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Deividas Toleikis (@thetoleikis) – a Communications and Media student who’s currently studying at XTJLU as part of our Year in China programme –explores Suzhou in his photo essay, ‘Heaven on Earth.’
There’s a famous Chinese folksong that says Suzhou, and in particularly Shantang, is ‘heaven on earth’ and is a place full of boundless possibilities. As I explore the bustling area of Shantang I can certainly see why.
Found in the traditionally popular Gusu District of Suzhou, Shantang Street is one of the best places to explore in the city and is a great place to learn more about Chinese culture. That’s especially true when you’ve only just arrived in the city. The street is a perfect blend of traditional and contemporary China.
Stepping onto the street, you are met with beautiful red lanterns, masses of intriguing shop fronts and rows and rows of traditional Chinese buildings. The variety is extraordinary. On one side of the street you can find a mesmerizing silk dress. Take a couple of steps the other way and your senses will be tested with stalls selling ‘stinky tofu’ . The smell is like nothing back home, but I’m told by locals that it’s delicious.
A couple minutes down the road and you’ll be met by this stunning bridge. If you ever visit Suzhou, please, please, go up and have a look. You’ll get a tremendous view of the canal and it’s a great spot for people-watching. If you’re wondering if there is somewhere to put your feet up and grab a nice cold beer… of course there is! Just walk across the bridge, turn right and you’ll find a swarm of local bars. And as Shantang is pretty popular with westerners, the selection of western beverages is superb.
You can easily spend a whole day sightseeing in Shantang. You can spend hours exploring the narrow alleyways or looking at all of the products the vendors are selling. I particularly like Shantang Street because you get a real sense for how local people live.
My best advice to you if you’re planning on visiting, is don’t be afraid to be curious. The locals will be as intrigued to see you as you will be to see them. Just smile, respect their community and maybe say nin hao (good day) to politely greet them. From my experience, this always brings a smile to their face.
Exploring is my favorite part of visiting places like Shantang and especially the people that roam these streets; from the locals, to the vendors, to the tourists. It’s really interesting to see how different people interact with the same space, but, I must say, the crowds can occasionally get in the way.
Coming towards the end of the street is a hidden traditional pagoda, which is surrounded by narrow boats navigating the numerous canals in the Old Town. You can take a seat and admire the pagoda here. Or explore the stunning Puji Bridge that overlooks the water. I’d recommend grabbing a cold watermelon smoothie from a stand that’s thirty seconds from the pagoda.
As I am starting to finish taking photos of this wonderful street, the sun is setting and I am taking a shot just behind one of the vendors. I take the shot and all of a sudden, behind me there is a group of around six Chinese people all saying ‘Hi’, “Hello”. I was a bit surprised. It’s never happened before. But it was a great experience. They were so nice and really interested in what I was doing on the street.
I ended my little excursion watching an elderly local admiring a narrow boat pass by. I watched people wander through the traditional Chinese walkway as the hazy autumn sun slowly dipped below the horizon behind the jostling crowds.
If you’re thinking of visiting, Shantang Street is really accessible. From Parfait or MBA simply walk down to Songtao Jie, take line 2 to Shantang Jie and that’s it. It costs around 60p and the journey takes around 30 minutes. I would advise using Apple Maps in China, as this is the only English language maps app that I have found fit for everyday use. Baidu Maps is also great and available on all platforms, however it only comes in Chinese.
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