Suzhou is far from as hip, as happening or as fun as Shanghai, although living here is still quite OK (Shanghai's only a mere 35 min train ride away). I find Suzhou a bit more outdoorsy-friendly than Shanghai... I like the fact that the bike lanes are wide (as I love riding a bike) and that you can go for a run without almost being hit by a car the moment you step out on the street (going for a run in central Shanghai isn't quite as much fun -unless you go in the middle of the night). I live in a rather new part of Suzhou, namely SIP -Suzhou's Industrial Park and everything over here is fairly new, shiny and neat (now, don't ask me why they have decided to call it 'industrial park' because this place is ten times more a family-friendly spot than some industrial zone, but I've come across so many funny names in China that I have stopped questioning).
Often when I take a taxi I engage in a chat with a taxi driver and they love telling me the story of how 'Suzhou is changing so much' and that 'Ten years ago none of this existed' (while doing a sweeping move with their hand, indicating at all the shining new buildings outside the car window). But SIP is growing steadily and new shopping centers/ living complexes are shooting up everywhere. Just the other day we rode our bikes across the Jinji Hu (big lake) bridge and entered SIP's newest pride: 'Times Square,' a square that consists of two shiny new malls, upscale shopping outlets, as well as a Starbucks, a Pizza Hut and a KFC -probably the three most popular western food places in China (don't quote me on that, but it seems that these three 'restaurants' tend to open up wherever a new shopping center in China is being built). I was personally quite excited about the Freshmart -a grocery shop that offers fresh sushi and an extensive (but expensive) selection of western yoghurt and cheese, but I found the rest of the square to be a bit boring and predictable. It's always the same. The same shops and the same, shiny new looks. Also, one thing that bothers me is that there are no good restaurants in those shiny new squares. There are no small little Chinese places with hand written menus, cheap dishes and chatty waiters -if you want to eat you will have to settle for fast food or some stiff looking new Chinese restaurant with super bright photo menus showing yellow looking dumplings and fried rice.
I prefer the older parts of Suzhou. The gardens, the Tiger Hill, the old lanes of Shi Lu where you can take a canal ride. I know these are now considered as real 'tourist traps' but at least they feel a bit more 'real' than the new, shiny Suzhou that is shaping up in the east part of the city. It's quite weird to watch how the contrast between 'old' and 'new' seem to be growing stronger for every day here in China. I personally hope that while Suzhou's city council is creating the 'new and shiny Suzhou' they keep at least some of the 'old, dirty lanes.' After all, those places are what makes China so charming. And so China.
On my way to Times Square
View from the bridge
Freshmart's sushi selection
Shi Lu canal ride
A touristy snap from Tiger Hill