A Travellerspoint blog

Gardens in Suzhou

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.

Posted by canglingy 19:24 Archived in China Tagged people gardens parks history museum Comments (0)

Frederiksborg Castle

Time off to feed the mind and spirit

sunny 21 °C

This entry will document a day trip to Frederiksborg Castle, the castle is the largest Renaissance residence in Scandinavia and is situated at the northern end of Copenhagen, at Hillerod. This is an interesting castle due to several aspect. It was the first Danish castle to be built inland. All previous castles had been on the coast or close to ports as the sea had traditionally been the principal means of travel. This was especially true in Scandinavian regions. In the formative years of communities up north where turmoils were frequent, castles are necessary defenses to safeguard the king and to offer protection for the subjects. Frederiksborg was built in a more peaceful era and was also the first to be built for purely recreational purposes rather than for defense in the country. Today, this well maintained castle also served as the Danish museum of natural history. Coupled with the castle's state room, this type of visit is particularly appealing to me.

The castle looks really well maintained from afar (and can be a really nice postcard picture).

To get to Hillerod, look for the S-train system-Line A in central Copenhagen, Hillerod station is the north end of that line. The train leaves every 10 minutes during weekdays, and every 20 minutes in the evening and on weekends. The Journey between Hillerod and Copenhagen central station takes 40 minutes. Alternatively, take the Line 600S bus, you will be able to gain access to the world heritage site Roskilde Cathedral, and the Viking Ship museum along the way.
This is a picture of the S train system.

From the train station, it will be about 15 minutes of walking to get to the castle. I thought that the signs are not very clear and I ended up walking on a longer route. If you think you are lost, ask for directions.
Some snapshots on the way

If you see the castle, you are on the right track

There is a pleasant lakeside trail where you can meet ducks

And those trails lead to nice houses

Eventually, the path will change into a more medieval walkway

And buildings start becoming more medieval as well

This is the main entrance where you can see the chapel wing and the belfry.

Close up of the fountain
This current fountain is actually a copy of the original which was dismantled by the Swedish troops in 1659 and taken to Sweden for war reparations following the Treaty of Roskilde in 1658. The central figure, Neptune, represents the Danish King. Thirty years prior to this event, the original fountain was supposed to symbolize Denmark's position as a leading Nordic power in the early 17th century. How quickly the fortune of a prosperous nation rise and then fall.

Entrance to the museum/castle interior

To start things off, the first room one will see is "the rose". This room was initially called the Knight's Room and it was a dining room for the king and the people of the court. It has a simple elegance to it.

The next highlight is the chapel. It is the best preserved part of the Renaissance complex within the castle. This is due to the chapel having largely escaped damage in the 1859 fire. The chapel extends along the entire length of the west wing with a long nave and a two-storey gallery.

The richly decorated six-vaulted stucco ceiling is borne by pillars rising from the galleries.

Those pillars bear frescos of biblical figures

The most significant artifact inside the chapel is actually the organ. It is actually the oldest organ in Denmark, it has 1,001 wooden pipes. They have also managed to preserve its original manually driven blower. They have also kept a good number of coats of arms displayed on the wall. Each of them steeped in history.

From the chapel, one can access the Valdemar Room which houses the history of Denmark from the 12th to the 17th century in a series of commissioned historical paintings.

There is also a well presented family tree

And an artistically crowded ceiling

Next stop is the great hall which I think my photo failed to do it justice. This hall is situated above the chapel and extends through the west wing of the building. It is however, destroyed by the aforementioned fire in 1859. Thankfully, it was then almost fully restored in 1880 thanks to architectural paintings and preserved segments of the ornate gilded ceiling.

The large chandelier in the centre of the room is the work of Carl Brummer.

Original tapestries on the walls were lost in the fire, they have managed to recover those drawings depicting important events in the life of Christian IV from Karel van Mander's sketches.

One of the items in the collection caught my attention. It is a beautiful astronomical clock.

It shows a Copernican solar system, with clockwork inside the sphere and within a wooden base. The sphere on the outside shows fixed zodiac pictures, and the frame within shows the celestial equator. This is a clock that does not tell time as we know time to be.

Look at the intricate details of this clock (hand craft skill is amazing in that era), it is a good marriage between the arts and science

If you are a fan of advanced astronomical clock, there is another one on display at Copenhagen City Hall. It is known as the Verdensur and is much more complicated than this one.

After walking around the museum/castle. The garden is a pleasant place to be in and idle your time away in the afternoon if you are on a relaxed vacation. The bed in the castle also looks to be an interesting alternative of idling your afternoon away if no one catches you.

That's all for this entry. Until next time.

Posted by canglingy 17:46 Archived in Denmark Tagged buildings castles history museum sightseeing Comments (0)

The Hague Part 3

Exploring Mauritshuis and Rounding off the Mini Trilogy of The Hague

sunny 20 °C

This entry will be about the arts, specifically paintings collection from the Dutch Golden Age. The Mauritshuis (Maurice's House) in the Hague has a good collection ranging from Vermeer, Rembrandt, Paulus Potter, Hals and some others. This museum was previously the residence of John Maurice of Nassau, it retained a stately feel to it and that was felt during my visit to this museum.

