The most frustrating part about travelling is trying to capture the trip by carefully writing down highlights, along with the not so pleasant aspects, with everything still fresh in the memory bank. Of course with pictures. Which I may have deleted. Imagine, after using up several hours overnight at an airport finishing a piece to share with anyone interested, discovering that it is not there! Seems I forgot to save my draft about my visit to Suzhou. Which is why I have always take notes!
I started out with good intentions to take the subway to the train station. Once I carried my pack down the first set of stairs I quickly changed my mind and walked back up to find a taxi. It was here I decided that saving money should never mean sacrificing my back. It also meant less likelihood of falling over and landing on my back like a turtle – sometimes that fine balance between remaining upright and tipping is wobbly.
‘Darkened forbidding hallway – Doorbell unanswered – Modern technology call’
I have no idea why I am wanting to think in a simplified haiku form – perhaps a need for less chaos? The above had me momentarily rethinking my choices for accommodation. I had the number for the hostel, I had my new Chinese number, I was at the door and it was still relatively early – no real need to panic. Once I connected with the owner I was able to go up to drop off my bags but had to wait a few hours before checking in. That seemed reasonable at the time. Divested of my bags I walked, in a drizzle, to the Suzhou Museum. I had forgotten how grossly people here underestimate distance – plus the fact I thought the man at the hostel was stressing blocks, not km. However, although it felt like 5km a look at my tracker showed it was indeed about 3km. So this time it was not out of range. It is also far too common to be given the wrong directions rather than be told ” buzhidao” – I don’t know. The best way to avoid being incorrect but still helpful is the hand wave in whichever direction is thought to be correct.
Suzhou, China’s Vienna, the city where Marco Polo is said to have spent much of his time. Like where I am from, Victoria Canada, a city of gardens. It is in the setting of gardens that the museum was built. I had wanted to see the Suzou Museum after watching the documentary, “I.M. Pei: Building China Modern” about the architect and his dream for the museum. It is a simple design, fits into the area and invites the outdoor & indoor environments to be enjoyed. Designed by I.M. Pei, who was well into his seventies during the construction, this was like a gift from him to Suzhou. He is perhaps best known for designing the Louvre Pyramide. However, the Suzhou Museum was also a work of love.
Pei incorporated elements of light, air, water, and fauna to create spaces that invite visitors to linger. The entrance looks onto Lotus Pond and has two wings for exhibits. Yes, it did seem the standard artifacts were in abundance in addition to local finds, but, the lack of a mish-mash of items thrown in to fill space shows care in what is included – and what was not. I was quite taken by the simplicity of the scholar’s study, it was not just crowded into a corner like so many other displays I have seen. This was s room of its own, just as a scholar would have had – albeit most likely a relatively well to do scholar. The choices of calligraphy and scrolls of art were selected with care, and everything is displayed for visitors to really look at the items as a whole and as individual pieces. The small windows in several rooms draws in the outdoor without causing damage to artifacts. A small courtyard to one side with a single pomegranate tree; another with with a stand of narrow bamboo; the Wisteria Garden and of course the stunningly simple Lotus Pond provide a calm, reflective space.
By the time I made it to the thatched Song Pavilion, that duplicates a scholar’s studio from the Song Dynasty, (960 – 1279) it was raining quite heavily. This made the effect of entering the pavilion magical. I doubt it would have been cozy during chilly days in December of January – it does snow, although rarely – when the only warmth would have been most likely from a brazier. The scholar’s room I mentioned was not displayed here. The quiet, the rain tapping of the thatch and simple garden had me wishing I could either hide out there for a while or have something built at home. Not likely to ever happen, I do not even have a garden.
It was a nice way to spend a rainy late morning to early afternoon despite many others having the same idea. Of course, being free and adjacent to one section of the famous Administrator Garden makes this a popular spot. It was not exactly a walk in the park sort of day so the buildings in this section of garden were appreciated. These were where the owner of the gardens resided. When I visited there was a lovely exhibit of fans by an artist who still uses the methods from hundreds of years ago. I had no idea that the craft of fans was so intensive.
