There's great noodles in Suzhou. Not just anywhere, but in a forgotten corner of a temple at the top of a bamboo-covered mountain -- Lingyan Shan. It's basically a China fantasy, this noodle place. On the walk up the many, many stone steps, there are fortune tellers and palanquins and occasionally young monks lounging in the bamboo, reading whatever it is that monks read. Behind the Dijon mustard-colored walls of the temple, before you get to the central courtyard full of BBQ smoke, there's a grip of old, old volunteers doling out excessively good shitake mushroom and fresh bamboo shoot noodles (shuanggu mian).
It has the air of a state-run business about it, with its bloated staff, napping workers, blue jackets, and system of paying one person at a ticket counter and taking a thin voucher to the cooks to collect. But Lingyan temple's noodle joint is ridiculously charming and atmospheric, and its hand-made noodles are splendid. There's a cranky nun who fancies the place, and when one of the old, old cooks isn't fishing the noodles out of a monstrous cauldron or topping them with shitake mushroom, button mushroom, and fresh bamboo shoot, and splashing on the deeply savory mushroom broth, he's sitting by the counter, listening to Chinese pop from the 50's on his tinny, portable radio.
Light pours in through a bunch of maroon windows, and the windows themselves frame a window over the forest and to the
I stumbled on it a few months ago, while wandering the area on bike and wondering what was in the pagoda jutting out of the top of the hill. I keep riding out there -- there's great mountain biking on some disused tank trails -- and every time I do, I dutifully climb the stone steps, surrounded by Suzhou kids with impossibly teased hair and grannies in sneakers hauling up incense, to have lunch at the temple. I'm not one for temples. But I am one for good noodles, and I've since come to learn that Lingyan Shan temple's noodles have a reputation in Suzhou. To the ever unreliable hordes at Dianping.com, and their scores of comments, the noodles are too expensive (priciest noodle: 10rmb), "not as good as before" (myth-making or not, they're still excellent), and the environment is too shabby. To me, they're perfect, and that's without trying the other noodle they occasionally have, the one confusingly called just shitake mushroom noodles (xianggu mian; 10rmb), which uses youmianjin -- those hollow, fried globes of dough that look like deflated balloons when they're dropped in soup and taste like a great, chewy dumpling skin -- in place of button mushrooms. I'm sure it's just as good, though they don't always have it.
Lingyan Shan Temple is on top of Lingyan Shan, which is itself on the western outskirts of Suzhou, near Mudu Town. It's touristy and costs 1rmb to enter the temple, but climbing to the top and visiting all the special boulders and things is free if you enter from the back of the mountain. Follow the tourist faff trail. The front of the mountain has special, expensive gardens to visit, probably with more rocks and boulders, but no noodles. From the Suzhou train station, renting a minibus to Lingyan Shan costs somewhere in the neighborhood of 65rmb and takes about twenty minutes.