Water Trilogy -2…….SUZHOU

WATER TRILOGY – 2……….Suzhou

On way to Suzhou…the color green

From the mysteriously prosaic Shanghai we drive to Soochow or Suzhou cocooned in shimmering silken legends of antiquity and a refreshing introduction to a different face of China.

View from hotel window

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, guided by the setting sun 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.

IMG_0235Suzhou’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, temple 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….Wanjing Villa

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 being followed verbatim down centuries, as 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.

Yunyan 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.

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 from 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 make cases and caskets to be given to the girl. I was really impressed by the convenient and unobtrusive way of finding matches, especially, in comparison to present day Indian matrimonial columns and dating sites. The few ‘modern’ courtyards we passed were bereft of the ‘Daughter’ tree.

Our embroidery purchase

From ‘Daughter Tree’ the talk veered towards Silk embroidery and in particular Su embroidery. Possibly in continuation to romance of marriages, girls embroidered presents to please their future mothers-in-law and would spend hours bent over pieces of silk. We visited the Suzhou Institute of Embroidery and could have stayed all 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. One can buy embroidery pieces from stores and workshops on Embroidery street, but this was the particular Su style of embroidery, double-sided embroidery, where one single piece of cloth displays the same subject or picture.

IMG_0223The visit to Suzhou silk factory was an unraveling of silk production and we watched fascinated the entire birth sequence, from pupae feeding on delicate mulberry leaves, wrapping themselves in cocoons and the unraveling of the strands to produce shimmering silk fabrics and lightweight duvets. We picked up silk scarves, soft and graceful, as keepsake.

Wedding gowns on sale

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.

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 assembled 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.

unnamed-9Whatever 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 give 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.

IMG_2095One can sit for hours in the quietness of the pagoda in the courtyard 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 and skirts and 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.

unnamed-2From 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 tolled to pray 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.

IMG_1815Any visit to Suzhou is incomplete without sashaying down the canals of this ‘Venice of the East”. There were no shades of Venice in our matter of fact boat ride and instead of prolonging the agony of the boatman preferred the colorful 3.2 kilometers pedestrian/cultural Shantang Street or Baigong Di along the meandering Shantang River. This street, flanked by ancient temples, ancestral halls, memorial arches and guildhalls, was the gift of BaiJuyi, a Tang Dynasty poet who wanted to connect the street with Tiger Hill. This “First Street of Suzhou’, boasting of 1100 year, history retains its original character transforming itself into a roulade of gleaming red lanterns and music wafting from the eateries, pubs and residences. The famousBantang Bridge is the divider between the eastern section, fromDuseng Bridge inChangmen, 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.

IMG_0236 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 China towns require prolonged visits to know more about their antiquity. Suzhou belongs to this category.

unnamed-112. Mid-way between Shanghai and Suzhou we had stopped for lunch break at Zhouzhuang, a water town straddling the Yangtze River Delta. 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 unnamed-10imagine the tiptoeing around of the inmates, the servants and minions, conforming to societal restrictions.

IMG_1799But 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, named after Shen Wansan, was once the prerogative of the rich. 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.

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.

Lot 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.

unnamed-12The 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.


The Water Trilogy

IMG_1976Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou….the picture-perfect water towns intrinsically tied to the Aqua around them shaping the interactions of their inhabitants with their geographical and historical landscapes. The three towns retain their personal identity fueled by a modern and industrialized persona.

Shanghai, rain spattered and mysterious on that typhoonisque afternoon of September 2014 was out of step from it’s centuries old spaces of ‘hamlet-by-the-sea’, the ‘agricultural fiefdom’ of Chinese landowners, the ‘gangster city’ of warlords and drug cartels, the ‘deficit city’ of Colonial war games, the ‘dangerous and endangered’ town during Japanese occupation. The present was a fairy tale city, albeit slightly eerie, of multi dimensional lights streaming through skyscrapers, government housing, luxury hotels and iconic mansions.

Marcel Proust had famously said that ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes’. (The Captive,” Remembrance of Things Past). This was my second visit to Shanghai and similar to the previous visit 48 hours is insufficient to gauge a city, especially a humongous one like Shanghai. The one consolation were Suzhou and Hangzhou, cities connected by their cultural relevance to the Yangtze River water system, were included in the tour.

IMG_1975The inclement weather failed to dampen my enthusiasm for another rendezvous with a continuously changing city and a quick check in at Holiday Inn Vista and we were on our way for lunch somewhere near the Bund. The food turned out to be as bland as the weather, a sentiment shared by the elderly American couple on their first visit to Shanghai. Their cab driver had brought them to this restaurant and their plight was similar to mine in a city/country where language is a major problem. On first trip despite my friend drawing a chicken, flapping her arms to denote a bird, we were still served beef. (https://travtrails.wordpress.com/2010/07/20/shanghai-36-hours/)

Sunshine or typhoon a stroll on the 1.5 kilometers Bund (a Persian-Hindustani word for embankment), the riverfront boardwalk along western side of Huangpu River is a must to watch a city weave its silken tentacles around the architectural bounty on both sides of the River. Standing by the railing, watching the river, fluid and adaptable, rush past oblivious of its surroundings, it is difficult to picture the Bund as a narrow muddy lane and docking area for steamships trolling in the waters. The Bund was and is the lifeline of the city and there were others like us, tourists, youngsters, elderly clutching on to umbrellas, some drenched, enjoying the romanticism of the moment.

