This morning I got up and went to the hotel's buffet. I finished early, so I walked around the hotel's garden. It is very nice. I met May at 9:30 in the morning and she took me to visit the Pan Gate.
The Pan Gate is one of the two remaining ancient gates in Suzhou, and the only remaining water gate in China. The area is huge and has much more than just the gate. The area originally had a temple, and only the pagoda is left from it now. The pagoda is well over a thousand years old and quite beautiful. The entire area has been turned into a scenic spot. It is large and very nice. There are many gardens, pavilions and ponds scattered throughout the area. It is a very nice place to stroll and relax. I had been there in 2005 and some places were still under construction at that time.
It was cool to see it again today and see the finished product. After visiting Pan Gate we went to Suzhou's No.1 Silk Factory. I thought geez, another tourist trap. It definitely wasnÃƒƒƒƒ‚Ãƒƒƒ‚Ãƒƒ‚Ãƒ‚Ã‚Âft. I really enjoyed it. It has a museum dedicated to silk and shows its production methods which were very interesting. It also had people working on producing silk, and it was real. They weren't just there to entertain visitors, they were really working. There was one section which had looms producing brocade silk. It was really fun to watch. I have seen women working on old fashioned wooden looms before, and to see a huge automatic one was pretty cool.
After we went through the museum we went into their shopping area. It was impeccably laid out. The items on display were of incredible quality and the prices were not bad either. I bought a couple of scarves there. I was really impressed by it. Nobody pushed sales on visitors. They just let them wander around by themselves and if they did have a question, there was always somebody eager to answer them. The factory produced silk quilts and pillows, clothing, embroidery, cloth, paintings, and small gifts. I will definitely go back when I am back in Suzhou. After the factory we went to lunch in the same compound. The food was buffet style and very good. I had a fantastic lunch. The best part was the hostesses and waitresses all wore silk qipao dresses.
I love the qipao and think more women should wear them. After lunch I was driven to the Lingering Garden, one of Suzhou's four most famous gardens. The garden used to be the private residence of a very rich merchant. It is unbelievable that this place used to be private property. It is so huge and so beautiful and extravagant. Almost instantly upon entering the garden I heard traditional Chinese music. I just figured it was piped in through speakers. When we entered the garden area I found the source. It was a beautiful girl wearing Tang Dynasty style clothing and playing the pipa.
There were musicians located throughout the garden and they were there simply for the enjoyment of visitors. Some were singing, some were just playing, and some were duets. It really made the garden come alive. The cool thing about these Suzhou gardens is that they are designed so that visitors can only see what the creators intended them to see at any given moment. As soon as you turn a corner a whole new scene opens up and visitors are rewarded with scenes more splendid than the one they were just in. The Lingering Garden was filled with small hills, rockeries, caves, paths, pavilions and much much more. I wish I could live in such a place.
I did have a horrifying thought though. With the dozens of buildings, pavilions and places to rest, imagine if you lost your keys. It'd take months of searching by dozens of people to find them again. I guess that's why the owner had servants whose only job was to take care of the keys. I'd probably go through a cell phone a month. The Lingering Garden was my first garden in my trip to Suzhou and I am really excited to see what the other ones have in store. Before we left we watched Suzhou's local Kun Opera which is performed daily for visitors
. I really enjoyed it. The singing style of Kun Opera is much more natural than that in Beijing Opera. They performed an act from the famous opera The Peony Pavilion. The garden was wonderful. After, my guide asked if I was hungry and wanted to visit an ancient shopping street. I like food, and I like ancient so I said sure. The shopping street's name is Shangtang Street. It runs along an ancient canal and the shops were a lot of fun to visit. There were shops selling art, carvings, crystal sculptures, traditional clothing, traditional cloth shoes, food, and brand new antiques.
The food was sold in little stands and was unlike anything I had eaten before. It was very good. I had the local stinky tofu. It is sold throughout China and it is very good. It does stink, but it is only the smell. The taste is mild and delicious. All visitors should try it. I think they, like me, would become hooked on it. I also had something yummy that I've never had before. It was sort of like a stuffed muffin covered with tasty things. It was very good and a famous local food.
The last thing I had was a ball of dough. It was fried and covered with sesame seeds. Inside was hollow with a sweet bean paste coating the inside. It was fantastic also. I love to go to a new place and eat the local food. The road was very interesting because it was lined with not only shops, but ancient clan memorial halls, an ancient fire station, and an ancient opera which is open for locals to perform.
I saw two old ladies singing Kun Opera, and on the way back I saw a little orchestra made up of old men performing on traditional instruments. The place felt very community like and not touristy.
Day 10: September 18, 2008
This morning I had breakfast in my hotel before meeting May at 9:30. She took me out to where the car was waiting and we headed to the Grand Canal. When we got out of the car we were standing in front of another of Suzhou's remaining city gates. I don't know why, but I really like city gates and walls. We passed through the gate to get to the Grand Canal and where our boats were waiting. We then boarded our boat for our cruise down the canal. Since it was early, there were no other passengers, just May and I.
The boat cruised very slowly down the canal and it was very nice. It turns out that the Shangtang Street that we walked down yesterday was located along the canal, so I got to see the buildings from the back. That was neat. The stage had what appeared to be a full opera being performed on it. I also saw the man whom we got the stinky tofu from yesterday. He smiled and waved. We cruised for several kilometers before heading back. We left the boat and walked along the city wall for a ways before going back to the car. After the canal we then went to a Sandalwood Fan Factory.
