Friday, 18 January 2013

To Suzhou for silk and gardens

Nothing like morning rush hour to get one going! I caught a 9 a.m. train to Suzhou from Shanghai station, so the subway was jammed, but I emerged alive.

This was my second high-speed train experience. It moves quickly, but doesn’t seem to be flying. However, we arrived in half an hour, so I know we were zooming along. The countryside we passed included fields, orchards and housing developments.

Suzhou is one of China’s smaller cities J -- it has only about four million people living in the city proper. It is known for its gardens, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and for a silk industry that has flourished for thousands of years.

I was lucky enough to see a demonstration at an actual silk factory before I went on to the Silk Museum. The factory contracts with farmers to raise silkworms, feeding them mulberry leaves. The worms’ cocoons are then collected to make silk, which is extracted once the cocoons have been steamed in water. (My guide informed me that the worm larvae are often saved and stir fried. Protein ...)

A single cocoon can produce a strand of silk 120 metres long. In this factory, the threads were pulled by hand and attached to a winding machine – twelve strands were woven together.

The Silk Museum had scraps of fabric unearthed from tombs in China dating back thousands of years. As time marched on, the patterns became more complex, and colour schemes changed, too. At one time, Suzhou’s silk was sought after by the Emperor, and it was also traded along the Silk Road, both overland and maritime, as far west as Rome.

Of course, silk was on sale everywhere in town – clothes, purses, handkerchiefs, ties – you name it, someone was selling it. I must be a bit travel weary – when I see a series of stalls featuring local items, my instinct is to run.

I visited three gardens, all well known: the Humble Administrator’s Garden, where I had a local guide; the Lion’s Grove Garden and the Master of the Nets Garden. (Wonderful  names!) The last was further from the tourist centre of town and the least crowded. I was able to wander at leisure without negotiating around lots of other people. However, a nearby school playground also meant it was the noisiest garden. (This is January and the gardens were busy – I shudder to imagine what they’re like in spring and summer!)

Those who could afford to create their own gardens back in the day were lucky. The gardens are amazing spots: each area has a name that offers a chance for reflection. Rocks – or cloud roots, as they were called -- symbolize mountains, there are ponds to provide lovely vistas, flowers to offer beauty and meaning and pagodas and pavilions for places to relax and entertain. They even had libraries in their pavilions! ( I imagine some wealthy Chinese still have gardens such as these – it would be amazing to be invited to a private one.) Every detail is considered, including the pattern of the paving stones.

The winter landscapes were somewhat austere, but the gardens would be lovely places once the trees blossomed – magnolias, plum, etc. My guide told me that there are no mosquitoes to bother visitors, because the camphor trees give off a scent that offends the bloodthirsty little bugs.

Suzhou is also notable in my book because it was the place that I took the various types of transport I hadn’t yet experienced in China: a bicycle-drawn cab, a bus and a motorcycle “cab.” Add in a taxi ride, the high-speed train and the subway, and it was quite the transportation fiesta!

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