Suzhou’s 山塘街 Shan Tang Old Street like seemingly every other old water town street in China displays the common, charming characteristics of the traditional, quaint, whitewashed buildings, red tasseled lanterns softly swinging in the breeze and canal boats chugging tourists up and down the canals.
Then of course there’s the not so charming side, the commercial side, the main drag lined with tacky souvenir shops, Suzhou embroidery shops selling the same generic embroidery as the store two doors down and any other piece of generic China wide merchandise imaginable.
Now Shan Tang Street could certainly never claim to be as quaint and charming as other surrounding water towns such as Zhouzhuang, Wuzhen or Xitang and with it lacking in multiple winding canals it could hardly claim to be a water town at all. That being said this street has its charms and in winter when the tourist crowds that plague Suzhou during the spring and summer have all but dissipated you will have this area peaceful, quiet and all to yourself besides the few locals out on an afternoon stroll or playing a game of mahjong beside the canal.
One of the most charming and unique things about a stroll along this street is the soundtrack that plays in the background. From every point along the street not far in the distance the sweet if not haunting and sometimes shrill notes of the famous Kun and Suzhou operas as well as the ancient Ping Tan story telling and ballad singing can be heard.
On a short stretch along the canal your eyes are grabbed by the bright lanterns that line the canal side. More intricate and unique then the traditional rounded red lanterns these lanterns display beautifully detailed images of Chinese beauties from time gone by.
Only so much of this street can be seen by foot for along much of the canal the houses butt up right against the waters edge. The only way to truly see the full extent of this street that stretches far beyond the tourist strip and to the residential homes of locals who’s houses remain un-tainted by tourism is to ride up the canal to Tiger Hill in one of the many tourist boats.
Like most water towns Shan Tang Street is at its most spectacular when the sun dips below the horizon and like the night turns on the stars the lanterns that line the canals illuminate in a beautiful display of rich, bright colour that shimmer as stunning reflections on the canals waters.
To experience Shan Tang Street from dawn till dusk stay in the Royal Garden Inn located at a quiet end of the street near Tongguiqiao. This charming little inn retains its old world architecture from the outside with spacious rooms and fantastic modern amenities on the inside.