This is the main entrance

One of the entrance into Binnenhof is just right beside the building

Here's some shots of the viewing areas (the paintings are arranged elegantly in different rooms)

Great paintings adorned the staircase, makes it pleasant as one walk up the stairs.

Even looking up is a delight

Here are some paintings that caught my attention.
This is the Garden of Eden with the Fall of Men painted by Rubens and Brueghel. It is interesting to see how two different personalities can combine their talents and make it seems like it is a one man's job. Rubens painted Adam and Eve, the tree, the horse and the serpent. Brueghel did the rest. My untrained eye couldn't really tell the difference until I read about the painting.

Another one by Rubens, this is the old woman and boy with candles. The lighting and shadow effect is so well done here and the picture almost look natural.

This painting is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, by Rembrandt. His talent at painting lifelike portraits with good attention to details (the tendons and how each students are all looking at different things as they were being taught by Dr Nicolaes). Even in this age of standardized testing/ education. I believe that students will somehow retain their own unique thought patterns and will see the things that excites them more.

Another Rembrandt's masterpiece, Saul and David. You can practically feel the gripping story behind the painting as David plays the harp in front of the man who wants his life.

I appreciate paintings like this one, Hendrick Avercamp's Ice Scene. He shows a very nice picture for people like us living centuries later on how people go about in a particular weather. On the left, you will see that a group of people have fallen through the ice, but help is already on the way. This shows a community that is ready to jump out and help in contrast with our generally apathetic crowd in this age. You will also see that woman has fallen over in front of the bridge, revealing her bare bottom. Perhaps undergarments are not actively worn in that era. People are generally just having fun on the ice, skating, sledging and playing ice hockey. I wonder, will I see the community come out and play in a nice winter weather or will most just choose to sit in front of the box like usual.

This is Delft in the 1600s, painted by Vermeer and is the most famous cityscape of the Dutch Golden Age. He took some artistic liberty to make the buildings a bit neater than they actually were.

Finally, this is the Dutch version of the Mona Lisa, albeit unlike Mona Lisa it is not actual a portrait of a real person but rather an imaginary one. This painting is Girl with a Pearl Earring and it is Vermeer's masterpiece. To me, this girl is more appealing than Mona Lisa because the latter was just sitting back in the painting, contained whereas this mysterious girl has a sense of silent seduction and yet welcoming with her direct gaze and oriental turban. Perhaps she was Vermeer's muse of the ideal beauty of his age.

A few more nice paintings to round off the blog

After walking around the museum, I think a going to a chocolate shop is the best place to regain one's energy (I am biased because I have a sweet tooth) This is hop en stork, it is an outstanding chocolate and coffee shop, you won't go wrong with any choices. As a bonus, you get to see your chocolates get made too.

If you crave for Chinese food, the HanTing restaurant on Prinsestraat is a good choice.

This entry officially ends The Hague's trilogy. Next time, this blog will cover a different city.

Posted by canglingy 01:21 Archived in Netherlands Tagged art history museum sightseeing Comments (0)

The Hague Part 2

Touristic Activities Inside the Town

sunny 21 °C

I will talk about some of the more touristic activity in this entry.

To start things off, this is the Binnenhof (inner court) where almost all the important decision get made.

The Binnenhof is right at the heart of the city center and has been the political power of the lower countries for many centuries. Prodemos organizes free tours of this area. They do not operate daily so you might want to check with the visitor center before trying to gain entry into the parliament. This short tour is worth it if you would like to gain a more in depth understanding of Dutch politics, visit the house of the representative, climb some ancient stairs to see the hall of the knights and view some old treasures plus the king's throne. Fun fact: Binnenhof is the oldest House of Parliament in the world that is still in use.

This is one of the entrance into the area

The square is open to the public

This is the hall of the knights

This gold neogothic fountain dates from the 1600.

Inside the hall of the knights, where you can also spot a rather unassuming throne

No funny business because the eye is watching you

After I got cleared by security, I see a more modern pantheon of recent greats immortalized by their sculpts. large_DSC00108.jpg
This facility is a nice mix of the old and new architecture large_DSC00109.jpg

One of the things that I like about the Dutch is their very unassuming politics, somehow it feels that they have inherited the principate style from the early Roman empire where the ruler is simply the "first among equal" of the citizens. if you look at the sitting style of the hall of the knights and then look at the prime minister's office and the king's residence, it gives out the vibe that they are simply one of us, just another ordinary citizen.

This is the prime minister's office, a small little tower. This is the opposite of so many prime minister's offices that were simply mansions or huge palaces.

The royal family residence looks like just another functional mansion, none of the extra lavish bling.

Of course, the Hague is not just about political buildings, there is a fancy shopping street near the Binnenhof that has plenty of premium goods if you are into splurging.

Besides the fancy shopping area, there are also other shops on the street to feed everyone's consumerism.

