidly expanding skyline and busy thoroughfares of this Jiangsu province metropolis and you'll find an ancient beating heart.
The city is 2,500 years old and situ- ated on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, a strategic advantage that helped secure its place as one of the Middle Kingdom's most prosperous cities. By the 14th century, Suzhou was flourishing as China's leading silk producer and Ming dynasty artists such as Shen Zhou and Wen Zhengming visited to pay tribute to its beauty with refined landscapes. The country's rich and powerful kept holiday villas here. The city's fortunes have extended into the 21st century; it is not only the world's largest producer of laptop computers but also draws tourists to its well-preserved gardens and charming canals.
Suzhou, one of many places to have been dubbed 'the Venice of the East' in recent years, is an easy day trip from Nanjing and is just 30 minutes, by fast train, from Shanghai.
Most visitors begin their Suzhou adventure in Pingjiang Lu, the historic hub, where tourist-laden longboats steered by old ladies wearing conical straw hats duck beneath stone bridges and glide along canals flanked by whitewashed shuttered homes. This leafy stretch is lined with cosy teahouses (try a cup of the locally produced green tea, bilouchun), cafes and bars, many with alfresco canal-side seating.
If-Jf (identifiable by the orange terracotta warrior stationed outside) is one such venue; a hip restaurant/bar where students recline in booths stuffed with cushions, puff on hookah pipes and knock back bottles of Tsingtao. Unable to resist the name, I order an Angry Hair, a rice wine cocktail with ginger ale and lemon that's grandly served in a cup resembling a ceremonial vessel. It feels like I've won an important battle as the sour, fizzy alcohol rolls off the iron lip and into my mouth.
The most impressive of Suzhou's gardens is the Unesco World Heritage-listed Humble Administrator's Garden, a far from modest space punctuated by overgrown lotus ponds and shady pavilions. Other estates worthy of inspection include the spacious Lingering Garden, where classical buildings encircle large rockeries, and the well-preserved, if small, Garden of the Master of the Nets, whose charming Late Spring Cottage was duplicated for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, in the United States.
A few minutes' walk from the playground of the humble administrator is the Suzhou museum. It was revamped five years ago by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who has family connections to Suzhou. His buildings take inspiration from the city's old courtyards and gardens but feature Pei's signature geometric angles, which are softened by reflections cast in the water below. Entry is free, and the museum is definitely worth a look - especially if porcelain, jade and carvings are of interest.
Although Suzhou has enough to keep the avid sightseer busy for a couple of days, an exploration of smaller water-based towns nearby hints at what life was once like along the city's canals. An hour from Suzhou, Tongli is the largest and has eight major attractions, inclu- ding Tuisi Garden, where grand pavilions and bridges peep out from foliage and twisted stone sculptures mark the paths, and Gengle Hall, where gourd-shaped entrances add visual interest and intricate wooden carvings stand proud.
Outside, pedicabs pick their way slowly through narrow streets clogged with residents chatting/gossiping/discussing/arguing their day away - the only nod to modernity being the occasional moped bumping over the cobbled streets.
Every now and then, a tourist boat disturbs locals doing their laundry in the town's ancient waterways.
Like Suzhou, Tongli can be experienced in large part through its eateries and teahouses. At a cafe, I try a bowl of cold green bean soup sweetened with rock sugar and a cup of cold sweet lemon tea, which is pleasantly refreshing. One of the many teahouses serves oolong cha leaves with a huge flask of water, so you can keep topping up. The centrally located Tongli International Youth Hostel is a cosy place to kick back and do some canal-watching over a cup of cha and a bowl of noodles.
Rejuvenated, I hop on a bus to Mudu, only half an hour from Suzhou. Tourist literature tells me the Qianlong emperor (1735-96) visited this small town six times. The passionate poet and essayist stayed at the Hongyin Mountain Villa, where he switched off from imperial business by enjoying the gardens and opera. The imperial chair, where he would have sat to watch performances, is still here. I park myself somewhat less grandly under a shady pavilion and gaze out at a vast lotus pond, out of and back into which the boldest koi are jumping. Equally dreamy is the ancient Pine Garden, a compact attraction with expansive corridors from which to admire gnarled old trees.
I'm reluctant to catch the bus from peaceful Mudu and face the Suzhou traffic. Back in Pingjiang Lu, however, I wander off the main drag into narrow alleyways and find children walking dogs and neighbours gossiping in doorways. As day turns into night, lanterns begin to illuminate the cobbled paths and cast flickering red shadows onto the water - and the modern city beyond these alleys fades.
Getting there: China Eastern Airways (www.flychinaeastern.com ), Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com ) and Air China (www.airchina.com ) fly from Hong Kong to Shanghai, from where there is a bullet train service to Suzhou.