‘…. travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams (PICO IYER…’CAN A TRIP EVER BE AUTHENTIC’)
2000-2008…a period of hibernation, of re-locations from Muscat to New Delhi to Gurgaon, Haryana. Property boom and strong industrial base had transformed Gurgaon, a sleepy village with affiliations to Mahabharata (one of the religious tomes of India), into a New Delhi clone. We were lured by green vistas, pollution- free air and manageable traffic, little realizing that few years down the line the ‘Dream city’ would emulate New Delhi’s traffic congestions and unruly constructions.
Not surprisingly the seven-year itch surfaced and 2008 found us jetting our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. In between there were vacations to USA (meet with children), Singapore, and Thailand and cities within India. Every time we returned, Gurgaon would dip one notch lower in pollution index. The blue skies were fast disappearing to be replaced by perpetual grey, haze and smog.
Hong Kong: Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional laid back nation and the other glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s lingering British influences amidst ‘Red’ mish-mash of opportunism is probably what lures visitors, us included, to its crowded streets embossed with glass fronted buildings. The British came in 1789 to what was then ‘Fragrant Harbour’, a sobriquet derived from the scents of trees and flowers that once adorned the hills and shores. They liked what they saw and stayed on finally being reminded of their status as over-stayers in 1997. One cannot blame them as ‘Some can just jump right in, others take their time and watch from the sides for a while… ultimately to succumb to the allure’ and continue to stay on. For millions who followed over the years, Hong Kong continues to be a dream destination despite being swamped by constructions, traffic fumes, odorous exhalations of raw meats and cigarettes and political shenanigans.
We came to Hong Kong in 2008, for a year, and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get our extensions stamped for two, three, seven and permanent residency. There was no single reason for taking root in this neatly packaged multi dimensional concrete localebalanced by yan ching mei ( essence of humanity) but combination of these assets that presented Hong Kong as an exotic experiment. Maybe, I was waiting for such a change.
Cuisine Trap: A clichéd way to knowing a country is to step on its food trail and my introduction to local cuisine was through Chin-India cuisine, Chinese cuisine flavored to Indian taste. The surprising part is that I am not a food person but differentiating the fake (Indian –Chinese) from the real was a choice I willingly made and splurged on the rainbow additions to my culinary choices. Other ‘food’ firsts were the squirming fishes in restaurant water tanks, different species and hues, and till date I ask a table farthest from the mini tanks. Wet markets were another self-imposed banned areas till my helper asked me to accompany her once, Nose scrunched I followed her to realise that I had missed out on the color riot of fruits and vegetables.
Another reason for hopping onto to the food cart is that writing about Hong Kong is similar to being repeatedly pushed through topic shredders. The Island city is prodded and pricked with every alphabet and the F word is way out of the maze. The choice is unlimited from Michelin star, five-star or simply neighborhood open-air food stalls or the once popular Dai Pai Dongs, book cafes and fast food outlets.
The ‘food trail’ facilitated tasting of the esoteric and exotic such as Snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties and talking about it.
One year down the line the ‘Chinese Takeaway’ in words of Betty Mullard (KOWLOON TONG by PAUL THEROUX) became more than food exploration; it became a way of life. We changed residence from service apartment to a fully furnished apartment in Laguna Verde, Hung Hom, along the waterfront. My days followed a set pattern; morning and evening walks along Tsim Sha Sui (East) promenade watching ‘still’ fishers and seniors risking cold water dips in the Bay; walks in Hutchinson Park to gawk at feisty seniors in coordinated tees swinging to ‘Sugar…Sugar…Honey… Honey’; afternoons and evenings were leisure and writing times, social outings and television viewing. I discovered South Korean serials, watching most from start to finish.
Communication, as in Sultanate of Oman, was/is without bumps or lumps except when faced with unblinking faces in crowded MTR, the mute cashiers at general stores, the gruff fruit sellers at wet market stalls expecting exact change or the ‘No cheap’ commenting shop assistants of brand showrooms because you happen to be from the Sub-continent.
In seven years my discoveries multiplied, in step with the burgeoning verticality as I walked streets, alleys and subterranean air-conditioned walkways, checked on numerous eating-places metamorphosing with drop of chopstick, watched tenacious seventy year olds, bent back tiptoeing on tiny feet, pushing carts stacked with cardboard boxes through crowded pavements. My initial response was to help, but one withering look and I backed off. In a way it was an inspiration to step out of my comfort zone of ‘non-labor’. My glance went to her feet, tiny, but not the ‘iron feet’ of Chinese girls we had read in geography books, in school in India.
Talking with friends I learnt that ‘iron feet’ was ‘lotus feet’, a custom of ‘applying painfully tight bindings to the feet of young girls to prevent further growth.’ This excruciating custom had originated from the upper classes, court dancers of Imperial China (Song dynasty) and percolated down to the masses, a status symbol of beauty and sexuality for a prestigious marriage. Dorothy Ko in ‘Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet (2002)’ writes that the Han Chinese women were bowing to social dictates of the time wearing embroidered and colorful symbols of prosperity. By seventeenth and eighteenth century the custom had percolated down to the masses. In 1887, Alicia Little, had referred to bound feet ‘six year old girls instead of hopping, skipping or jumping like little girls in England, were leaning heavily on sticks taller than them or being carried on a man’s back or sitting sadly crying’.
I do not have ‘Lotus feet’ but my feet size is 4 and it was a joke in my hometown (India) that ‘ you will find your size only in China’. But I have a hard time finding my size amidst the present large shoe sizes of Hong Kong. I see dainty, normal size feet and it is a relief that human frailties and their callous results consigned to the past.
