Re sharing my China series to remember the country as ‘the unfathomable Orient’.
In the present Covid-19 stay-at-home stage scrolling through my China Travel series I realize that that the country has and will remain an enigma. Living in Hong Kong (2008-2016) once-a-week trips across the border to Shenzhen were a must. The reason was good/passable pedicure/manicure depending on money spent, bargain hunting for the fake real designer bags and apparel. In between there were trips to other cities (China is too expansive) and it helped understand, to some extent, the history and geography of the country. In 2014 we undertook a week-long road trip from Shanghai to the watertowns Hangzhou, Suzhou and Zhouzhang, and were reverentially awed by the heritage woven into the social and cultural fabric of this different China. Hope to be able to make another trip soon.
We started early morning on a personalised tour with own driver and guide. This gave us a chance to relax, ask questions as we had asked for an English speaking guide. Green fields greeted us as mysteriously prosaic as Shanghai and a brief stop at a rest area, humongous, we arrive in Soochow or Suzhou cocooned in shimmering silken legends of antiquity and a refreshing introduction to a different face of China.
Suzhou: The drizzle-y weather fails to dampen the two-hour car journey along panoramic green fields speckled with occasional farm hands and blue motorized carts, as we enter Suzhou, situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Yangtze River Delta) on the shores of Lake Tai, with the setting sun as our guide through haphazard traffic and congested lanes. This is Suzhou in its present incarnation, a center of industry and commerce and one of China’s fast developing industrial cities. From our hotel room window, Holiday Inn Youlian Hotel, located close to the old town of canals and pagodas and the new of industrial parks and hi-tech zones, I see roofs of communal housing, blue and muted, lifeless and faceless.
A quick change and we are out on the roads. Suzhou’s past splendor is everywhere — in once-grand houses lining centuries-old canals that make their way under still-existing 6,000 stone bridges, and in the many gardens, temples and markets. Marco Polo, the intrepid Italian traveler had described 13th century Suzhou as “Heaven on Earth”, referring to the 6000 bridges ‘such that one or two galleys could readily pass beneath them and where the citizens of this city, men of enormous wealth and consequence hobnobbed with philosophers, the literati and physicians schooled in nature’. *
Tiger Hill Garden: The best way to unravel the antiquity of Suzhou is to move around on foot, in a rickshaw or to glide down its canals. With time constraints we had no choice but to move around on four wheels and our introduction to ‘ancient’ Suzhou began with Tiger Hill Garden, a massive treasure hunt set in 4000 acres. Su Shi, the famous Song Dynasty poet had said “It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill’. I suppose his advice is followed verbatim down centuries and Tiger Hill is a popular tourist destination with visitors flocking the gardens, the stony pathways leaving poetic and calligraphic evidence on rocks and pillars.
From a distance Tiger Hill takes on a shape of a crouching tiger but legend has it that a white Tiger had appeared on the hill to guard the burial spot of King Helü of Wu and hence the name Tiger Hill. We followed our Guide and the crowds via the Wanjing Villa showcasing pot plants and Bonsai shrubs/trees, a specialty of Suzhou, covering an area of about 1,700 square meters; the Sword Pond (Jianchi) the watery hiding place of the treasured swords of Helu and past more selfie-clicking tourists to the famous landmark, the 1000-year-old Yunyan Pagoda or the Leaning Pagoda.
This is Suzhou’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Italy, and according to travel brochures is taller and predates the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The 48 meter tall brick pagoda with seven stories and eight sides dates its existence to the Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960) when Wu was one of the rulers. The Tower, completed in 961 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), started to lean during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). This symbol of Suzhou is a stone replica of earlier wooden pagodas and the existing wood brackets and lintels are mainly decorative.
Tree Tales: On way to our next tourist stop our Guide pointed out the ‘Daughter Tree’ and I still have to figure out the English name of the tree. More than the tree it was the story associated with it that was interesting. The tree, synonymous with birth of daughter, was planted in the family courtyard and nurtured along with the new-born. With successive years the growing tree was visible over the walls and people knew that there was a daughter of marriageable age in the family. Proposals from boy’s families would follow and once marriage fixed the tree was cut and the wood used to assemble cases and caskets to be given to the girl. I was really impressed by the convenient and unobtrusive way of finding matches especially when compared with present day Indian matrimonial columns and Western dating sites. There were no signs of ‘Daughter Trees’ in the ‘modern’ courtyards we passed. Probably a sign of changing times.
From ‘Daughter Tree’ the talk veered towards Silk embroidery, particularly Su embroidery, The romance of marriages encouraged girls to embroider presents to please their future mothers-in-law. They would spend hours bent over pieces of silk to showcase their talents. I was reminded about another ancient Chinese custom of ‘foot binding’ to have tiniest feet possible; all this in name of suitable matches.
