One last China post until I can travel back for more first-hand experience and tips.
It's hard to tear yourself away from Shanghai but if you have the time, a great day trip is to Suzhou, the silk and garden city, and Zhouzhuang, the so-called Venice of China. Both are Leveler-lovin' flat although you'll encounter some stairs in Zhouzhuang.
Tip: There are many tours combining the two cities but make sure you know exactly what you are getting and how you are going. My friends made arrangements through The Ritz-Carlton concierge and because ours was a group of three, we were put with another, similarly sized group. No problem until two of them and the guide lit up cigarettes on what we had been promised was a no smoking excursion. We had paid the guide directly so we insisted on getting our money back - Jerry is a well-traveled 6-plus-footer so the 5-foot-nothing guide finally complied - and being let out. The concierge apologized profusely and set us up with a car, driver and guide, but fully one-third of our touring time had been lost.
Our first stop was a Suzhou silk factory where we were given a quick silk culture 101 tour that ended with us helping two ladies pull, pat and stretch silk into a quilt, a specialty of the house. It's harder than it sounds.
Suzhou's Gardens began as early as the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC) but they hit the zenith during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties. These were private gardens rather than public or imperial ones.
That's all you'll have time for on a one-day, two-city tour, but garden enthusiasts really should plan a longer stay to take in the highlights of The Lingering Garden, The Master of Nets Garden, Mountain Villa with Embracing Beauty, The Surging Wave Pavilion, The Couple's Garden Retreat, the Garden of Cultivation and the Retreat and Reflection Garden. It's on my to-do list.
Halfway between Suzhou and Shanghai, this traffic-free city is the number one attraction for Chinese tourists. Surrounded by lakes and connected by canals and 14 stone bridges, Zhouzhuang will delight you despite its throngs of tourists.
Your tour should include a ride through the canals on one of the traditional Chinese style gondolas. Most of the gondoliers we saw were women and yes, they serenaded us.
Thanks to our tour snafu, we didn't have nearly enough time in this city of canals. Next time I'm allotting a full day here and saving my appetite for a taste of Zhouzhuang's specialty, Wansan Pig's Leg, an upper leg stewed in brown sauce over a low fire.
Tip: Tours will include admission tickets but if you go on your own, you need to buy an access ticket to the museums and houses of Zhouzhuang at one of the city gates.
Warning: Don't be surprised when you're sure another building has emerged in the skyline by the time you return to Shanghai!