Saturday, May 3, 2014

China: Suzhou I

Above, there is heaven; below, there is Suzhou and Hangzhou
上有天堂,下有苏杭 (shàng yǒu tiāntáng, xià yǒu sūháng)
            - Chinese proverb

When the May Day holiday* (International Labor Day) coincided with beautiful, warm, sunny weather, we decided to venture out of Shanghai to explore the city once known as the "Venice of the East" -- Suzhou.

Suzhou, founded in 514 BC, boasts a 2500 year history.  During that time, it has held a place as one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze basin, the cradle of Wu culture, one of the world's largest cities (no longer), and an important commercial and cultural center.  Marco Polo visited in 1276; many other Europeans have followed over the centuries, drawn by the city's beauty and prowess in silk.

Suzhou, to the delight of tourists and commuters, is quite close to Shanghai (thanks to trains and urban sprawl, it's rapidly morphing into a Shanghai suburb).  The high speed rail (gāotiě, 高铁), running at up to 300 km/hr, connects the two cities in under 30 minutes; the normal-speed train takes an hour.  Suzhou was once known for its waterways, canals which wind their way through town.  While many of the canals have been paved over in the past decade of industrialization, some do remain -- especially in the old quarter (read: tourist quarter).  The main tourist draw now is the classical gardens, renowned as some of the finest in China and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The gardens "represent the development of Chinese landscape garden design over more than two thousand years."

From the train station, we took a cab to the Garden of the Master of the Nets (aka Netmaster Garden, wǎngshīyuán, 网师园).  Originally laid out in the 12th century, it was restored in the 18th century by a government official-turned-fisherman -- hence the name.  In traditional Chinese style, the garden is an artful juxtaposition of rocks and water and plants, arranged through a labyrinth of courtyards to create idealized miniature landscapes.  It is a garden meant to be appreciated in quiet contemplation, a feat admittedly complicated by the hordes of loud tourists.

A motorbike ride through the hutong delivered us to Suzhou Park (Sūzhōu gōngyuán, 苏州公园) which, like the classical gardens, is impressively landscaped.  Unlike the classical gardens, however, this park is off the typical tourist track.  It's full of locals, dancing, singing, practicing tai chi, and fishing.  Singing and dancing is common in our park in Shanghai, too -- it's one of the things I find endearing about China.

Despite the innumerable tour groups which do just that, hurriedly rushing from garden to garden on a tight schedule is not the proper way to appreciate their serenity and delicate artistry.  We took our time and visited one more garden: Lion Grove Garden (shīzǐ lín yuán, 狮子林园), which dates back to 1342.  Its name is derived from the large taihu rocks, some of which are said to resemble lions.  Lion Grove Garden features a large, labyrinthine rock grotto around a lake at its center. We stayed until closing time when, in true China fashion, Kenny G's "Going Home" was piped through the gardens.

We'll definitely be back soon!

* Thurs - Sat.  In America, we float many of our holidays to make three-day weekends (Sat - Mon).  In China, they like to observe the holiday on the actual holiday.  Since May 1 fell on a Thursday this year, we had Thursday and Friday off.  But, since Friday isn't technically a holiday, we need to "give back" the day by working on Sunday.  I'm not a fan.

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