Suzhou has been famous for its sandalwood fans for centuries. The wood is naturally beautifully scented and by waiving the fan to cool yourself, you scent the air around you. Sandalwood is now extremely rare in China and now most of the wood is imported from Malaysia and India. The factory has been in operation for years and has a nice garden in the middle of it. There are gardens everywhere in Suzhou. The front of the factory has a museum dedicated to SuzhouÃƒƒƒƒ‚Ãƒƒƒ‚Ãƒƒ‚Ãƒ‚Ã‚Âfs local arts. The things on display were fantastic
. There was carved ivory, jade, porcelain, embroidery, and of course sandalwood fans. We then went into a large room which displayed Suzhou's famous silk embroidery. There was a woman there who was making some and it was interesting to watch how it was done. She said one silk embroidery painting can use over 6,000 different colors of silk threads. It was so precise and the threads were so thing. The embroidery on display was amazing. We then went to where the fans were displayed.
Most of the fans are not for use, they are meant for display. The ribs of the fans are cut into incredible latticework. A woman was demonstrating how it was done. About a dozen fan blades were cut at a time by a small jig saw. It was all done by hand. The cuts were so very small. I can't imagine how many years it took her to learn the skills required to make them. After the factory we had lunch in the connected restaurant. I was the only one there, so May and I ate together. The food was very good. We ate a lot of food. The staff was very polite and friendly. After lunch we went to the Humble Administrator's Garden, which is also one of Suzhou's four famous gardens.
It was totally different than The Lingering Garden. It was built during the Ming Dynasty by an official who was disillusioned with official life and decided to retire and move back to his hometown of Suzhou. He built the garden as a place to relax and forget about the cares of the world. The garden is huge! Each building and pavilions were meticulously placed and each has wonderful stories about them. Although this garden doesn't have performances in it, it does have music being played on hidden speakers throughout the garden.
The garden's ponds and rivers are filled with lotus plants and when they are in bloom the garden draws visitors from all over for its Lotus Flower Festival. Sadly, today the blooms are all gone and only the beautiful leaves remain, so I guess I got to see the Lotus Leaf Festival. The garden is very popular with visitors and I can see why. Every part of it was carefully designed not only in the details, but also in the placement, and surroundings of each. I hope someday I am able to afford to build my own garden. It would never be as magnificent as the ones in Suzhou, but it'd be nice to have such a place to relax in.
After we left the Humble Administrator's Garden we went to the nearby Suzhou Museum. The museum is free and was designed by a famous American architect who was born in Suzhou. The architecture mimics the traditional homes of ancient Suzhou, but with a modern twist. It was incredibly designed. The architect was brilliant in his designs. Each corridor is designed in a way that the light coming in makes patterns on the wall, and the museum is built around a central courtyard with a fish filled pond and a pavilion in the middle. The many large windows in the garden have benches placed in front of them for visitors to just sit and look outside at the courtyard's bamboo groves.
The glass in some windows is built to appear like it is raining outside. It was quite an amazing structure. As amazing as the buildings, are the artifacts the museum holds. It is filled with exquisite porcelains, furniture, paintings, Buddhist Relics, and treasures of all kinds. After the museum we had some extra time and May suggested that we go to the Lion Grove Garden. It also one of the four most famous Suzhou gardens, yet not often visited by visitors. Without a doubt, this was my favorite garden that I visited in Suzhou. After entering, we went into the living quarters of the garden. I still can't believe that these gardens were built for a single person.
This garden was built during the Ming Dynasty by a group of monks, in honor of their teacher. What makes the garden so special are its rockeries. Visitor's entering the garden first must pass through the rockeries. The rockeries are simply amazing. The rockeries were built into an intricate labyrinth. The rockery is filled with caves, bridges, peaks, paths and stairs. And the whole thing centers on a two story pavilion, which I imagine was built for the owner to sit and laugh at the visitors trying to find their way out. It is an amazing labyrinth.
I walked through the labyrinth trying to find each of its 21 caves and 9 peaks. I did it. When we had found them all May suggested that we have a race and see who can find their way out of the rockery first. She agreed and I beat her by over 20 minutes. It was so much fun. She kept popping up out of caves and I would root her on each time. By the time she got out we were in hysterics. We then went to a teahouse overlooking the rockery where I drank some of the local Biluochun Tea. I think May just needed to catch her breath. She said she has been there many times and each time gets lost. Apparently Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty so enjoyed the rockeries that he visited the garden six times during his journeys to the south of China.
After the tea we then explored the rest of the garden. The garden had a beautiful pond with a stone boat anchored in it. There were several little pavilions hidden in the corners. The main building of the garden which overlooks the pond and rockery is more magnificent than the rest. The beautifully carved details are covered with gold accents and the name board above it is covered with dragons and gold leaf. The reason that one building is so fancy is because it is where the emperor would sit when he was visiting the garden. The name board inside the pavilion was inscribed by him.
I truly loved this garden. It would be the first one I will visit next time I come to Suzhou. After the garden I went and checked into the Bamboo Grove Hotel. Tomorrow I will go to the village of Tongli. I am really excited about that. I have been to Tongli before and absolutely loved it!