|After enjoying the beauty of the Gardens, some of our more thirsty companions found a beer store just across the street and bought supplies for the group who piled back into the bus to heading on to our next destination before retiring to our hotel, the fabulous Pan Pacific in Suzhou. We had been warned by Sky that the building was designed in the format of a medieval Chinese castle and the room layout was a little confusing but were not prepared for what we experienced. By far, the most enchanting night of our trip.
The Lingering Gardens were a fascinating insight into the psyche of the ancient Chinese and how they used the limited space available to create exquisite interpretations of horticultural beauty. There is an extensive history and insight into Chinese gardens on Wikipedia. They create an idealized miniature landscape, which is meant to express the harmony that should exist between man and nature. (According to our Wuxi guide, FayFay, their original purpose was to entertain house bound ladies of means who left the house only 3 times in their lives, when they were born and presented to the public for the first time, when they were married and for their funerals!)
From there we were taken to a silk embroidery emporium where skilled masters created incredible woks of art. The first piece we saw blew us away - a perfect replica of the Mona Lisa done entirely by embroidery with different stitch patterns for different areas of the image. Another was an almost photographic image of Lady Diana. As we went through the show room we were able to watch an elderly lady create another masterpiece of a fish from a photograph replicating each feature of every scale meticulously. The guide informed us of the skill needed to do such fine work that looks the same from the back as it does from the front.
After marveling at the skill needed to keep the image clean on both sides maintaining the shading and colours evenly, we were completely mystified to see a unique piece that had two different images on opposite sides of the frame! Imagine the skill needed to embroider a piece on one side while simultaneously creating a completely different image on the other side, working with the aid of a mirror!
After getting a chance to purchase embroidered silk creations ranging from a few dozen Yuan to several million for the larger, unique pieces from their showroom, we were taken to an adjoining dining hall for dinner. This was our introduction to the system many of the cultural state sponsored industries use in China to bring bus loads of visitors to their factories and showrooms by offering subsidized meals and drinks. Similar to lunch, we were seated at a large table with a large lazy susan in the middle on which almost a dozen different dishes were placed with rice and soup in the middle. A couple of (large) bottles of local beer (~3% alcohol) were shared by the table of 10 ensuring everyone got a (small) glass. Carafes of green tea accompanied the meal that had a few completely vegetarian dishes but most of the meat dishes were significantly bulked up with veggies, much to the delight of this undescerning vegetarian. The token dessert was a meager offering of thinly sliced small watermelon at the most.
Having sufficiently regaled ourselves, we headed off to the hotel for our second night in China. We were warned that the hotel was difficult to navigate because it was built like an ancient castle but we were completely blown away with the entire scope of the Pan Pacific Hotel in Suzhou! Although it was dark by the time we arrived, it was evident that this hotel was in a class by itself. The landscaped grounds were subtly lit around fish filled ponds and moats around the sprawling building. True to the warning, the corridor wound it's way around several corners skirting pagodas in courtyards from the 3rd floor reception area to our room that overlooked a grove of willow trees on the banks of another water course. The room was well appointed but not as high tech as the hotel in Shanghai. It had a stately, dignified air about it which we wished we could enjoy for more than our overnight stay.
Breakfast was an extravagant affair with some of the most unique breakfast offerings served in a large dining area with picturesque views of the courtyard.
Since we hadn't had a chance to enjoy the grounds the night before, we decided to use the little time we had after breakfast to walk around the water course that was stocked with huge koi. The grounds were beautifully landscaped around traditional architectural focal points. It was difficult to get the group going out for our first optional tour which was a cruise along some of the waterways that make up the Grand Canal which runs from Beijing to Hangzhou. Most of the group decided to go on this water boat tour which rode quite low in the water so we felt like we were part of the community that lives on the banks of the canal similar to their Venetian counterparts. Here is a sample of what the canal cruise is like at night!
