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Suzhou area one of best in China to view seasonal colors
By Jiang Xinhua

This is the season when autumn unfolds her brilliant reds, golds, oranges and purples under sapphire skies and a warm sun. The breeze is cool, the humidity low.

To appreciate spectacular autumn scenery, travelers needn’t go far from Shanghai.

A 25-minute high-speed train takes visitors to areas around Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, where they can hike to their hearts’ content and enjoy seasonal dishes such as freshwater fish and shrimp, and jujube congee. And the best part: It’s not swamped with tourists.

Tianping Mountain

Southwest of Suzhou, Tianping Mountain is widely considered to be among the four best spots in China to see red maples, along with Xiangshan Mountain in Beijing, Qixia Mountain in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, and Yuelu Mountain in Changsha, Hunan Province.

This “mountain” is only 201 meters above sea level, more like a big hill, but it is steep.

The summit offers spectacular views of crimson, ochre, and magenta maples, unusual rock formations and pure streams and springs.

Walking up a path fringed with trident maples, I encountered a huge, 400-year-old maple tree nearly 10 stories high. It would take three adults together to encircle it with their arms. At the foot of the mountain are 130 other trees also around 400 years old. These maples are known as the “five-color maples,” referring to their autumnal color change from green to yellow, then orange, red and purple.

Even in early November, some maple trees near the lake already were turning intense red. Color changes depend on the temperature variation between day and night and other conditions.

An extreme temperature swing creates bright colors early in the season. Trees near the lake turn red before others because they absorb more dew and frost.

“The best period to enjoy the autumn colors is in the middle of November,” said Xu Ping, an official of the Tianping Mountain Scenic Spot.

On the zigzag bridge on Ten Sights Pond at the foot of the mountain, I could see foliage changing color from top to bottom, as well as dramatically shaped rocks and outcroppings. They resemble official tablets or steles pointing skyward. They were like reminders of feudal times, when Chinese officials held tablets when they were to meet the emperor.

The calm and mirror-like lake reflects the vivid autumn colors — brilliant in the sunlight — on the mountain above. Colored leaves fallen into the lake flow with the current. Children play on stones on the shore.

Everything is so harmonious that I feel as though I am in a watercolor painting.

Tianping Mountain is steep and the paths are rocky; sometimes only one person can pass between two large, oddly shaped rocks. It helps to be in good physical shape to make the hike. Following the rushing sound of water, I found Baiyun Spring, named by poet Bai Juyi of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The spring is famously clear and sweet and was called one of the most delightful springs in Suzhou by Lu Yu (AD 733-804), the “Sage of Tea,” in his monumental book “The Classic of Tea.”

After climbing for 45 minutes, I was exhausted, but when I reached the summit and the observation tower, it was all worthwhile and my fatigue disappeared.

From the tower, I saw the multicolored leaves like a colorful cloud drifting from the sky. I also had a panoramic view of the entire city of Suzhou, old and new.

Going downhill to the bottom, a much easier 30-minute walk, I found many people watching an acrobatics show at Maple Square, celebrating the 20th Red Maple Festival of Tianping Mountain. It runs through December 9, featuring traditional performances, such as lion dances, live music, handicrafts, a photo exhibition and food stalls. Every year, thousands of photographers, painters and calligraphers gather to record the beauty of autumn in images and poetry.

Watching the autumn colors at sunset, shifting in the breeze, is breathtaking.

Shihu Lake and Shangfang Mountain

An inner bay of much larger Taihu Lake, Shihu Lake is a scenic spot of peaceful farm life and relics of the Wu and Yue kingdoms of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Temples, pagodas and tombs on Shangfang Mountain near the lake are worth visiting. Taihu Lake is China’s third-largest freshwater lake, after Boyang Lake in Jiangxi Province and Dongting Lake in Hunan Province.

Taking a boat ride in Shihu Lake in the early morning, I felt refreshed by the mist that burned off in the warm sunlight. I sipped a cup of Biluochun, a famous local green tea with a pleasant aroma, and ate delicious dim sum, such as plum cake, jujube congee and sweet lotus root.

The boatman told me that Shihu Lake used to be a popular gathering spot in ancient times. Hundreds of people from nearby cities, including royalty, officials, and literati convened to compose poetry, paint, discuss art and literature and, of course, to drink baijiu (distilled white spirits).

Moonlight gatherings were famous during traditional festivals, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival.

After breakfast I strolled along a path fringed with sweet osmanthus and took in an exhibition of chrysanthemums of many colors, gold, orange, bronze, deep red. The scene is reminiscent of the garden of Fan Chengda, a retired official and poet of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) who retired to live near Shihu Lake. There he wrote 60 poems about peasant life over four seasons, saying he drew inspiration in his garden near the lake.

