Have you found Shantang Street yet? This charming little street is exotic adventure travel, somewhat hidden from the view of passers by is a well-preserved ancient street near the downtown, where we can get a sense of the glory and prosperity of Suzhou in ancient times, when it was the most important city in southern China. This street is the epitome of Suzhou, a picture postcard of the ‘real China of long ago’ where the dark wooden roofs cap the white walls, displaying the ancient architecture still so well preserved throughout Suzhou’s downtown area.
There are various estimates as to the age of this ancient street, but the general consensus is between 1100 and 1500 years old. The young men came here to find their friends and write poems by the river while merchants in the boats displayed lanterns and merchandise to greet passers-by.
Historical records tell us that in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperors fell in love with Shantang Street at first glance. Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), whose ancestors were from nomadic tribes, was haunted by the beauty of the Shantang Street and ordered a replica built in Yuanmingyuan in Beijing (now called The Summer Palace) to celebrate his mother’s 70th birthday. The Dowager Empress Ci Xi (1835-1908) rebuilt this replica after it was destroyed in 1860, naming it Suzhou Street.
The Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi (722-846), who built the street and the canal to improve water transportation, could never have imagined the wonder he left behind along with his great poems.
To improve water transportation links, Bai, who was an official in Suzhou at that time, ordered that a canal be dug, and a 3.5-kilometre-long waterway stretching west from Duseng Bridge at the Changmen City Gate to Wangshan Bridge in the Tiger Hill area was created. It was named “Shantang”, and the street was gradually built up along it.
By the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the street had become a busy commercial centre, crowded with merchants and tourists. Boats plied up and down the canal and traded with the residents who opened their back doors to buy goods. The residents often put money in a basket and let the basket down on ropes for the vendors to fill with fresh fish or white wine. The boatmen sometimes would anchor their boats near a house and climb up the stone stairways leading to a restaurant or a shop on the bank. The front doors of the houses face a pathway and back doors open out to the canal. Wooden benches still lie near the back doors and lanterns hang near the windows.
Most of the buildings here, being genuinely really old, were well past their expiry date when the government had them all renovated a few years ago. But somehow, the aura of ‘long ago’ has been retained. You feel like you are really being part of the history of this city. There are places where you can sit a while, rest your feet and just soak up the atmosphere, where you can feel and smell the history, where it is easy to imagine yourself way back there.
Today it is possible to take a boat ride along these canals, and you feel as if you can still see people leaning out of their windows to purchase the needs of the day.
The entrance to Shantang street is somewhat hidden. If you ask a taxi driver to take you to the bridge by Shantang Street in Shi Lu you can look eastward down the canal, where both sides are lined cheek by jowl with restaurants, shops selling silk, paper cuts, wooden articles, jewellery, and every conceivable type of souvenir. One of the best things about shopping here for souvenirs is that there is no ‘hard sell’.
You feel absolutely free to wander and browse, in and out, to compare and investigate at your leisure. So, if you have visitors bring them here, or if you need some nick-nacks to take home as little gifts, this is a good place to check out. You will find some most unusual wooden nested boxes, travelling clocks in wooden cases, along with a huge variety of silk slippers, embroidered pictures, framed paper cuts, lipstick cases etc. You could try your hand at bargaining, but the prices are already very competitive. Even the most hard-hearted shopper will succumb and spend a few RMB along the way.
You can walk or take a boat from Shantang Street, along to the base of Tiger Hill. If you haven’t been up Tiger Hill yet why not choose a coolish day, and meander from one to the other, having your fill of Suzhou’s history. If you don’t feel so energetic, just wander eastwards along Shantang Street until you emerge back into the modern walking area of Shi Lu.
The most magical time of the day to go would be early evening, as the last rays of the sun filter down on the houses and water. Sit and watch the fading light, have a meal at one of the many delightful restaurants along the way, and absorb the beauty of the scene as the many red paper lanterns or brightly coloured embroidered silk lanterns lining the waters edge are lit.
Take some photos, have a ride along the canal, and store some fabulous memories for your old age. You won’t regret it!