THE ancient Chinese city of Suzhou, best known as the Garden City, or Venice of the East, because of its numerous canals and artistic Zen style gardens, today retains a grace and old world charm that does justice to the famous local proverb: ''In Heaven there is Paradise, on Earth Suzhou and Hangzhou.'' After an hour-long train ride from Shanghai, I arrived in this 2,500-year-old town soon after dawn. A ten-minute walk across the moat that encloses the city led to North Temple, where a stunning nine-storey red and gold wood pagoda, the tallest south of the Yangtze, stood dream-like in the early morning mist. While the first sleepy stirrings of activity could be seen outside the temple gates, the grounds inside had already come to life. Old men and women were practising tai chi in an exquisite miniature landscape behind the pagoda. Unlike the great Imperial garden, Suzhou's gardens capture all elements of nature in a small space. Weather-worn rocks form cliffs and mountains, and picturesque ponds symbolise oceans and lakes. A narrow stone path winding through grey rocks and multi-coloured blossoms led to a pond where women sang across to each other. Apart from their gentle music, all was calm. At one end of the pond, there was an open-sided pavilion originally built for drinking wine, viewing the moon, discussing poetry and making love. At the rear a tai chi class was in session. While one group of elderly men and women perched on rocks to watch, another group practised in unison as the morning sun rose, so that the exercise looked like a slow, meditative salute to the new day. I was also fascinated by the beauty of the Suzhou's smallest garden - Master of the Nets - laid out by craftsman in the 12th century and restored by a retired official in the 18th. History goes that artists, painters, scholars and officials south of the Yangtze would retreat to Suzhou's green microcosms on retirement to enjoy it with friends or in solitude, to meditate. The Master of the Nets is supposed to have been restored by a retired bureaucrat who announced that he was fed up with worldly hassles and would rather be a fisherman. It is a mini-kingdom of pavilions, rockeries, ponds and bridges. Kiosks furnished with grand Ming-style chairs and tables, and glass walls patterned with intricate woodwork overlook the water. The Master Study is complete with the original study table, cabinets, cupboards and drawers used by the retired official, and was once featured in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After having green tea and cakes in a small tea house nearby, I set off walking through town towards Suzhou Bazaar and the Taoist Temple of Mystery, in the city centre. The hustle and bustle of Suzhou Bazaar provided a stark contrast to the sleepy, calm rhythms I experienced earlier. Its noisy streets were crammed with clothes shops, restaurants, street hawkers, barber shops, beauty parlours, bakeries, sweets vendors,noodle stalls, silk outlets and curio sellers. Finding the teeming crowds and persistent salespeople a tad too familiar for my liking, I hurried into the Taoist Temple of Mystery, at the heart of the bazaar. Hundreds of gold deities line the temple's massive hall, whose 60 pillars support a double roof with upturned eaves. Many of the deities strike belligerent poses and their expressions reek of anger and evil. I learned later that popular Taoist worship is closely linked with sorcery, magic, exorcisms and ghosts, explaining the contrast to Suzhou's more serene Buddhist temples. Old men sat on the temple steps and the square in front was jam-packed with souvenir hawkers, cobblers, tea sellers, sweepers and young couples relaxing on a lawn. But the most pleasurable aspect of Suzhou for me was simply walking along the inner town canals, watching boats gliding by and observing residents pursuing their daily chores. A 10-minute rickshaw ride from the Suzhou Bazaar area leads through cobbled alleys and medieval stone houses to Wumen Bridge, Suzhou's biggest humpback stone bridge that crosses the main moat. Next to it is Panmen, the town's grandest city gate, with a magnificent view overlooking the city with the red Ruigang Pagoda standing tall in the distance. A small Buddhist temple stands on the highest point of Panmen. If you care to linger, you can watch the sun set behind it.