Learning from Ancient Gardens
There is always a lot of lesson to be learnt from ancient heritage. The beautiful ancient gardens in suzhou is just one of the many examples. In modern times, where nature has become one of the commodities and the pursuit of development often given priority over all else has led to the need for us begin reintegrating the concept of sustainable development back into the way we build things. As we continue to grapple on the ways to live in harmony while keeping pace with our pursuit of better lives, the ancient Chinese gives a good template on how things can be done. The gardens are good examples on how urban ethos can be one that is respectful to nature, engage with it meaningfully and blend together in one harmonious package. The way we have built our cities thus far has been disparate, literary institutes, museums, churches, natural reserves are all in separate areas whereby the scholars blend everything in one package. Looking at all these aspect of life in a more philosophical manner, we tend to group different activities in different pockets while in fact that they are all intricately linked together, each "pockets" affects one another and by seeing this connection, we will ultimately come to understand to deep bonds that we have with nature as well. Those gardens show us one of the way of life that is forgotten but is in need of resurrection in this era.
I think the most adventurous and satisfying way to get to Suzhou is by cycling. The distance between Shanghai and Suzhou is about 70 km, which is roughly about a two to three hours journey depending on one's fitness. The path along the provincial highway is relatively busy most of the time but the segregated bike path is quite safe. The path also passes through Luzhi, which is an attractive water town about 20 km east of Suzhou. The detour is worth it. If the traveler prefers comfort, I recommend taking the high speed train, the journey will only take about 30 minutes and it departs frequently from Shanghai Hongqiao train station. Trains from Beijing will take five hours. I do not recommend taking the bus, foreigners in a crowded area unfortunately still invites petty theft in China. Upon arrival in Suzhou, the method of getting around the city differs depending on preference and how you got here. The gardens are not close by each other, unless you plan to spend days in the city, walking is not recommended. Suzhou has an excellent network of cycling paths, however, please be careful as those paths double up as scooter paths and sidewalks. The public buses are good alternative if you have a basic grasp of Mandarin. Warning, please buy bilingual maps from the train station because a significant number of people cannot communicate in English. There are also tourist buses that can take you to most of the sights and travel the city in a circular manner.
Suzhou is a city that feels like it is on the verge of modernization and yet retains rustic charms.
Most of the streets are lined with trees and the air level is much better than major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.
There are a lot of landmarks, historical building and cultural things to explore in Suzhou but this entry will focus more on the gardens. This is the entrance to the Lion Forest Garden. An entirely different world from the hustle and bustle of the city awaits the traveler once you step across that door.
Free tours are available every ten minutes (generally every major gardens will have some tours of similar nature), these talks gave some historical insights and cultural anecdotes. Unfortunately, they are in Mandarin only. China has a huge population and at any time of the year, the gardens will have its fair share of visitor. This is not the place to experience solitude or an undisturbed tour.
With that being said, you can observe and imagine how each part of the houses provide a symbolic microcosm of the natural world within the confines one single unit as a whole, how art, poetry, calligraphy just blends into the surrounding and allows those ancient officials indulge in their intellectual pursuits. The layout of the area also serves different purposes, public areas are generally more elegant and the private retreats generally unassuming. Some art and picture of these symbolic microcosm.
Public versus private, note the better furniture and decorations compared to the plain wooden decorations
The lion forest garden has an incredible collection of pitted, eroded rocks. A labyrinth was constructed out of this and as a result it was full of twists and turns and easy to get quite lost in these winding paths. Legend has it that one of the ancient emperors was once lost in the maze for a few hours.
If one is tired of walking to the next garden, there is an option to take the small boats, like pedicabs or other taxis, these guys will take opportunity to overcharge foreigners. Make sure you agreed on the price before getting on any of these. The trip down the stream offers a different view and an opportunity to get away from the thronging masses.
The Humble Administrator's Garden has a very ironic name because it took a boatload of silver and 16 years to finish building it, not very humble right? This is the entrance to that garden.
It is well curated. The whole garden forms a three dimensional picture through which you can walk. The general layout of the area looks like this.
This set up is very similar to how Chinese landscape paintings unfold. The stone arts, corridors, walls, paths and bridges all have their own role in creating a landscape of continuous change and surprise. As one wanders the garden, individual parts are gradually discovered. This concept of the garden is reflective of our life, which is a series of separate but interconnected parts, at different parts of our lives, we stumbled upon unique milestones that marked the journey. As we aged, we learned to see that all the parts we explored in the past came to define who we are today and together, it became our garden. I think the gardens of Suzhou is one of the best museum to understand Chinese philosophy.
Here are some shots from the garden.
Suzhou has 14 notable classical gardens which will take the visitor a couple of days to finish experiencing them all. There is however, another place of interest that I would like to point out before I end this entry. Shantang Street is one of those place where the traveler is still able to see a miniaturize old Suzhou coupled with the Wu culture. This street was the number one ancient street in China and was particularly prosperous during the Ming and Qing dynasty. Today, the old buildings within the area stood silently, a careful look will reveal some of those old glory.
Note: this place is usually very crowded due to its popularity.
Some of the ancient houses and inner streets are still standing today.
But the city has also modernized and was invaded by Starbucks
There is a boat tour in the area, worth a ride if it is your first visit
Old antiqued book stores always fascinate me and I am glad to see this old one still operating until today
China is the land of my forefathers and the unexplored land is an enticing lure for travelers like me. I hope to revisit this land many more times in the future.