The Shihu Lake Chrysanthemums Exhibition covers 2,000 square meters and runs through the end of November. It features Suzhou-style bonsai displays and a flower arrangement competition. Visitors watch folk music performances and demonstrations of painting and calligraphy in competitions.

It’s all so appealing that it’s understandable the literati wanted to linger in autumn.

Maple Bridge Scenic Area

This scenic spot is closer to downtown Suzhou than Shihu Lake and Tianping Mountain.

The Maple Bridge over the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal is more than a bridge. It’s part of the Grand Canal of China, part of an ancient town, part of a temple, and a famous image in a poem.

More than one thousand years ago, poet Zhang Ji of the Tang Dynasty rowed a boat under the Maple Bridge and listened to bells in nearby Hanshan Temple on an autumn evening. He moored the boat at the foot of the bridge, looked at the moon in the clear dark sky, and felt deeply homesick. He wrote “A Night Mooring near Maple Bridge.” I stood at the place where he moored the boat, saw Maple Bridge and nearby Jiangcun Bridge and knew why he was inspired.

Climbing to Tieling Pass, I reached the three-story gate used in battles against Japanese pirates during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). I looked out over two bridges (Maple Bridge and Jiancun), Hanshan Temple and a few boats on the canal.

Tieling Pass connected to the Maple Bridge is 7 meters high, 15 meters wide and stretches more than 10 meters.

Maple Bridge Town west of Suzhou was the most important water transport hub for grain, food and tribute since the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618).

There are many rice shops, traditional crafts shops, embroidery studios and also weaving and textile shops on the streets.

How to get there:

High-speed train from Shanghai Railway Station or Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station takes half an hour. One-way, second class costs 40 yuan (US$6.50).

Nearby attractions:

Mudu is a historic cultural town in Suzhou’s rural western suburbs and it’s connected by the Beijing-Hangzhou Canal with Taihu Lake. It contains more than 30 private gardens, both delicate and elaborate. Built during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, they include Yan’s Garden, Bangyan Mansion and Hongyin Villa. Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty called Hongyin Villa his imperial palace during his regular tours of the region south of the Yangtze River. The aesthetics of the garden with its streams, ponds, paths, rockeries, pavilions and plantings drew him back again and again.

There are many traditional restaurants along Qionglong Road. Aquatic plants and animals are recommended, including “Three Whites in Taihu Lake,” meaning silver fish, white fish and white shrimp. Another dish combines lotus root, and seeds of gorgon euryale, a water plant.

Nanhao Street

Near Chang Gate, Nanhao Street was a famous market and remains so today, crowded with stalls and vendors selling snacks and food. In the fall the typical snack is Chinese chestnuts fried with sweet osmanthus sugar and arrowhead root chips.

Every April 14 on the lunar calendar, thousands of people gather at the Shenxian Temple or Fairy Temple to pray for good fortune and enjoy the temple fair. Activities include traditional paper cutting, making models with sugar and glass blowing (aided by craftsmen).

Tianping Mountain

Opening hours: 7:30am-5pm

Admission: 30 yuan

Tel: 0512-6626-1382

By Metro: Take Suzhou Metro Line 1 to Mudu Station and take tourist bus at Gate 5.

By bus: Take Suzhou Nos. 4, 315, 662 bus and Tourist Line 4.

By car: Suzhou Xihuan Elevated Rd — Laodong Rd Exit — Zhuyuan Rd — Lingtian Rd

It has a parking lot for 700 cars.

Shihu Lake

Opening hours: 6am-4:30pm

Admission: 40 yuan for Shangfang Mountain.

Shihu Lake area is free.

Tel: 0512-6823-0300

By bus: Take Suzhou Nos. 415, 602, 504, 505, 306, 512, 318 bus.

By car: Suzhou Youxin Rd — Baodai Rd W. — Wuyue Rd

Maple Bridge

Opening hours: 8am-5pm

Admission: 25 yuan

Tel: 0512-6557-5100

By bus: Take Suzhou Nos. 45, 33, 415 bus and Tourist Line 3.

By car: Suzhou Xihuan Elevated Rd — Jinmen Rd — Heshan Rd

Mudu Ancient Town

Hours: 8am-4:30pm

Admission: 60 yuan

By bus: Take Suzhou Nos. 502, 38, 63 bus and Tourist Line 4.

By car: Suzhou Xihuan Rd — Laodong Rd — Suoshan Bridge

Nanhao Street

Hours: All day

Admission: free

By bus: Take Suzhou Nos. 31, 501, 311, 34, 415, 442 bus.

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164