Suzhou (pronounced soo-joe)has an ancient pedigree, with its origins dating back around 2500 years. It's location on the Grand Canal, (an incredible feat of engineering from the 13th century that linked the two great rivers of China, the Yellow in the north and the Yangtze in the south) ensured Suzhou's success as a centre of shipping, trade and artisans. Naturally, this attracted the artistic community who began building gardens and villas. The gardens have seen some rough times, particularly during the 1950's when horticulture was seen as frivolous and intellectual, but some have been recently renovated and opened to the public once again.
Today, the old city of Suzhou still retains much of its medieval charm. While the city walls are long gone, the original moat around the city still exists and bustles with boat traffic, while the intersecting canals meander throughout the city. The streets are narrow and cobblestoned and lined with old trees.
Suzhou is famous for its classical Chinese gardens; apparently, at one time there were more than 100 gardens in the old city. Chinese gardens, like Japanese gardens, have strong principles of design. The purpose of them is to provide a respite from the urban chaos, a means to retreat to nature without leaving home. As such, the gardens create miniature landscapes which provide the viewer with the opportunity to narrow their perspective and allow themselves to imagine themselves in the wilds. They are full of rough and craggy rocks, small nooks and crannies, stone bridges, graceful trees, caves and hills as well as still (not running) water and gold fish. Small pavilions and benches are strategically placed to provide the proper vantage point to the viewer and the walkways are rock mosaics, often depicting flowers or wildlife. Everything -- sometimes even the rocks themselves -- has a highly poetic name.
We chose to see only 3 of the gardens currently open in Suzhou - The Humble Administrator's Garden, the Blue Wave Pavillion Garden and the Master of the Nets Garden. The gardens are truly beautiful, although I have to admit that I am so busy admiring the precision of the design, the tiny perfection of each detail, that I don't find them very relaxing places to be. Of course, you need to add to the overwhelming perfection of the gardens the hordes of tour groups prancing along the walkways and dominating the pavilions, each complete with flag-waving leader with their own special bullhorn. The Humble Administrator's Garden and the Blue Wave Pavillion were larger gardens and thus we were able to find peaceful places away from the groups. However, the Master of the Nets Garden is tiny -- a highly condensed version -- and is thought to be the most exquisite of all of Suzhou's gardens. The serenity of the garden and the delicacy of its design managed to shine through all of the people; it was virtually wall-to-wall tourists. (For any of you who have visited the Dr. Sun Yat Sen garden in Vancouver, the Master of the Nets Garden is very much like it and we should be proud to have such a wonderful example of a classical Chinese garden in our city.)
Fortunately, we were able to return to the Master of the Nets Garden in a more serene setting to attend an evening of traditional Chinese performing arts. The evening consisted of a variety of performances ranging from Chinese theatre, Chinese opera, songs, dances and performances on a variety of musical instruments, including one magical performance by an incredible flutist who played to our group across the water from one pavillion while we sat in the middle of the garden in another pavillion.
Suzhou is also famous for its silk production. Silk is so old -- the Chinese have been making it for centuries -- and it's cool to think that some things just can't be improved upon. The process is very simple and we were able to see the entire process from worms to cocoons and beyond at one of the silk mills, including the production of incredibly luxurious silk-filled duvets!