As one of the cleanest and most developed cities in China, Suzhou with its glittering skyscrapers, has managed to retain a beautiful connection with its past. Reputed as a city of gardens with symmetric combinations of rocks, body of waters, avenue of trees and pavilions that reflects the Chinese sense of balance and harmony, OLALEKAN OKUSAN who visited Suzhou recently, chronicles some of the attractions that endear a first time visitor to the emerging modern city.

 

Championships in Suzhou, China again made me reminisce on my first experience to China in 2008, where I had the best memorable tour in all my trips outside the shores of Nigeria. In table tennis circle, whenever an Asian nation is hosting a major event, most countries are always willing to be part of the tournament, considering the quality of hospitality synonymous with the Asians. My experience at Guangzhou 2008 will always remain with me and I was eagerly looking forward to the trip to Suzhou this year.

Not many people would be willing to fly for more than 18hours to get to their destination, but I was adequately prepared to embark on this journey, having returned just a few days earlier from Mauritius, which is about 14hours flight from Lagos.

Again, I settled for Emirates Airlines, owing to their on-board quality service. I was used to arriving at the airport hours before the final boarding but the gridlocks at the Ikeja Municipality nearly made me miss my flight. Fortunately, I made it to the airport on time and we kicked off the journey from Lagos to Dubai at about 2pm on April 25, a day to the start of the tournament in Suzhou.

The plane from Lagos touched down at Dubai International Airport at about 1am but I had to spend over eight hours in Dubai before boarding the flight to Shanghai. The journey to Shanghai lasted another eight hours and we landed at about 10pm. Fortunately, I was on board the plane with the Tunisian team, as well as an Algerian official.

The Shanghai City once again confirmed the technological progress made by China and this was exemplified in the structure of the airport. As usual, we were received by a group of volunteers in their green uniforms with the tournament logo boldly inscribed. They welcomed us with a flourish and ushered into our seats, where they made a quick call to the driver who was on the top floor of the airport.

After waiting for over an hour, we took off to Suzhou, a journey which lasted for over two hours and we were dropped off at our various hotels.

My hotel, Scholar Hotel, was the last point of call and I arrived at my hotel about 2am. But the brightly-lit streets of Suzhou gave me an insight into what to expect the next day. I managed to catch some sleep and then came down from the seventh floor of the hotel to get my accreditation for the event.

The special treatment accorded media personnel during the event was awesome as we were well catered for from the hotel to the venue of the championship, Suzhou International Expo Centre located in the heart of the city.

Driving to the venue, Suzhou came into view as a charming city of lakes, which dotted everywhere. With a floor space of 188,600 square metres and building area of 255,000 square metres, Suzhou International Expo Centre boasts of first-class facilities in the world.

Suzhou attracts visitors with its ancient architectural flavour and charm, as it is strategically located at the central part of the Yangtze River Delta, which borders Shanghai on the east; Zhejiang Province on the south; the Taihu Lake on the west and the Yangtze River on the north. It has a riverbank stretching 140 kilometres along the Yangtze River.

Suzhou covers a land area of 8,499 square kilometres, and it boasts a house-hold registered population of 6.6m. It is referred to as one of the cleanest and most developed cities in China, with glittering skyscrapers, shopping malls and ultra-modern hotels in a new zone called Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP). Unlike other fast-growing cities in China, Suzhou has managed to retain a fine connection with the past. The old town is still intact and its traditional structures and identities have remained despite the advent of domestic tourism in the 1990s. Suzhou is a major economic centre and regional platform for trade and commerce, as well as the second largest city in the province after its capital Nanjing.

Administratively, Suzhou is a prefecture-level city, with a population of 4.33 million within its city proper, and a total resident population (as of 2013) of 10.58 million in its administrative area, which incorporates neighbouring suburban regions and the satellite cities of Kunshan.

Founded in 514 BC, Suzhou has over 2,500 years of historical adventure, with an abundant display of relics and places of interest. At around 100 AD, during the Eastern Han Dynasty, it became one of the ten largest cities in the world, due mostly to emigration from North China. Since the 10th-century Song Dynasty, it has been an important commercial center of China. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, Suzhou was a national economic, cultural and commercial center, as well as the largest non-capital city in the world, until the 1860 Taiping Rebellion. When Li Hongzhang and Charles George Gordon recaptured the city three years later, Shanghai had already taken its predominant place in the nation.   Since major economic reforms began in 1978, Suzhou has become one of the fastest growing major cities in the world, with GDP growth rates of about 14 percent in the past 35 years. With high per capita incomes, Suzhou’s Human Development Index rating is roughly comparable to a moderately developed country, making it one of the most highly developed and prosperous cities in China.

The city’s canals, stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens have contributed to its status as one of the top tourist attractions in China. The classical gardens in Suzhou were added to the list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997 and 2000. Suzhou is often dubbed the “Venice of the East” or “Venice of China

Suzhou as the cradle of Wu culture is one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze Basin. By the spring and autumn period of the Zhou, local tribes named the Gou Wu are recorded living in the area which would become the modern city of Suzhou. These tribes formed villages on the edges of the hills above the wetlands surrounding Lake Tai.

The city boasts of some fascinating museums that showcase high culture and refined arts in China. The gardens are best appreciated when visited early in the morning before they get crowded.

Also Suzhou has 17 ancient city gates, with over 160 old bridges, various historical buildings, streets and lanes, making it the largest cultural landscape. They are dotted with essences of relics with good reputations in the history of Suzhou and even China, accomplishing a cultural scroll of Suzhou.

Water endows the city of Suzhou with intelligence, whereas the Taihu Lake is the source of it. The shores of the Lake are dotted with natural and cultural sceneries of rich varieties. Any one of them can be acclaimed as the peak of perfection.

The most famous local product in Suzhou is called Zhuangyuan, which is the title given to the scholar who achieved the highest score on the highest level of Chinese imperial examinations. Not everyone can be Zhuangyuan and until today, Suzhou has 106 doctors from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and CAE (The Chinese Academy of Engineering).

Suzhou’s economy is powerful. For now, the city is the central point for the economy, overseas trade and logistics industry, as well as the culture, art, education and transportation. Rich in silk, aquatic products, rice, vegetables, IT, manufacturing industry and biological medicine industry, Suzhou is also a technology innovation city; more than 100 companies from the top 500 fortune are located in the city.

Despite the charming nature of Suzhou, I could not go on sightseeing of the city, owing to the tight schedule of matches during the table tennis tournament.

But the atmosphere across the city speaks volume of the quality of life of the people, as well as the simple concept of livelihood in Suzhou.

My journey was not that eventful compared to the experience I had in Mauritius a few weeks back, but Suzhou is indeed a charming city, full of relics from the Chinese customs and traditions.

Culled from Nation Newspaper