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Hidden beauty in unassuming Changshu
2016-01-06
By Joseph O’Neill

Changshu might be the least popular travel destination among Shanghai’s neighbors, but that’s not because the city has nothing to offer. Changshu is modest. While Suzhou and Hangzhou are known for their classical gardens and picturesque lakes that have inspired sayings like “Above there is heaven, below there is Suzhou and Hangzhou,” Changshu doesn’t brag about its sights and beauty.

But, like its more popular neighbors, Changshu is a dynamic mix of tradition and modernity, and has more to offer than most would think. Due to its fertile soil and moist climate, Changshu has a long history of agriculture that’s even part of its name, which can be translated as, “to often have ripe harvests.”

On the bus ride from Shanghai to Changshu, wind turbines tower above wetland farms and signs announce “Changshu Garments Town of China,” and “Science and Technology Town.” In downtown Changshu, traffic is busy and canals flow past whitewashed houses. To get the best view of the city, head straight for Yushan Mountain.

Several buses stop at Yanzimu Station. The spot is also reachable by taxi; it’s at the intersection between Beimen Gate Street and Yushan Road M. To reach Jianmen Gate Scenic Region, just turn onto Yushan Road M. and begin the hike up. Expect a long but beautiful trek. Joggers often fly past walkers. For those who either don’t feel fit enough for the hike or are pressed for time, a bus can also get you to Yushan Road M. The mountain is named after Yu Zhong, an official who briefly served as a regent during Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-557) and was buried here. The mountain bus stops several times along the way, so you can hop on if you feel like skipping a part of the hike or ride it the whole way up. Either way, tickets are 5 yuan (77 US cents).

Whether you arrive by walking, running, or after you bought a bus ticket, Jianmen Gate Scenic Region is worth both the journey and the 35 yuan entrance fee. From the promontory in front of the Sword Tower, you can overlook the fields and wetlands of the region. It’s a beautiful vista that proves that the province really is the “land of fish and rice.”

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From the Sword Tower, wind your way through mountainous tea plantations to the Zanghai Monastery. The monastery dates back to the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) and a tall, old ginkgo tree covers the steps leading to the entrance covered with yellow leaves every fall and winter. Chants from the monastery are accompanied by the sound of water running under the Longevity Bridge down to the wetlands at the foot of Yushan Mountain. If you are relying on the bus to get back down the mountain, note that the service stops operating between 4pm and 4:30pm.

Back at Yanzimu Station, cross Beimen Gate Street until you reach Yanyuan Garden, one of Changshu’s classical gardens. The garden was built in 1780 by Jiang Yuanshu, then governor-general of Taiwan. Today, the garden is popular with tourists who are looking for some peace of mind — it’s similar to the famous garden in Suzhou, but Yanyuan Garden is less popular and less crowded, making it ideal for a relaxed walk. Locals gather here regularly to sip a hot drink in the teahouse and to exchange the latest gossip in an idyllic setting. Entrance to the garden is 10 yuan.

Fangta Garden is a short walk from Yanyuan. The streets around the garden, in particular Hedong Street, offer a number of local eateries for hungry travelers. You can see Fangta Tower from the street, but getting inside costs 30 yuan. Buying a ticket is still worth it, as you get a better view of the tower as it’s visible from the nearby streets. The Buddhist tower was also built during the Song Dynasty, and buying a ticket will get you access to the teahouse there.

The Fangta Tower, which literally means “rectangular tower,” has long been the symbol of Changshu. Historically, the tower is also closely linked to the city’s other scenic spots, all within walking distance.

According to a sign by the Fangta Tower, the combination of Yushan Mountain to the northwest and Shanghu Lake to the southwest created an imbalance in the city’s fengshui. On the advice of a monk, the tower was built to resolve Changshu’s troubled fengshui.

Perhaps it worked, as today’s visitors won’t note any lack of harmony in Shanghu Lake Scenic Area. The park has been compared to Hangzhou’s West Lake, and there are certainly similarities, from the winding bridges to the plethora of lotus flowers at the lake’s shore.

There are differences, too. Shanghu Lake Scenic Area is less crowded, and though there’s an 80-yuan entrance fee, it feels farther from the city and closer to nature than Hangzhou’s West Lake.

But comparisons should end there, as there’s plenty to discover about Shanghu Lake Scenic Area that can’t be found elsewhere.

At the Water-lapped Estate, lucky visitors can get a glimpse of rare black swans, and sometimes, impromptu performances of Changshu opera are held here. When I visited, I was lucky enough to see several female opera singers, all Changshu natives, who performed a local opera as two swans drifted over the misty water, seemingly in an attempt to join the audience.

There’s plenty of options to rent a boat at Shanghu Scenic Area, whether you want to pedal it yourself or if you hire someone else tp do the hard work for you. If you’re water-shy, you can also rent a bicycle and stay on land.

If you go

There are no trains to Changshu, but a regular bus service runs from Shanghai. Buses run from Shanghai South Station to Changshu from approximately 6:30am to 7:30pm. There are also regular buses from Shanghai Long Distance General Bus Station (adjacent to Shanghai Railway Station, accessible on Metro lines 1, 3 and 4) to Changshu. Buses return to Shanghai from both Changshu North Station and Changshu South Station. The last bus to Shanghai from Changshu North Station leaves after 5pm, and the last bus from Changshu South Station leaves after 7:25pm. The schedule is subject to change.


Where to stay

If you’re in Changshu for a short stay, you’ll want to make sure your hotel is in a central spot. Yushan Mountain, Shanghu Lake Scenic Area, and Fangta Tower are all located in the western part of the city, so we recommend choosing a hotel that will make it easy to access these sights.

The Changshu Mandarin Hotel is one of many great options as it’s right on Fangta Street, which is a main thoroughfare and just a short walk from the historic Fangta Tower. The four-star hotel features a gym and swimming pool.

Yushan Jinjiang Hotel is also conveniently located in the center of the triangle formed by Yushan Mountain, Shanghu Lake and Fangta Tower. It’s a three-star hotel, so expect to pay more than at other Jinjiang hotels, but the price comes with some extra luxury as well.

Travelers seeking some Chinese-style opulence should best opt for the Kingrace Hotel, an elaborately furnished, four-star hotel near Fangta Street and adjacent to Shanghu Lake that features a pool, gym and spa.


Traveling Tips

Walking on Yushan Mountain can take up more time than most travelers would expect, so it’s best to start early in the day to make sure that you’re not stuck on the mountain after it gets dark. If you’re trying to pack all of Changshu’s major sights into one day, we recommend using the mountain bus service to reach Jianmen Gate Scenic Region on Yushan Mountain in the morning. Catch the bus back for a quick lunch near Fangta Tower, and spend the afternoon walking or boating in Shanghu Lake Scenic Area. Remember it closes every day at 4:10pm in low season and at 4:40pm during the high season.

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