And there's always a china town everywhere I go. Gosh, we are resilient.

This is the main visitor center situated at the city hall which is packed full of helpful staff and information (and quite close by to the aforementioned shopping streets)

Most of the time, there will be some sort of exhibition inside the building and on some rarer cases, activities going on at city square.

Entrance to city hall

I was lucky to be able to see some exciting free style competition while I was there

I will end this entry with the Grote Kerk of St James, like the Binnenhof, this church is one of the oldest building in The Hague. If you are a fan of church architecture, you will be able to see some very old stained glass, old wooden carved pulpit from the 1500s, interesting sepulchral monuments, and some escutcheons of the knights of the Golden Fleece, There is also the occasional free concert inside the church that gives a good music experience as well.

Some of the stained glass (note that extensive renovation has been done and now, the church has a finely vaulted interior.)

Picture of the organ

Stumbled into a free 2 hours concert that really made my day.

A few more spotlight on The Hague in the next entry before moving on to another city. Until next time.

Posted by canglingy 04:18 Archived in Netherlands Tagged churches buildings history museum sightseeing travelling Comments (0)

The Hague

Glimpses of the neighborhood

sunny 17 °C

Despite being the judicial capital of the world, The Hague is not actually a dry, boring, legalistic place to be in. It is actually a beautiful city with plenty of things to see and do. Both the Dutch Royal Family and the Prime Minister lives here instead of living in the capital, Amsterdam, that should be a telling sign that this city is a somewhat hidden tourist gem. Personally, I rank the Hague as my number one city in the Netherlands, ahead of many popular cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft and Utrecht. This city has a long coastline, a large green areas, eclectic and art nouveau architecture plus a vibrant multicultural scene. Unlike other Dutch cities with narrower streets due to the canal, the Hague feels like another continental city with her wider streets and avenues.

There are two main ways to get to the Hague, I recommend taking the train because of its convenience. If you are coming from Amsterdam, the train from Schiphol will take you straight to Den Haag Centraal (the central train station) in under an hour. If you are coming from other international location such as Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Copenhagen and Basel, an easy transit can be made in Utrecht. If you are driving, please note that the Dutch has speed cameras everywhere and it is one of the few cities in the world that I get speeding tickets (I was generally careful). Watch your speed limit, things can get pretty expensive rather fast. Den Haag Centraal is a good place to alight because the city center is just a mere 5 minutes of walking distance. You can see stately mansions just a short moment upon arrival without going far away from the city center, imagine that. This city is compact and is very pedestrian friendly. Even though it is well serviced by trams, I recommend just going on foot everywhere you go (the beach is an exception unless you fancy a 2 km walk to the coast)

The Lange Voorhout is one the places close to the central station. It is a large tree lined square. There is a very good antique and book market every Thursdays and Sundays. If you are hunting for unique souvenirs, this is the place to go. large_DSC00006.jpglarge_DSC00007.jpg

Bordered with grand townhouses that is currently occupied by embassies or other international organizationslarge_DSC00005.jpglarge_DSC00008.jpg

My preferred accomodation- Hotel Des Indes is on this square large_DSC00004.jpg
This hotel is in the "splurge" category and has been housing foreign dignitaries, celebrities and musicians. Even if you are not staying here, it is worth checking out the uber luxurious lounge and bar for the excellent afternoon tea or fancy dinner. large_DSC00055.jpglarge_DSC00057.jpg
I don't mind walking up and down these stairs instead of just taking the elevator like usual. large_DSC00058.jpg
Waking up with all the curtains around me feels like I am in a Victorian Era bedroom (please forgive the messy bed). large_DSC00133.jpg

Hilton, on the other hand, actually looks more boring in this city. large_DSC00039.jpg

The Hague is very laid back and relaxed compared to Amsterdam where there is almost always some attraction going on somewhere. Be it a walk in the park or a walk in the neighborhood, you will find tranquility on top of friendly locals, a precious commodity not found in major cities. When in the park, you might be invited to join a casual ball game. large_DSC00047.jpg
Or you could just sit by the pond and relax. large_DSC00040.jpg
I have no idea what these stuff are for in the park. large_DSC00042.jpg

The Dutch preferred bicycles and this lifestyle is healthier as you will rarely see overweight people going about. large_DSC00059.jpg

Plenty of bikes parked at residential areas.

And some fancier family friendly bike

The area is quite pedestrian friendly and as mentioned earlier, you can virtually explore everything on foot. There are also dedicated footpaths in most of the area. A little bit of extra wandering will allow one to some nice buildings and scenery too.

Some buildings have interesting poetry on their walls

Sometimes, if you are lucky, there will be some spontaneous live music. large_DSC00096.jpg
Vienna still have better street music in my opinion but the stuff in The Hague is quite good as well.

The next entry of the Hague will cover the more touristy aspect of the city. Until next time

Posted by canglingy 19:50 Archived in Netherlands Tagged bridges people trees gardens sightseeing travelling Comments (0)

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