When Suzhou is mentioned, the first thought in every Chinese mind is of its gardens. However, On the outskirts of Suzhou, just a short bus ride from the city center, the misty and tranquil Tai Hu Lake, the third biggest freshwater lakes in all of China, modestly sequesters a selection of tiny villages, pagodas, shrines, monasteries and scenic mountains. All offer a great view which travelers, who’ve been herded in and out of the bustling and repetitive shopping centers, bars and gardens, often miss.
1. Guangfu Scenic Area 光福风景区
The Guangfu Scenic Area, a mountainous stamp of land jutting out into the western part of the lake, houses the Yonghui Monastery (永慧寺); the Situ Temple (司徒) and the Guangfu Pagoda (光福塔), which peeks above the treeline. Numerous villages and wandering trails weave between myriad temples, monasteries and parks.
Getting there: Use bus 63, 64 or 65
2. Taihu 太湖
Taihu Lake, loomed over by lofty mountains, encompassing an area of over 2,250 km, dotted with over 90 islands of various sizes, with its round shape and massive size (the gifts of a meteor), spreads like a blotch of ink towards the blue-gray horizon. Sunlight plays on the rippling waves as they slide hesitantly towards the thin beaches.
Whenever you go, chances are one of Taihu’s famous sunsets will complete the day-falling through the mist, easing in the twilight with vibrant coral hues. Enjoy one over a dinner of the famous Tai Hu “three whites”, (white fish, white crab and white shrimp) at one of the many restaurants that line the water’s edge.
Getting there: Buses 58, 62, 63, 64, 65, 69, 500, 502, 621, and 691 all go to various areas of the lake
3. Sanshan Island 三山岛
This Island presents a perfect escape from urbanity. Despite the fact that the island used to be the hideout of China’s most infamous criminals, today it is nothing more than a traditional and serene Chinese fishing and agrarian township, containing about 200 households. Walk along the shores, watching the boatmen balance themselves while reaching into the silvery lake with their nets, searching for shrimp, crab and fish; browse through freshly picked fruits and vegetables; stroll through the unpopulated paths up to one of the precipices overlooking the lake; enjoy silence punctuated only by birdsongs; and even stay for a night or two at one of the guest houses, offering 20 RMB beds and very fresh dishes.
Getting there: From the Dongshan Scenic Area, head to the docks near Luxiang Old Village and hop on one of the boats. Say “sanshandao,” to one of the friendly boatmen.
4. Xishan Hills Scenic Area 西山风景区
This large island, connected to the land by the longest inland bridge in China, makes for a great day trip. Check out Mingyuewan Old Village (明月湾古忖), tucked into the southern tip of the island, and Xishan Hill National Forest Park (西山国家森林公园), full of trails and peak with great views.
Getting there: Bus 58, 69, or 691 will take you out and over the islands making many stops along the way
5. Dongshan Scenic Area 东山风景区
This northwest peninsula stretches like the head of a turtle from the shell of Suzhou. Trek through this scenic area, almost entirely enclosed by the lake, up to Biluo Peak (碧螺峰), or over to Luxiang Old Village (陆降古村), which rests on a little patch of land creeping out into the water-perfect for great photos.
Getting there: Take bus 62, 500, 502 or 621