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…..

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Suzhou (2) The Humble Administrator's Garden and Other Gems: Part 4 of South East China

I love complicated
You come me you'd alway
slogan seen on a coat, Suzhou Museum

Seen leaving Suzhou museum
In the morning B turned up with the same driver in the same car; he had spotted my glasses on the back seat and kept them safe. I was relieved to have them back.

We set off across town to the Humble Administrators Garden, one of the finest in the garden city of Suzhou, indeed one of the finest in China.

 Suzhou and Jiangsu Province
I was predisposed to dislike the 'humble administrator' (though not necessarily his garden) because anyone who calls themselves 'humble', like Uriah Heap or Emperor Tu Duc of Vietnam (we met him in Hue) almost certainly is not. But the Chinese word translated as ‘humble’ also suggests a level of, at best, semi-competence. Ming official Wang Xianchang was unhappy in his job and was passed over for promotion so in 1510 he threw in his post, bought a cheap patch of land outside the city and planted a market garden - a humble enough occupation.

Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
The story might be believable except for the history of the land. In the 9th century the plot had been the garden of Tang Dynasty poet Lu Guimeng. After a fallow period it became a garden again in the 12th century while during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) it was the Dahong Temple garden. If the administrator was humble, the plot was not.

Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
And then there was the involvement of Wang’s friend the eminent poet and artist Wen Zhengming. As a garden designer he was not a man to settle for a couple of rows of beans.

Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
The garden was perfected, Wang Xianchang died and bequeathed the garden to his son who lost it in a game of cards. The story then becomes complicated and for a century or two the three parts, the Eastern, Western and Central Gardens were under different ownership. They were brought back together under state ownership in 1949, restored and opened to the public in 1952 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Bonzai trees, Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
The 5 hectares of garden are a maze of walkways, punctuated by decorative rocks and pavilions, surrounding pools thick with lotus. Trees and flowers sometimes seem an afterthought in such a garden though the lotus would have been spectacular earlier in the year and the sweet smell of osmanthus would have wafted across the garden only a month ago.

Better when the lotus was in bloom, Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
Even in November it was worth seeing, a thought that had also occurred to several thousand Chinese tourists, some in small groups, many following a leader with a flag. In summer the garden must be seriously crowded – a state at odds with the original concept.

A Chinese tour party, all in identical caps, file past the pond
Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
In several places artificial 'mountains' have been raised, the largest a couple of metres high. We paused on one where an arbour was inscribed with a short poem by (I think) Wen Zhengming

'Among Mountains, Flowers and Wild Birds'
The cicada's churring makes the forest quieter
The singing of birds makes the hills more tranquil.

The same cannot be said for the chatter of Chinese tourists.

When westerners were a novelty it was common for people to sidle up and shyly ask to be photographed with such an exotic curiosity. It still happens in remote regions, but among the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated denizens of Suzhou an excuse is required. Here the photograph was for granny who lived deep in the countryside and had never seen a foreigner. Of course we cooperated, but retaliated by having our own photo of us with them!

Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou
From the garden we took a short walk to the Suzhou museum.

A short walk to Suzhou Museum
B (like the museum’s website) seemed more excited by the museum building than by its contents. It is the work of I M Pei, the Chinese-American architect responsible, among other things, for the 1993 glass pyramid outside the Louvre. His family came from Suzhou, but he was born in Guangzhou in 1917 (he will be 100 on the 26th of April 2017) and spent his childhood in Hong Kong and Shanghai before choosing to study architecture in the USA and eventually becoming a major international architect influenced by Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.  Apparently incapable of retiring, he was pleased to be asked to design a new museum for his parents’ home town in 2005.

I really cannot like his earlier Brutalist works. Unlike them, the museum is based on old-style Chinese houses but it is so geometrical it looks, to me anyway, like a kit building.

I M Pei's Suzhou Museum
The installation in the atrium is intended to suggest a traditional landscape painting, but at first glance I though it was a scene of industrial dereliction. I doubt that either I M Pei or the Suzhou city fathers will lose much sleep over my disapproval (yes, I am as humble as an administrator).
Traditional landscape or industrial dereliction? Suzhou Museum
Among the routine display of old coins, porcelain and all the other things you might expect there are two star exhibits, both found in collapsed pagodas in the days when they were allowed to decay as symbols of the feudal past.

The thousand year old Pearl Pillar of the Buddhist Shrine was rediscovered in 1978 in the Ruiguang Pagoda (see next post). The main body is made of nanmu wood with decorations of crystal, agate, amber, pearl and sandalwood, with carved jade and woven golden and silver thread.

Pearl Pillar of the Buddhist Shrine, Suzhou Museum
The 10th century Olive Green Lotus-Shaped Bowl found in 1957 in the Yunyansi Pagoda is a remarkable example of ‘Five Dynasty’ period (907-960AD) ceramics.

Olive Green Lotus-Shaped Bowl, Suzhou Museum
The older (1960s) section of the museum is in the former residence of the self-styled Zhong Prince of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (1850-64) and contains his throne room. (I wrote about the Taiping Rebellion here).