The Colonial ViewThe Bund, also called Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu (East Zhongshan 1st Road) is a symbol of an anecdotal Shanghai. Another story was added, on New Year’s Eve 2014, of the stampede killing more than 36 people and injuring others. Crowds are a bane and one has to be aware and agile when facing a surge. We did experience stampede situation but body touching, push and shove is normal given the number of local tourists traveling within their country.

Peace FairmontOur ferry ride on the Huangpu River cancelled, due to typhoon, so a few minutes more in the cool gusty winds and we crossed over to Nanjing road and Fairmont Peace Hotel, once the Sassoon House (No.20 The Bund) built by Sir Victor Sassoon. The hotel refurbished, retaining its earlier Art Deco glamour, especially the rotunda, and the photo gallery of famous guests, events and galas transport one to its extravagant era. A few minutes stroll  in the lobby and sampling, few visitors doing the same, the plush sofas and the ambience, it was back to reality stepping out into the cacophony of Nanjing Road, once the residential area of affluent locals. It is now a busy commercial center with East Nanjing Road a pedestrian friendly cobbled street flanked by malls and fast food outlets replacing Shanghai’s old retail shops and traditional eateries. The Central Market, a century-old outdoor market specializing in electronic components and digital media is a popular destination for locals and tourists.

Nanjing RoadThe street was crowded with tour groups and shoppers, a perfect purse dipping magnet but since we were not interested in shopping headed for the closest Starbucks. I think our guide needed that cup of coffee and had adroitly shepherded us there. The road continues on to West Nanjing Road with more markets and narrower streets and lanes.

French ConcessionDinner at 6 pm was the cut off ‘tour’ time and we still had to visit Xintiandi, the slice of colonial French Concession and now the avant-garde artistic and food hub of the city. The Xintandi retains its French smirkiness and the narrow cobbled lanes flaunt uppity designer boutiques, stores and eateries and reconditioned shikumen or arch-gate houses converted into showpiece and commercial outlets.  A walk in the tree-lined avenues starting from corner of Wukang and Hunan is the green way to enjoy the area but with the overcast skies and rain, there was not much Xintiadiscope and somehow I am not the one to dance in the rain. We did enter a Shikumen, usually two to three storeys with stone arches at main entrance, for a look at the decor and lifestyle of its earlier Shanghaiinhabitants. There was a gift shop on one side of the ground floor with the house entrance cordoned off leading to the living area and bedrooms on the upper floors.  It was a Chinese household with a western touch, a rich man’s house going by the decor and living style. But with so much of Chinese artifacts readily available in world markets the real has limited attraction now unless one can differentiate between authentic and fake.

FullSizeRenderThe main attraction of this visit was the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Pudong Park in Lujiazui. Well, it was a disaster, as far as scenic view concerned, because of sunless sky and intermittent rain. The 468 meters tower, the world’s sixth and China’s second tallest TV and radio tower, is a complete entertainment center with restaurants, shops and viewing area in the main ‘Pearl’ with smaller spheres or ‘Pearls’ with their own utilities. Probably every visitor to Shanghai felt similarly as the place was crowded and our guide, knowing better, shepherded us towards the serpentine queue for the double-decker elevators zooming up and down at the rate of seven meters per second, for the Aerial Sightseeing Corridor-Walking on the Clouds.

IMG_2203This section, in 2nd Sphere of the Tower, is the most sought after spot 259 meters above the ground for a panoramic view of the Huangpu River and the city under your feet. It is like walking in space and on this day the niveous clouds played spoil sport. I was waiting and so were others, click- ready, and slightest movement of clouds sent the cameras and cell phones into a tizzy. Weather did not hinder the crowds from taking selfies sprawled on the fiber-glass floor or posing against the sides.

nanjing Road exhibitBefore the crowds got too intrusive we moved on towards other attractions, the Shanghai Municipal History Museum in the tower’s pedestal. It is a must see for its interactive history through relics, documents, pictures and advanced audio-visual presentations of different periods of the city’s history. The show, made up of 6 parts, presents Shanghai through different stages of its metamorphosis from leased territories to its present urban city life and political changes.

There is nothing that defines Shanghai more than the present Shanghainese pretentiousness of being a world-class city. There was no slow cumulative eclipse of its cultural and social eminence rather a sudden interruption of growth with the rise of other cities on the political radar. The old world charm is missing or lost and as a resident of the city explained that it is the ‘culture in Shanghai’ rather than ‘Shanghai culture’ that is being exemplified by preserving historically famous buildings and avenues. One has to live in the city to understand the centuries old paradox of a twirling parasol, seductive and enigmatic.

48 hours over we were on way to Suzhou, the second city in the ‘Water trilogy’.