China is a bucket list destination, with so much to learn about the country with the largest
population and one of the world’s earliest civilisations. During a week spent in two beautiful cities
which are close to Shanghai – Suzhou and Nanjing, I learned so much about China! At least,
Eastern China. Overall, leave your preconceptions about China at home – the air quality is very
good, and we were all taken aback by the lush greenery at many of the locations we visited.

1. The 144 Hour Visa Exemption

This relatively new visa exemption covers e.g Shanghai Municipality, Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province and more – is one of the first things you should know about. I’ve often heard of people traveling with a stopover in Shanghai who longed to have more time to spend exploring the surrounding area.

Now you can spend up to six days exploring these provinces nearby, and there is so much to experience: two major cities, Suzhou, aka “Venice of the East” for its beautiful canals, and Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu, are two I will tell you about in this article. You still need your visa to enter China, but the exemption means you can spend time exploring outside of Shanghai. Here’s some info on the stipulations and the online application.

2. The Super Fast Train

Suzhou is my first city tip and it’s just a couple of hours bus ride from Shanghai. You can also get
there by taking a high speed train, which reaches speeds of up to nearly 300 kms per hour. The
train is an experience in itself: you need to be ready to get on the train quickly and in the correct
carriage. Your ticket will tell you the carriage number and there are markings on the ground
indicating where to stand for your carriage (this was admittedly a little confusing but we found our
way!). There’s no way to get between the carriages – though there was a snack bar area with
seating, if it does happen to you and you get stuck. Prices for the trains are quite reasonable, from
$20-$65 depending on which class you choose. Once you get on the train, you also need to be
moving fast, if you have luggage, hoist it up to the luggage rack quickly and find your seat. People
can get grumpy if you hold up the line. The train doesn’t wait very long before taking off so you
need to be ready!

 

3. The food, food, food.

Eastern China specialties includes lots of sea food and a wide range of vegetables, thanks to the
subtropical climate and the Yangtze river. One of the most memorable dishes we were served was
the Mandarin fish: crunchy deep fried fish with a tangy sweet and sour sauce.

It is an honour to be served mandarin fish, because a great amount of work goes into fully deboning and preparing it, which takes about two hours. The fish is then styled to look like a squirrel and is typically served at a banquet or feast. Some of our other favourite dishes included deliciously prepared spinach,
mushrooms in a light broth, crunchy taro root and a standout simple noodle dish with peanuts in
Nanjing, which had us calling for seconds. We also had a variety of tofu dishes, but a lot of main
dishes are meat based, so it’s good to be flexible if you can.

4. The beautiful canals

Suzhou isn’t known as the Venice of the East for nothing! We took every opportunity to jump on a
boat and take advantage of the chance to see another side of the city from the waterways. One of
the main highlights of our trip, I highly recommend a visit to Zhouzhang, an old water town built in
1086, about 50 kms from Suzhou.

A twenty minute canal boat ride allows you to to see historical riverside dwellings and landmarks like the Double Bridges, which are considered a symbol of Zhouzhang, after paintings of the bridges by one of China’s most renowned contemporary artists, Chen Yifei, were exhibited in a New York gallery in the early 1980’s, bringing worldwide attention to Zhouzhang. Notably most of the gondoliers on the canal in Zhouzhang were women, who also sing in ancient Chinese (for an added fee).

5. The stunning architecture

Not only are the 30,000 artefacts inside the Suzhou Museum worth a visit, but the new museum
building itself is a beautiful piece of architecture, completed in 2006 and designed by leoh Ming
Pei, the Chinese American architect who also designed the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre,
and Dallas City Hall. On display inside are ancient Chinese paintings, ancient Chinese art,
calligraphy and handmade crafts. Don’t miss the stunning embroidered clothing and examples of
Ming Dynasty porcelain.

In Nanjing, we also visited a stunning architectural wonder – Usnisa Palace on Niushou Mountain,
a site for worshipping Buddha. Outside is almost like an alien landscape with great views, and
inside, numerous escalators take you six floors down to a color-popping Buddha shrine. After
you’ve taken all that in, you can dine on fabulous vegetarian food at the Restaurant Liang wu.

6. The tropical climate

Jiangsu has a humid monsoon climate. The weather ranges from minus temperatures in January,
to over thirty degrees in July – with 60% of the rainfall falling in summer. There was plenty of air
conditioning on buses, in restaurants and hotels, which we highly appreciated. I definitely
recommend picking up a cute fan to keep yourself cool when out and about. I found it difficult to
deal with the heat, so depending on how you manage weather conditions, you might prefer a visit
in spring time when it’s warm and flowers are blossoming, or in Autumn when it’s cooled down but
not freezing yet!

7. Kunqu Opera

On our first night in Suzhou, we experienced the unforgettable Kunqu Opera, one of the oldest
surviving forms of Chinese opera. The presence of the performers on stage was incredible, and to
hear the ancient signing technique is something I won’t forget, said to have been developed during
the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644). I loved the attention to detail, especially the stunning make-up
and costumes. The performance took place at the Master of Nets Garden, which dates back to
1140. We also watched a beautiful performance of Suzhou Pingtan that night, a regional variety of
performance dating back four hundred years, where actors sing and play instruments like the three
stringed lute, and performed a beautiful dance. An evening of entertainment including the opera
costs 100 Yuan (approximately €13.50).

8. The wonderful hotel

In Suzhou, our first few nights at the Garden Hotel gave us an amazing start to the week. Our
rooms were welcoming and relaxing after hectic days of sight-seeing. I still miss the noodle bar at
breakfast, where you can feast on a bowl of freshly made noodles with amazing broth and a choice
of toppings to set you up for the day. The breakfast buffet had such a wide range of dishes, from
fried rice, to hearty chicken or beef dishes, as well as congee and even bacon and hash browns. I
recommend going for a splash in the swimming pool in their fitness centre to cool off at the end of
the day.

9. The amazing views

Climbing the four hundred steps up to visit the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen – the politician and philosopher who was the first President of the Republic of China – was challenging but definitely worth it for many reasons, including a stunning view.

Until 1912, China was ruled by dynasty, a system of inherited monarchies. Sun Yat-sen had an instrumental role in overthrowing the Qing dynasty and is known as the “Father of the Nation” in the Republic of China. The mausoleum is in Nanjing, where we also climbed the Gate of China, known as the most complex gate in the world.

 

10. Shopping

Be prepared if you are a fan of anything cute, stationery, fans, tea sets and street food. There are
plenty of opportunities to pick up lovely keepsakes and gifts in Suzhou and Nanjing. Don’t miss the
shop in Suzhou museum (we found beautiful tea sets there which were a quarter of the price than
at the airport!); in Nanjing old town there is a bustling shopping street, with lots of places to wander.

Shantang street in Suzhou also has lots of great places to shop for food, traditional clothing,
trinkets – and you can keep your energy up by snacking along the way too. One end of Shantang
street feels a little more touristy than the other, so enjoy a wander all the way up and down and
meander the side streets too! (For those in the need, we also spotted a KFC here hehe…)

 

*Disclaimer: This trip was made possible by Visit Nanjing , Visit Suzhou and China Tours .

All opinions expressed are the author’s own.

 

About the author:

Photos and text by Elizabeth Rushe who is a writer for forbes.com, vice and other publication hailing from Ireland and living in Berlin. Check out her website and follow her on Instagram.