There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 14 November 2016

Suzhou (1), The Seven-Mile Shantang and a Mandarin Fish Cut in the Shape of a Squirrel; Part 3 of South East China

After a leisurely start to the morning we were driven the short distance to Nanjing station. Bright and modern, more like an airport than a railway station, we waited at the gate for our train to be called. There are, however various things that are taboo at a Chinese station.

It never crossed my mind, Nanjing Railway Station
Lynne can be seen sitting with our cases below the 'no'.
The high speed train took 90 minutes to cover the 220 kilometres to Suzhou though with four intermediate stops it rarely reached its maximum speed. We were met by a driver and a new guide, B, and driven to our hotel; a vast improvement on the scruffy, unloved premises in Nanjing.
South East China

B advised us that there was a good noodle shop just round the corner and suggested that after lunch we might like to visit the 7-mile Shantang which was a simple fifteen minute walk away.

'Phone me if you have any problems,' she said as she left. We never expected to make a call, but twenty minutes later I realised I had a problem; I had left my glasses in the car. We phoned her, in fact we phoned her several times over the next few hours, not from our aged mobile which resolutely refuses to function in China but from the hotel reception. There was no reply. [‘I’m sorry, I did not recognize the hotel's number and thought they were nuisance calls,’ she said the next day. We get so many nuisance calls at home we readily accepted her apology]. I use my glasses for reading and anything else happening close to me, so I can function without them - for a while - and had to hope we would have the same car and driver tomorrow. [We did and he had my glasses, I doubt we would have accepted the apology so easily if there had been a problem].

The recommended noodle shop was clean and cheap, the brief menu written vertically on wooden fillets hung on pegs on the wall. Distant and relatively large they were easy for me to see, but as they were written in Chinese this helped little. Lynne deployed her vast knowledge of Mandarin, 'niu rou chow mien' (beef noodles) and I added 'liang ping pijiu' (two bottles of beer). A smiling and obliging waitress paused while she deciphered our accents and idiosyncratic use of tones and then motioned us to a seat. The food arrived quickly and was just what we wanted.

Wedged between the huge city of Nanjing (pop 9m) and the megacity of Shanghai (24m), tiny Suzhou, with only 4 million inhabitants is just a big village.

Old streets, Suzhou
Old Nanjing was comprehensively destroyed by the Japanese in 1937, but most of the damage to China's old cities has been done by the Chinese themselves in the name of progress. Having only been brushed by the Taiping Rebellion and the Japanese invasion, the garden city of Suzhou with its intricate network of canals, dismantled its ancient walls and, when the boom times came, was well placed to become yet another Han city of high-rise apartments and flyovers. Fortunately it did not quite happen that way. A Suzhou of tower blocks and industrial zones does exist. It forms an outer ring while inside it the 4km square of central Suzhou remains strictly low rise. A third Suzhou, a city of old streets and canals (preserved rather than rebuilt as is so often the Chinese way) co-exists within the modern centre. Lying a metre or two lower than modern central Suzhou, it is accessed by steps from many of the canal bridges. The central area, ancient and modern has the relaxed, uncluttered feel of a city on a human scale.

Later we walked down to the 7-mile Shantang and from the bridge carrying the modern street over the canal we gazed down on an older China.

The 7-mile Shantang, Suzhou
The ‘7-mile Shantang’ is not all it claims to be. The name is a partial translation of ‘7-li Shantang’. Older dictionaries defined ‘li’ (a very handy word in scrabble) as a ‘Chinese mile’, though ‘mile’ is misleading. More modern dictionaries agree that it is much shorter though Oxford and Chambers differ on its precise length. The ‘li’, like the ‘jin’ (the Chinese pound) are still used, but have been redefined for the metric age. A ‘li’ is now 500m, so the 7-li Shantang is only 3.5km (2.2 miles), though the sign on the bridge clearly said, in English, that we were descending to the ‘7-mile Shantang’.

The Shantang canal was built in 825 AD on the orders of Bai Juyi, a Tang Dynasty governor of Suzhou. The buildings alongside are old (though not that old) but the uses they are put to are new. We stopped at a coffee shop, a new idea in China where very few people drink coffee (and, according to one source, half of those who do don’t like it, but want to appear modern). We sat at a table beside the canal and drank a ludicrously overpriced Americano, but after three coffee free days it seemed a good idea.

We strolled beside the water, peering down the side canals….

Side canal off the 7-mile Shantang, Suzhou
…until we reached a temple in memory of Bai Juyi. I am always a little sceptical of statues of people who died so long ago nobody has the least idea what they looked like, but no doubt he was inclined to stroke his beard – as wise men have always done.

Bai Juyi outside his temple by the 7-mile Shantang, Suzhou
Behind the temple is a short but ornate pagoda.

Pagoda behind the Bai Juyi temple, 7-mile Shantang, Suzhou
Beyond the temple the Shantang canal enters a larger canal which passes under a splendid old bridge. It was time to turn back.

Canal bridge, Suzhou
That evening we went out in search of mandarin fish cut like a squirrel. According to legend the dish was first prepared 1,400 years ago for an emperor of the Sui dynasty who was travelling through his kingdom and wished to taste the best each region had to offer, and somebody thought of this. No longer the food of emperors it is available to every Wong, Dick or David with a little spare cash. Our search was short; a few doors down we found a tiny four table restaurant with a picture of the very fish on the door. We did not know then that we would see the likeness all over Suzhou.

The mandarin fish is a member of the perch family abundant in eastern China's rivers. It is cut into the squirrel shape, very lightly battered and fried before being covered in a variation on sweet and sour sauce.

Mandarin Fish Cut in the Shape of a Squirrel
Menu seen outside a different restaurant, Suzhou
The response when a couple of foreigners turned up in an unexpected place often used to be fear, horror or bemusement. Now it is usually one of welcome. We ordered our fish and a vegetable dish by pointing at the picture menu and when we asked for beer the owner popped into the restaurant next-door to source a couple of bottles of Tsingtao. We were grateful, Tsingtao may not be a great beer, but it is far better than the local Snow Beer which is wet, weak and watery. Perhaps he felt he could not offer that to honoured guests - and perhaps it occurred to him he could charge more for Tsingtao.

Mandarin fish cut in the Shape of a Squirrel
The reality
Our fish was magnificent, though the similarity to a squirrel was mostly in the eye of the beholder – I suppose it vaguely resembled a hedgehog. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal which seemed to please the owner, and a group of old men at the table behind who made an effort to speak to us as they left. It was kind of them, even if language difficulties made our communication symbolic rather than actual.

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