Silken Threads: We stopped at the Suzhou Institute of Embroidery and could have stayed entire day watching the end products slithering out of artistic fingers transforming squares, rectangles into works of art. The patience of each stitch, the technique, and the skill was a needle stroke of excellence. Embroidered pieces are available in stores and workshops on Embroidery Street, but this was the particular Su style of embroidery, double-sided embroidery where one single subject or picture on both sides of the cloth.
Another must visit tourist place is the Suzhou silk factory for unraveling of silk production. It is a fascinating journey, the entire birth sequence from pupae, watch them feed on delicate mulberry leaves, then wrapping themselves in cocoons and finally the unraveling of the strands to produce shimmering silk fabrics and lightweight duvets. We picked up silk scarves, soft and graceful, as keepsake.
Silken threads continue to mesmerize as we gawk at the wedding gowns on the fairytale ‘wedding’ street at foothill of Huqiu or Tiger Hill. The entire street and surrounding alleys and lanes are devoted to wedding gowns of different shapes, sizes and colors from 500 RMB onwards to cater to different tastes and pockets.
The Master of the Nets Garden: Chinese landscaping is a blend of art and nature and in 13th-century Suzhou landscaping art reached its zenith. There are more than 200 gardens, private as well as public, representing the garden styles of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The reason for the profusion of gardens was that the region south of the Yangtze River had produced some of China’s most refined scholars, painters and poets and the gardens were their personal property and their refuge from life’s disillusions and also place to create art, poetry and music. We have time for only one, the Master of the Nets Garden designed during the latter part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The Master of the Nets Garden or the ‘Ten Thousand Volume Hall’, was constructed in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi the Deputy Civil Service Minister of the Southern Song Dynasty government. The story is that the owner of Master of Net’s garden was grateful to a fisherman for saving his daughter from drowning and named the Garden after him. A more prosaic version is that the owner, a bureaucrat, got disillusioned with his government job and proclaimed that he would rather be a fisherman than a government official.
Whatever the reason, nature lovers are grateful for this ‘miniaturization of the larger universe’ with rock formations, placement of trees, ponds, pavilions and resting areas and the immaculate zigzag tile patterns, intuitively one does not stomp, that gives an impression that one has traversed great distances. The rockeries, waterfalls, paths and corridors are perfectly placed amidst shrubs, trees and flowers, including the Longevity Bridge, a miniature arched bridge in the Central Garden. Our Guide made us step up and down to increase the years in our lives.
One can sit for hours in the quietness of the pagoda, lulled by the peaceful ambience of the Garden. I look around at groups and solitary artists engrossed in capturing the scenes in their note books and wonder what they must be thinking. Or like me imagining the jeans/skirts/sneakers transform into silken robes with feet encased in silken embroidered shoes, flitting between trees, pavilions and rockeries.
The 5,400 meter garden is divided into three main sections: the Residential Garden, the Central Garden and the Inner Garden. The buildings, such as the Hall for Staying Spring, the Ming Scholar’s Studio, the Peony Study, the Watching Pines Studio and the Appreciating Painting Studio are easily accessible from the garden. The high point of the Central section is a lotus-filled pond, the Rosy Cloud Pool set amidst a limestone “mountain” and the poetically sounding ‘Washing My Ribbon Pavilion’. The name resonates with a fisherman’s song… “If the water of the Canglang River is clean, I wash the ribbon of my hat. If the water of the Canglang River is dirty, I wash my feet.” This is another China, of history, memory, and even nostalgia.
A brief stop for tea at the gift shop and we stepped out of a masterpiece into reality of gift sellers hawking mementos.The best time to visit is during April and May when blossoming flowers add color to the greys and browns or during Fall for a different take on the canvas.
Temple Tour: From the Garden to the Temple was in natural sequence of events and Hanshan Temple or Cold Mountain Temple, a Buddhist temple and monastery in about 10,600 square meters did not disappoint. The temple, located near Fengqiao about 5 km west of the old city of Suzhou, owes it fame to a poem, “A Night Mooring near Maple Bridge”, by Zhang Ji, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet. The Bell of Zhang Ji’s poem had disappeared a long time ago and the present bell in the tower is a re-modeled version. Every year on New Year’s Eve in China’s lunar calendar, the bell is rung for the happiness and safety of the coming New Year.
A quick walk around the Grand Prayer Hall, the Sutra-Collection Building, Bell Tower, Fengjiang Pavilion and Tablets Corridor and the symbolic 42 meters Puming Pagoda, a five-storey Buddhist pagoda erected in 1995. The other historical relics in the temple are the statues of the Buddhist patriarch Sakyamuni in the Grand Prayer Hall and of the three eminent monks, Xuan Zang, Jian Zhen and Kong Hai.