I even found sustenance, if a thick slice of sweetened cheese ‘toast’ can be called a good choice. Weird stuff served in China. The coffee was decent. I was also able to recharge my phone battery to 40% – it seems to be sapped far too rapidly. It was time to head back to the Hostel to officially check in. Except I couldn’t – or certainly not officially. When I had called the owner she had been at the Public Security Bureau where she and other similar owners of hostels in a specific area were being told they could not have foreigners staying for about a month. Was I willing to take a chance, hang out until evening and maybe have to be moved to another hostel. I figured why not? My belongings were put in the room where I hoped I would be staying and I waited. By 9:00pm rolled up I was ready to sleep and the PSB had not come knocking. Or ringing.
Suzhou: Day Two – Chinese tour
The tour booked was going to be in terestng was all I could think. However, it was also s lot less expensive than anything I would find for foreigners with a translator. I was the first to be picked up. I also had little idea of where we would visiting after not really paying attention, it sounded like I would enjoy it. I believe one garden, a canal cruise , Tiger Hill. The cruise goes to Shanghai Taxi to train station 21; Breakfast 25; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10;Water 2; Lunch 30; random tour fee 20; Taxi 22 (I was irritated to discover the tour bus would not be dropping me off where I was picked up)the hill from what I understood. For the equivalent of about 20CAD. However, I do know the pace of Chinese tours and can only hope I can keep up!
So where did we go, one garden in the morning before we parted ways to do our own thing according to what we had paid for. I opted for a return to the museum. That took up about two hours, visiting gardens in Suzhou, and many parts of China is serious business and are not simply a plot of land planted with flowers and shrubbery. They are carefully planned, often over many years, places for reflection, creativity and meditation. Rockery, water, plants and walkways play an important part in making the gardens accessible at all times of the year. Dwellings were always considered when the gardens were built, and I use built because they certainly needed some manipulation of materials to fit into the space available. There were many sections to each garden, all with lovely names to suit the space. If only I had thought to take photos of some of them!
We also visited the Beisi Pagoda, also known as the Bao’en Temple, which was wonderful to see for its pink and brown colouring alone! Unfortunately for us it is undergoing massive restoration so we could only manage to walk some of the grounds and attempt to get some pictures. What I found fascinating is the colours are exactly the same as a house I lived in for a couple of years as a teenager! I could not find any reason for the colour scheme.
Lunch was a matter of pay or starve unless, as some did, smart enough to prepare a picnic. However, I thought it friendlier to join everyone even if few of them spoke English. Wo bao.le! (I’m full) Noodles in broth, cabbage/mushroom/tofu mix (like a small salad or soup garnish), one boiled egg (should have saved it) & glutinous steamed rice something – ate two, sampled the other two. This after four xiao bao. Thank goodness we would have plenty more walking to do! And my first squat toilet this trip.
Funny story: on the bus waiting. Tour guide tells me to follow her. No idea why. We go into a store so my immediate thought is that I am expected to buy something. Silk. No, I was given a gift of a scarf – as were the other ladies. Incentive to spend money. I did not. Not even 1:00 and I was exhausted – the humidity remained high throughout the morning and part way through our afternoon activities.
Thank goodness for some cooling rain by the time we headed to our canal boat ride. Our group ended up being split up, leaving four of us, including the guide, behind. As often happens in China it was s matter of hurry up and go nowhere. By the time we were aboard I think we were all wondering if maybe there had been a jam upriver. Nice respite though. We were headed to Tiger Hill where there is an ancient Pagoda. Well worth the trip. There were a few precious seconds of awed silence as we rounded the corner, we were on open air carts, to have our first close up view of the pagoda. The Pagoda leans, has done so for several years.
Shanghai Taxi to train station 21; Breakfast 25; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10;Water 2; Lunch 30; random tour fee 20; Taxi 22 (I was irritated to discover the tour bus would not be dropping me off where I was picked up)