After traversing over a kilometer of Shangtang river waterway, under low bridges and into narrow alleys, passing all manner of floating services including several other tour boats, we disembarked into one of the canal side communities along a short portion of the 2.2 mile long Shangtang street and saw up close how they lived, worked and shopped. It was fascinating to see the biodiversity of raw (and many still living) produce for sale to the local consumers. Tubs of live frogs in plastic nets vied for display space with eels, crabs and shellfish. Fresh produce was abundantly available and the meat houses offering all kinds of braised meat were spaced strategically so as not to be in direct competition with each other.
We walked down a main street dodging electric scooters while attracting the attention of every hawker in the vicinity. We got some strange looks while trying to photograph all the live animals for sale while well groomed dogs languished at regular intervals. The locals were intrigued by the presence of these 'big noses', a term to describe non-orientals. There was so much to see that we were constantly having to regroup to make sure no one was left behind. Steve even managed to buy a handsome semi-formal jacket for a great price. As we exited the busy street up some steps we came up to a major road. It was fascinating to see the sea of two-wheelers that have specially designated and dedicated lanes whizzing by on electric motors. Gasoline powered scooters & bikes carry a hefty levy to reduce the pollution and accidents in major Chinese cities. Even the service vehicles, transport tricycles and hawkers bikes were all electric powered.
We then returned to the hotel to pick up those who did not come on the river cruise and headed off to witness first hand the miracle of turning a moth pupae cocoon shell into a luxurious fabric and hypoallergenic duvet/pillow pile.
As we entered the premises of the Suzhou No.1 Silk Factory Co. Ltd. which was built in 1926 and marketing as Choyers brand. We were introduced to sericulture with a display plot of mulberry plants, the leaves of which the moth larvae feed on and eventually build their cocoons. We then went through some rooms where there were live, writhing larvae and caterpillars of the silk moth maintained on display feeding on beds of leaves. The larvae were just about an inch long but the caterpillars were almost 3 inches and their leathery backs had a dry soft feel to touch. Next were the trays of cocoons, which were graded into single & double based on the size and the quality. Only the single pupa cocoons can be used to produce silk. The double (when two pupae spin a combined cocoon intertwining their threads) cannot be un-spun and so are used to make a variety of products requiring a soft filling as well as bullet proof vests due to their high strength.
We were then introduced to the process whereby the cocoons are boiled to kill the pupae and then soaked in a hot bath to begin to unravel the fibre, the ends of which are caught by a fibrous brush and fed into a spinner to reel it into a thread. 8 cocoons are used to produce one silk thread which is wound onto a spool. The machine we saw had hundreds of spools on both sided with probably thousands of cocoons unspooling and being supervised by attentive staff who removed the spent shells and added new ones constantly. It was an intensive process even though most of it was mechanized.
From there we saw how the double cocoons are processed, the fibres being removed in a pad from the boiled pupae and then stretched and dried on a special rack. Once dried, the were stretched into a thin gossamer film and layered to form a stack that would be used as filling in duvets and pillows. It was fascinating to watch the workers, who allowed us to participate in the stretching process. The quality of the duvets was based on the amount of silk fibres incorporated and the amount of stitching used to keep it in place. They were graded on their weight which corresponded to their insulating ability and consequently their price.
We then were allowed to inspect bed linen and household items for sale in a large showroom where many of our group decided to purchase items. They were packed appropriately for international transportation. For those who wanted to proceed there was a large showroom attached to the factory where all manner of clothing & accessories was made from silk. Their (fixed) prices were reasonable for their quality. After making some purchases there (where I found my mandarin cap) we were directed to the dining hall across from the factory were some of our group had already started quenching their parched gullets with the local brew. As we had come to expect, lunch was the standard fare of up to a dozen different dishes placed on the lazy susan to be shared by the dozen or so participants placed at the table. Beers, pop and green tea were served as well.
From there we left directly to our next destination in the nearby city of Wuxi. The highways in this part of China were well maintained and marked and although the view from the highway was partially obstructed by tall tree plantings, there were many areas where you could see that every inch of the land was either used for agriculture or occupied by cloned, high rise apartment buildings.