The famous Bantang Bridge is the divider between the eastern section, from Duseng Bridge in Changmen, showcasing old residences and shops and the West part, from the Tiger Hill, the scenic area.When we left, at 5 p.m. the street was already filling up with young and old, families and companions for a slice of the exotic. Close on its heels is the 1000 years old Pingjiang Road, once home to literary scholars, high officials, and members of the nobility and the best-preserved cultural-protection zone of old Suzhou.
A major disadvantage of conducted tours is time packaging and as I said earlier China towns require prolonged stays to know more about their antiquity. Suzhou belongs to this category.
Zhouzhuang: Next water town on our itinerary straddles the Yangtze River Delta, mid-way between Shanghai and Suzhou. It was our lunch break before proceeding to Hangzhou. The blatant commercialization with gated entrance, ticket booths and accompanying amenities takes away the aquatic feel of this Qing and Ming dynastic throwback.
Busloads of tourists, locals and visitors, pour in at regular intervals to relax or appear bored at the contrived natural settings disbursed for a 100 RMB ticket. Avoiding the frenzied sellers we walk along the waterfront, mesmeric picture postcard scenery of loopy willows and bobbing boats and daily life rituals.
It is a small town dominated by mansions and canals and our first stop is a refurbished Shen house, located to the southeast of Fu’an Bridge on Nanshi Street, constructed by one Shen Benren, a wealthy merchant,in 1742 during the Qing Dynasty. The mansion, encapsulated within five archways, seven courtyards and more than 100 rooms of different sizes, is a brick and mortar wealth impression put together in an area of 2000 square meters and built along both sides of a 100-m-long axis. The connecting courtyards are surrounded by dwelling quarters and to reach the inner most courtyard a visitor had to pass through 5 gates and winding corridors. The house is a maze and one can imagine the tiptoeing around of the inmates, the servants and minions, conforming to societal restrictions.
But more picturesque and unique were the fading, dilapidated water front houses, once white with blue roofs hidden by willow curtains dipping in the greenish waters of connecting canals.
Lunch was in one of the old family restaurants along the river, and on the next table I could see a family enjoying the famous Wansan pork shank, a specialty of Zhongzhuang. The dish, once the prerogative of the rich, named after Shen Wansan, one of the richest men in the area south of the Yangtze River. The mansion, built by one of his descendants, is still preserved flouting the exquisite carved decorations and artefacts. We took a tour of the mansion, it was crowded, and we queued up for a turn to gawk.
The Wansan Pork Shank is prepared by slowly stewing whole pork shanks (thighs, or upper legs) in large crockery pots flavored with special spices and herbs for nearly 24 hours till the flavors infuse into the meat. The meat is then sliced, garnished with fresh herbs, and served on platters as the main dish of the banquet. Listening to the Guide talk about the pork and pastries had certainly made me hungry.Now on hindsight I wonder how we salivated on the dish….no virus scare then.
Tea Drinking: Another unique Zhouzhang custom is tea drinking referred to by various names: “Grandma’s Tea Drinking”, “Spring Tea Tasting”, “Full Moon Tea Drinking”, “Pleasure Tea Drinking”, and ” Tea Talking”, all of which belong to the tea drinking custom of “Sado South of the Yangtze River”. (Sado being a reference to the very refined and highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony sometimes spelled Chado.) The’ Grandmas tea drinking’ was an elaborate ritual involving collecting rain water, instead of tap water, in large, free-standing ‘dragon’ water vats placed permanently in the courtyard. The collected water was then tapped into special crocks and brought to a boiling point over an open-air wood fire. The boiled water was poured over the tea leaves in an urn and made to ‘sit’ for some time and then the tea transferred into a pre heated teapot.
To much of hard work for a simple cup of tea but I suppose it encouraged social interactions between different age groups. One could see the special Zhouzhuang tea sets, brightly glazed blue and white porcelain on special lacquered, trays in the shops.
The high spots of this water town are the stone bridges spanning the river and the waterways. The prominent one’s are the twin bridges, Shide and Yong, constructed between 1573 and 1619 and referred to as Key bridges as each bridge has one square and one round opening similar to ancient keys. The other bridges from the Ming and Qing dynasties are the Fu’an Bridge, a 1355 single arch bridge with towers at each end, at east end of Zhongshi Street across Nanbeishi River and the Zhenfeng Bridge spanning Zhongshi River and connecting Zhenfeng Lane and Xiwan Street.
Our next stop is Hangzhou….another legendry water town set amidst tea gardens and lakes.