Suzhou...city of canals and bridges and computer factories. Arguably the best place in China to be and to live. Much of it is modern and some of it- such as the residential areas of the Suzhou Industrial Park district out east- is clean and new and nice and would not be out of place in a Western city.
But the old towns are the best part. A doorway or alleyway can take you back 500 years...old homes, market stalls, twisty narrow streets, the whole bit.
Suzhou is a great place to live. It has a number of foreigner-friendly touches. There are some tolerable (if pricey) foreign restaurants, and other goodies are available at Carrefour and Auchan and Metro. There are also numerous expat bars, mostly scattered along ShiQuan Jie, or the Guan Qin Jie walking street area. Two are truly great bars, at least on better nights: The Shamrock on Shi Quan Jie (my current roost of choice- I can't drink now but I sip my diet Coke and order their tasty chook and chips and talk to my friends) and Harry's Bar on the Lindun Road edge of Guan Qin Jie. Harry's has one of the best Filipino bar bands in China.
If you are the randy decadent sort of expat- and who isn't?- Suzhou is the Pink Light Capital of China. All that Suzhou money has the girls flocking in from across the region and across China. Scads of "beauty salons" (the kind without scissors or shampoo, if you catch my drift) on about every street. Many of the bars are crawling with, uh, professional ladies so if this is not what you want then choose your bar carefully. You can find bars that are legit here. The Shamrock and Harry's are legit, as are Pulp Fiction, Whiskey Jack, Q's, and the Backstreet Bar. (These other bars, personally, make my skin crawl. But that's just me.)
The economy is strong...one of the world's strongest. There are JV factories as far as the eye can see...but these are sequestered in the Suzhou Industrial Park and the Suzhou New District out on the edges of town. Suzhou's GDP has surpassed that of Shenzhen, a much larger city. Suzhou is the world's largest maker of notebook computers.
If you want more than Suzhou can offer, Shanghai is only 24 minutes away by the new CRH trains. I go there to eat, shop, or party sometimes, but I think the living is better in Suzhou.
Suzhou also has perhaps the highest per capita concentration of English speakers in China. It's easy to find help, conversation, and friends if you want them.
Suzhou train station is a boiling mass of cast-off humanity. Unusually bad even in the context of Chinese train stations. Animal behavior and theft are rampant. Be aware there.
Taxi drivers are either jewels, or people who were thrown out of the train station as undesirables. They are very much kings of their own 4-wheeled domains. There's a taxi call service (6777 6777 ext 1) but it's a complete joke.
Summers are unimaginably horrible...maybe worse than the deep south but mercifully not as long. Temps in the 40s and thanks to the canals about 250% humidity.
There are a number of "beauty shots" of Suzhou over in the Photo Album. So here are some shots of my (former- I've moved!) little corner of the world, the Dong Gang- a nice quiet little working-class neighborhood, bordering a canal of the working variety.
Won't you take me to...Funkytown? The street where I lived...
Also the street where I lived. My place was somewhere along the apartment monolith to the left.
This delightful little girl is part of the enormous mob of migrants from Qinghai that provides vital la mian
services for our neighborhood.
Market on the bridge spanning the canal junction, with old town behind it if you can make it out.
Old houses along the canal. Fascinating to watch...the people here have completely adapted the canal into their lifestyle.
Our area is where a lot of the canal barges come to anchor for the night. Many of the barges are operated by families who also live on the boat. Note the girl washing her hair over the stern of the barge.
Parked barges. I sleep better knowing that huge bargeloads of chemicals are parked about a block away every night.
Making that hard left turn. Note the person using a long pole to help turn the barge.
The entrance to the neighborhood vegetable market. Pretty big and one of the best I've ever seen. You can also buy meat, fish/seafood, household goods, and more here. One lady was selling a large orange mesh bag of live frogs, but she declined to let me photograph it. Probably something in the frogs' contracts.
Not sure what we're standing in line for here, but it had better be pretty fucking magnetic. I actually stood in the line quite a while to find out what could possibly be this good, but the line never moved so I bolted. It appears to be some kind of cakes being cooked in an elaborate machine out on the street, then stamped on one side with highly toxic bright red dye. (Turns out these are traditional Suzhou-style moon cakes. They're only sold around the Mid-Autumn festival...and yes, they ARE pretty fucking magnetic. Worth waiting in line for.)
Boyz N The Hood. When you encounter a gang of street toughs like these, it's a good idea to photograph them so's you can pick them out in the police lineup later.Icebear
(who asked about winter in Suzhou),
if you break it down to numbers it doesn't sound so bad...and I guess compared to places like Alaska or Canada or DongBei it ISN'T so bad.
Low temp: around freezing. Rarely freezes here at all...average low maybe around 1-5C.
Days of snow on the streets: Zero. If it snows at all, you just get a few minutes of pretty. I frankly wish it snowed a bit more...all those eaved roofs and cedar trees are mighty pretty with a dusting of snow.
Warm snaps? Yes. Or at least not-so-cold snaps.
Don't let all this make you think the winters aren't cold...they are. It's very windy a lot. The air here is very, VERY wet and the cold really gets in your bones. A lot of places here are uninsulated, drafty, and either underheated or not heated at all. We don't get the bitter blasts of the north, but you will most definitely want a good warm coat, gloves, and other warm clothes here.
Your apartment should at least be comfortable, especially if you spring for one of those electric oil-filled radiator things. MAKE SURE YOUR APARTMENT HAS HEAT! One poor sod I know <ahem> rented a place here...the wall units turned out to be cooling only, no heat. And no fun.
Right now, as of this reposting on the new Saloon, Suzhou is having sort of a Golden Age. Lots of very cool people here and a great social scene. It's a marvelous place to be right now. The job market is tightening, though. Most of the private schools and "training centers" here (notably Westbourne, Lynch, Hong N, EF) have terrible track records of teacher abuse and outright stealin', and should be avoided. Others, especially Web International and its clone schools, may be less weaselly but still just not a good deal for what they want from you. One or two private schools are still hopefully on the watch list. IVT and some other unis/colleges here can be good places to work. JV schools at Suzhou University seem so-so but have the same issues as most other JV schools (see the Teaching Venues Overview thread in the main Library...). Suzhou University proper is a pretty well-regarded institution overall, but their English department's administration seems to have gone completely nuts and I can't recommend going there. The public schools are quite good in Suzhou. Private/International primary, middle and high schools are a very mixed bag and should be checked on individually.