Throne room of the Zhong Prince, Taiping Rebellion, Suzhou Museum
Near the museum is another canal side area like the 7-mile Shantang. B was greeted by a European man she obviously knew. He was a Finn who ran a restaurant and was celebrating eighteen years in China. I asked him if he had expected to be here so long when he arrived. He said he had been sent by Nokia for two years but had not wanted to come and tried to argue them down to one year but once he arrived he realised he never wanted to leave and in the end left Nokia rather than China.

He said his restaurant was No 1 on Trip Advisor and pressed a flyer into my hand. I don't know why he mentioned he had been born in Iran, but as we shared that oddity we seemed to bond and I said we might well return for lunch.

Canalside area near Suzhou Museum
We had a late coffee in one of the new breed of Chinese coffee shops. There were no other westerners around so we inevitably had the place to ourselves. We looked at the Finn's flyer and discovered he was selling meatballs and mashed potato to the Chinese along with other Scandinavian favourites and the odd pizza. Perhaps a visit would not be such a good idea after all.

Boat ride on the canal, Suzhou
We took a short boat trip along the canal. It was a pleasant way to view our interesting surroundings, and very relaxing, though not perhaps for the chap doing the rowing.

Canal bridge, Suzhou
Afterwards B was keen to choose a restaurant for our lunch, but we decided to assert our independence and find a restaurant ourselves. There was plenty of choice and we picked one, sat down and ordered a couple of small, cheap pork dishes that we hoped would make a light lunch. They did, though neither was particularly inspiring and the dishes were too similar - at least they were not meatballs and mashed potato.

Easy enough to find a restaurant along here
After lunch we returned to the hotel. As we had a late start tomorrow B suggested a nearby temple/garden we could visit in the morning and left us with the instruction to 'rest this afternoon.'

We may be getting older, but we are not so old we need to lie down all afternoon after a morning's sightseeing, nor are we so helpless we cannot find our own places to visit. Hanshan Si, Cold Mountain Temple, was according to the map, a mile or so down a dead straight road west from our hotel.

Canal alongside Feng Qiao Road, Suzhou
It was indeed a simple walk beside a canal along Feng Qiao Road to the district of the same name. I commented on the flatness of the walk and how it was a relief after all the steps in Nanjing. We found Cold Mountain Temple devoid of cowboys, of any sexual orientation, and mountains - and cold though it was cool. There was, though, an excellent bell.

Bell, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
The temple had been here since 500AD and is well known in China and Japan because of a few lines by the Tang dynasty (618 -755) poet Zhang Ji

Moonset; through the freezing air the caw of a crow;
By Feng Qiao, breaking my rest, the fishing lamps glow;
To me as I lie in my boat the dark hour brings
The plangent repeated sound as the temple bell rings
At Hanshan beyond Suzhou.

It is a remarkable evocation of a scene in so few words. Reading it I find myself pulling my cloak closer around me and shifting uncomfortably on the hard planks of my boat.  And it is not only me, at New Year Hanshan is crowded with Japanese visitors who come to hear the midnight bell. The temple has grown rich on their donations.

Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Continuing through the temple, Puming Ta is an eleventh century seven storey pagoda. Apologizing for my earlier comment about steps, we set off up it, but the stairs above the first floor were roped off. We did not miss the climb, but were sorry we were deprived of our view of the Grand Canal. Started in the early 7th century the canal runs for 2000km connecting the rice bowl of the southern Yangtze with the heavily populated but less fertile lands of the north. It enabled China's early economic growth and although built to benefit the north, the south also benefited, and to such an extent that both Nanjing and Hangzhou became the national capital at various times.

Puming Ta, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
I liked the view of the temple roofs, though, even if it was not the grand canal.

Roofs, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Outside the main Buddha hall was an incense burner bedecked with red ribbons. It can be difficult to tell Buddhist from Taoist temples but usually red denotes Taoism and yellow Buddhism. This, though, was a Buddhist Temple. People were attempting to flip coins through the holes at the top or land them on the upper surfaces. Success would doubtless indicate forthcoming good fortune.

Ribbon bedecked incense burner and flippers of coins, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Inside the main Buddha hall the Buddha himself...

Main Buddha Statue, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
....was supported by what looked like a jury of arhats (and more of them tomorrow).

A jury of Arhats, Hanshan Si, Suzhou
Later we visited another small restaurant in the same row as yesterday. I left my glasses in the hotel so Lynne looked at the pictures and picked a chicken dish and some cauliflower. The chicken looked spectacular when it arrived in a wok placed over a heater, the sides lined with what I would have called puri had we been in India. The chicken came with potatoes, onion, garlic and peppers in a rich gravy while the cauliflower was accompanied by star anise, onion, peppers, ginger, soy sauce, chilli and a lot of oil. Washed down with a couple of bottle of Tsingtao, one of China's least worst beers, it made an excellent evening.

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