Monday, April 28, 2014

A weekend in Suzhou (Part 1)

Ask a Chinese person to describe Sūzhōu 苏州, a canal town located in Jiāngsū Province 江苏省, and chances are pretty good that he or she will mention gardens, canals, silk or some combination thereof. Located a mere half-hour or so from Shànghăi 上海, it's a popular weekend/holiday destination - too popular, at times, in this day and age of growing affluence combined with ease of transportation. Our sleeping spot for this past weekend in Suzhou was the Píngjiāng Lodge 平江客栈, a 400-year residence with courtyards, gardens and delightful period-style rooms and furnishings. The only drawback to the place is the paper-thin walls, which keep privacy to a bare minimum. If this was how things were back then, it makes you wonder how so many Chinese came about being brought into this world:

Saturday morning in Suzhou. Our hotel was located on Pingjiang Lù 平江路, a cobblestone street parallel to one of the city's many canals and lined with numerous cafes and souvenir shops, a place where cats can chill in storefront windows:

Our first sightseeing destination was one of Suzhou's most famous gardens. The Lions' Grove 狮子林 is only one hectare (2.5 acres) in size. It was laid out by a Buddhist monk in 1350 and is noted for its supposedly lion-shaped rocks. The rocks form a kind of labyrinth, which was great fun for my daughter to explore. For me, however, the steady drizzle (it would rain for much of the time we were in Suzhou, though fortunately not too heavily) meant the surfaces were slippery, while the crowds (Suzhou and its famed gardens are overrun with tour groups led by megaphone-carrying guides) added to the maneuvering difficulties:

From the Lions' Grove, the busy street was an ideal place both to buy something made from silk...

...and to purchase a tasty snack from one of the many food stands:

Did I mention Suzhou is a canal town? We ended having lunch at the third restaurant from the left:

The Humble Administrator's Garden 拙政园 is so named because it was established back in 1509 by an official who was stripped of his duties to the point that he was left with only this garden. Five times the size of Lions' Grove, it's anything but humble, with floral displays, expanses of lawn and a bonsai garden:

Credit where credit is due: Amber would like it known that it was she, and not her father, who took this photo of a duck:

The Humble Administrator's Garden is impressive, but even so, we soon became gardened-out. Though its larger size made it feel less claustrophobic than Lions' Grove, the noise and bodies eventually became too much. What were once small, private intellectual retreats intended for quiet contemplation and consideration of Taoist philosophy are now just one more stop on a tour bus itinerary. Presumably a weekday morning would allow for a much better appreciation of the gardens' original intentions, but we didn't have that luxury on a Saturday before lunchtime:

In a change of pace from gardens, after lunch the three of us walked over to the North Temple Pagoda 北寺塔. Nine stories high, it's the tallest pagoda south of the Yangtze River 长江:

The city of Suzhou from 76 meters (249 feet) up:

The best thing about the pagoda was its height, for it kept the majority of the tour bus hordes from huffing and puffing their way up the stairs to the top. They also ignored the surrounding garden and temple, providing the first real peace and quiet since our arrival in Suzhou the previous evening:

Across the street from the North Temple Pagoda is the Suzhou Silk Museum 苏州丝绸博物馆, dedicated to Suzhou's 4000 year-old history of silk production. The displays are well-captioned in English, and there are examples of clothing, looms and so on...

...but the most fascinating exhibit had to be the live silkworms munching on mulberry leaves:

It was a long walk from the silk museum back to Pingjiang Lu:

After dinner, we debated whether we should check out the nightly music show put on for the tourists at yet another of Suzhou's famous gardens, the Garden of the Master of the Nets 网师园, but the combination of rain, high entry fees and the probability of having to flag down a cab led to the decision to take things easy that evening. So instead the girls went out to have their hair washed at a local salon, while your humble scribe took a stroll around a more modern area of Suzhou, discovering in the process where all the fast food outlets and chain stores had been hiding out:

To be continued...

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