The second stop on my travels during the mid-autumn festival was Suzhou. The ancient city is renowned for its beautiful stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens. Because the trains from Shanghai were so packed the earliest we could get there was mid-afternoon by which time a lot of the gardens were beginning to close (my friend even tried to bribe a guard to get in one but he wasn’t having any of it!). Instead, we contented ourselves with wandering around the tree-lined streets in search of somewhere nice to eat.
After some delicious hot-pot the night before we spent the morning exploring the Master of the Nets Garden (top) and Blue Wave Pavilion (above and below). The former is considered among the finest gardens in China and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, having first been constructed more than 800 years ago. Inspired by the simple and solitary life of a Chinese fisherman it is apparently regarded among garden connoisseurs for its mastering the techniques of “relative dimension, contrast, foil, sequence and depth, and borrowed scenery”.
The Blue Wave Pavilion is the oldest garden in Suzhou dating back to 1044 CE (Song Dynasty). Surrounded by a small lake it’s rather overgrown but retains a distinct beauty with its bamboo groves and a man-made hill upon which sits the pavilion after which the garden is named. You can well imagine scholars and government officials relaxing here sipping green tea and discussing the affairs of the time (probably with a few concubines!). Even to my untrained eyes the skill behind the design of these gardens was clear.
Whilst wandering around a friend remarked “Why doesn’t China know how to make such beautiful places anymore?” and indeed you have to wonder what on earth Mao was thinking when he kicked off the Cultural Revolution which led to the destruction of much of China’s heritage including the skills and thinking which lay behind them. Today China seems to yearn for this idyllic image of the past but has yet to learn how it can be interpreted in the modern world.
Frankly, once you’ve seen a couple of these gardens they all begin to look the same. One day will probably be enough for most travellers to get a satisfactory taste of Suzhou. The old lady above has clearly stayed too long!
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I enjoy your comments on life in Asia. i am an architecture and urban design professor about to travel to Hong Kong for the first time. I would love to get your advice on an itinerary in the region that would be of benefit to students of architecture and, most importantly urban design in China today.
Hi Brian – glad you like the site. Are you just visiting Hong Kong or will you be going into the mainland also?
Within Hong Kong I would very much recommend the walk detailed here – http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/things-to-do/images/central-western-travel-through-time.pdf – this takes you through a section of both the old and new sides of the city giving you a flavour of how it all evolved.
That walk takes a few hours to complete at a leisurely pace. If you have more time this second walk dovetails nicely with it – http://www.discoverhongkong.com/eng/things-to-do/images/gardenroad-century-of-architecture.pdf
The above covers Hong Kong Island but Kowloon is also worth checking out. I would recommend wandering up Nathan Road and exploring some of the side street markets there. The area around Mong Kok contains some of the most interesting places and buildings to see. It’s especially worth seeing in the evening when all the neon lights come on.
Hope this helps – do feel free to ask if you have any more questions. I wish I’d been able to do such a trip when I was a student!