sábado, 6 de outubro de 2012

Suzhou and its gardens


Even if this post pictures may show the opposite, Suzhou is a big and important city next to the Yang-Tsé river on its way to Shanghai. More than 4 million people in its urban area and 10 million in the metropolitan region, it's a city that, in the Chinese fashion way, mixes modernity, development and gigantic proportions with more than 2,500 years of history. It's often accounted as the Chinese Venice and since 1997 its famous gardens were listed as UNESCO Heritage places.

Map of Suzhou
Arriving in Suzhou

The way between Nanjing and Suzhou was my first time ever in a bullet train. While I waited in the super modern station (would it be an airport??) in Nanjing I was excited about the experience would be. A quarter of hour before the time shown in my ticket the train arrived. From there on the ratchets lights turned green so we could move on. The trains, white and big with a huge nose were extremely clean and modern - a very different experience compared to my other train travels in China before. However that could not disguise the Chinese paradox. At the same time the showcased technology was modern, and, yeah, most part of the passengers were wearing suits, a significant number of Chinese families were carrying their disproportionate luggage, food, packages, etc., all boxed up to fit inside. There I could see the shock between urban, super modern, midiatic China and, the other one, which is still rural and trie to catch up with so many changes.

100 km/h, 150 km/h, 200 km/h, 240 km/h and then the train didn't get any faster. Every 20-30 min we would get to a different station and the acceleration process would repeat again. Announcements, warnings and even the speed were available both in Chinese and English. At 240 km/h, which is not the fastest train in China, the scenery changed pretty fast. The curves were felt as bumps and there's some sensation like being in an airplane with seats and staff somehow similar. Not so long I reached Suzhou.

It was night already and my first task was getting to the hostel, which, by the way, was from Mingtown brand, which normally offers just basic services - in other words, the bed. I found the bus that would take me to the hostels vincinity - the turistic area of Suzhou - and before I had time to get lost I asked a young Chinese man who took the same bus I did about what stop I should leave. I was correct, he was probably a university student and he could speak English fair well. As I left the bus, I took some narrow and dark alleys and tried to ask two old ladies who obviously would not speak English at all. The alternative was to show them my iPad screen which stated the name, in Chinese, of the hostel. Some murmuring and face gestures and I understood that I should just go on. Finally, I found the hostel.

I did my check-in, paid it, left my stuff in the lock and left to find some food. At 10 pm, my hostel's street was getting empty and everything was closing down. There were lots of café - expensive - which sometimes could not offer anything as food. I walked for half an hour and ended giving up. I walked in the café next to my hostel, packed with young and modern Chinese, and had "dinner" as a frappuccino for 35 RMB.

Exploring Suzhou

I had just 2 nights and 1 day in Suzhou, so, everything I'd like to do should be done within this single day. With that in mind, differently from my dorm colleagues, I woke up at 6 am, and started my solo tour.

My first attempt was to buy my breakfast. A little bit hard, because tourists usually do not wake up so early and the whole turistic are was closed. However, as it's seemed to be common in China I found something that looked like a dumpling and bought 8 of it for just 10 RMB. I kept walking and eating at the same time. My idaea was to pay a visit to the "twin towers", two Pagodas next to each other but when I got close I realized the towers were closed for renovations, what a pity.

Chineses The Chinese Gardens Art

Chinese gardens look to recreate natural landscapes. This art evolved during 3,000 years and it was very common among emperors who built huge and sumptuous gardens while small gardens were recreated by nobles, scholars, artists, etc. The classical composition of a Chinese garden includes walls, one or more ponds, stones, flowers and trees, a combination of halls, pavillions and zig-zag paths, in order to present carefully planned scenes to ther guests.

The Garden of the Master of the Nets

The first garden I got into the entrance ticket was 30 RMB. It was originally built in 1140 and recreated in 1770 by the bureaucrat Song Zongyuan.

Internal view of the garden
The context of the classic gardens is somehow the same. A prosperous bureaucrat/businessman/etc decides to transform his own residence in a landscape piece of art, adding ponds, plants, stones, areas to represent peace, harmony, etc., common elements of the Chinese culture.

Details in windows and glass
 Panmen Gate

This place has its name given to a gate built thousands of years ago that served as entrance to Suzhou. However, I'd say that the attractiveness of the place is not given by the gate itself but by the gardens, ponds and constructions in the surrounding. In my opinion this was the greatest garden I visited in Suzhou.

Picture of the gardens in Panmen
A visit to the place costs 40 RMB and will take at least 1 hours of walking through the whole area. I'd advise to arrive early so you can have the place to yourself before the crowds arrival.

Waterfalls and vegetation in the gardens
Auspicious Light

I'd say that one of the highlights it's the imponence of Auspicious Light Pagoda, 53 m tall, and built in 1004 BC. For extra 6 RMB you can climb up the stairs to the top - worth it! - to have an impressive view of Suzhou from the heights.

Here I did my first pit-stop so I could rest from my accelerated tour totally on foot. I ate some dumplings more enjoying the view from the Pagoda.

Suzhou: big with style

Crossing in Suzhou
Exclusive lane for
 motorbikes and bicycles
Walking through the city at 10 am the traffic, people and everything else were moving at full steam. Not different from other Chinese cities I've been to, the city was busy and crowded but without loosing its charm. Some big avenues had specific lanes for bicycles, motorbikes and other slow speed vehicles.

Central lanes were for cars, a subway system and water canals would raise the flag for boats. All that surrounded by many trees. Observations like that make me think that once the "industrial revolution" is gone from China, beautiful cities will arise.

The Surging Wave Pavillion

This is one of the oldest gardens in Suzhou among the famous scholars of the city.

Moon shape entrance
Maybe one of the more intriguing elements of Chinese gardens architecture is the Moon shape entrance ways. Every tiny detail of this entrance could have a different espiritual meaning, as also the roof. Anyway, a Moon shape entrance it's an invitation to the guests to get into the property, and usually found only in noble and/or wealthy Chinese houses.

Pingjiang Road

Old houses next to the canal
Not just my hostel's road but maybe one of the finest and coziest places in town. One of its sides have a long pedestrian path in good state of conservation and perfect for a coffee/lunch, or just for walking around enjoying such a calm place.

Old house next to the canal
At the same time you walk next to the canal, at the other side some very old buildings are presented in almost authentic Suzhou's black and white. Moreover, architecture here is quite different from Northern China for example. While there would found grey and walled houses/structures, in this part of China the buildings are lighter, with more windows and doors and some predominance of the white colour.

The Humble Administrator's Garden

Picture of a small bridge over the pond
I got finally to my last place to visit. Maybe one of the most famous gardens - or it's what the ticket counter trie to tell you with a 5 A's national attraction classification board, the maximum - as its considered the finest example of gardening in Southern China spreading through more than 51,000 m².

Picture of a small pavillion
In 1510, Wang Xiancheng, poet and prosecuted emperial envoy moved to Suzhou and started his works to transform a former monastery in a garden. His will was to retire from politics dedicating himself to a simple life.

Vegetation picture
It took 16 years to the garden's construction to get finished however it suddenly changed owners since Wang had to sell it to honour gambling debts. Architectonic changes and different owners went through the years. In 1997 it became an UNESCO Heritage site.

Well, the Suzhou tour came to an end, but, amazingly, all that was done until 2 pm of the same day. Well, it became clear for me that was totally unnecessary to wake up so early and rush everything at the cost of blisters and sun burn. Next time stop will be a real megacity, an Alpha city and extremely important not just for China but for the whole world. The biggest Chinese city, with more than 23 million people, Shanghai!

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