Explorations and Visitations: 2008 onwards was also a period of acclimatization and exploration. Weekends saw us boarding ferries and public transport for surrounding islands (Cheung Chau, Peng Chau, Lamma, Lantau), walking commercial streets and alleys, visiting temples, libraries, museums and to watch commercial and residential areas turn into grand commercial carnivals of decadence and expectations. The trips were ‘mystical flashes of belonging’, of windows opening to another life, of feeling confident about our move to an island country existing in different time zones.
The journey continues and when someone asks me ‘Don’t you miss your country’ my answer is ‘Why. Even after seven years of stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist’. (John Le Carre“When you leave Hong Kong,” …”it ceases to exist.” in ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’.
Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump…. for a minute you wonder who is smashing whose head and that too over jumping Buffalo or Bison and then you realize that this is one of the ‘world’s oldest, largest, and best preserved buffalo jumps’. It is not literally a jump but a 6000-year-old indigenous method of hunting unsuspecting buffalo who ‘jumped’ over a cliff to the plain below, to their death.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump or Estipah-skikikini-kots site is on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains at end of the prairies of Alberta and Montana (across the border). It was a Blackfoot (tribe) food-back-up-supply (depot) to round-up buffalo/bison from their grazing areas in the Porcupine hills and driven along drive lanes to edge of cliff by specialized buffalo-runners dressed as coyotes and wolf. The petrified herd galloped at full speed, unaware of impending doom, to fall down the 300 meters high cliff to immobility and death. The carcasses were dragged to the camp and butchered into pieces with every part and entail used for different purposes. Sometimes human error resulted in death or injury to the hunters, as one learns from the tale of a Blackfoot youth who had got caught in the wave of falling animals and found with his head smashed, under the pile of carcass.
A walk to this World Heritage Site (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1981) on a blustery windy day is a lesson in history of the Plains People and their courage and fortitude, of hardships endured to subsist on the vast herds of buffalo/bison that existed in North America, of their understanding of buffalo and predator behavior, notably wolf and coyotes, and of life before guns and horses.
One can hike up the lower trail, from the car park area, up to the base of the bluff where the buffalo fell. The place has since filled up with growth and earth but one can visualise the steep fall. The Site was abandoned in the 19th century after contact with Europeans and was later discovered, in 1880s, by Europeans and excavated by the American Museum of Natural History in 1938.
We preferred the second option of walking the upper trail from top floor of the Visitor Center and then walked back five floors for the exhibits and the cafeteria. The Interpretative Centre, opened in 1987, is built into the sandstone bluffs of Porcupine Hills merging with the landscape of prairie grasslands to give visitors a feel of the past.
The Center showcases archeological evidences highlighting the ecology, mythology, lifestyle and technology of Blackfoot people. The exhibits and the 16-minute narration by a native boy, of his dreams and participation in an actual hunt, is a gripping presentation of erudite technique connecting spiritual ceremony (performed by medicine women and men for a safe and successful hunt), with preparations of ‘buffalo runners’ to locate and herd the animals to the cliff site, the involvement of entire camp in setting up ingenious V-shaped drive lanes snaking their way through ridges, crossing coulees and rising across the tops of high hills to end at the cliff from where there was no turning back. It is a story of courage, of hardship and survival instincts of both humans and animals. Particularly poignant is the killing of maimed buffalo as Native People believed that escaping animals would warn other herds of the deadly trap.
A successful hunt brought in food, dried meat, pemmican, fat supplements from the bones, tanned hides for clothing and dwelling and tools from bones collected. Almost every body part of the animal used to last the extreme winter conditions when the tribe moved to safer regions along the Old Man River and the valleys beyond. .
Chastened and clued-up we followed the steps down to the Tipi exhibit and finally to ground floor at the bottom of a life-size diorama to click selfies where the buffalo (bison) seem tragically close to falling on your head.
Another must watch is the permanent exhibition, Lost Identities: A Journey of Rediscovery, a collaboration of historical societies and museums.
We spent sometime at the Cafeteria refreshing ourselves with coffee and apple pie. No bison burgers after watching their butchering. While waiting for family to catch up, chatted with a Native, working at Center. He had greeted us at entrance with a ‘Namaste’ (Indian greeting) acknowledging that ‘we are both Indians, one from the West and the other from East’. His words, ‘India and China had the numbers to claim their land, whereas, his people are just spectators of happenings around’ sounded of lost opportunities. I did not want to show my ignorance of the political and social history of the First Nation and Native Americans and nodded acquiescence to his statements adding my one sentence that ‘maybe they needed a Mahatma Gandhi or a Sun Yat-sen to guide them to channelize their resources’. He smiled. ‘A head-smashing photo-shoot moment’.
*To get there. From Calgary head south on Hwy. 2 for about 160 km. till you see the signs for Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Hwy. 785 West. The turnoff for Hwy 785 is about one km north of the major intersection with Highway 3. The Site is located 18 kilometres (15 minutes) north and west of Fort Macleod.
Traveling on an Indian train is a series of mechanical exhalations, specifically for an Indian, whether in general second or cattle class or in First A/C. The surrounding levels of odors set the tone of the journey and with olfactory senses already in a limbo by the time the train streams out of the platform it is the sights and sounds that keep you engrossed.
An adventure prudie, guided by age, my the finger zeroed on Rajdhani Express for the rumbling journey in mid April 2015, across the plains of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan to Mumbai and from here a taxi ride along the Western Ghats to Pune. An ambivalent travel decision, to fly or track it, had resulted in Second a/c sleeper in the August Kranti Rajdhani, a clone of the original Rajdhani, clanking between Delhi’s Nizamuddin railway station and Central Station, Mumbai. A disappointment as I was hoping to touch down at Victoria Terminus or the present Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), with its Victorian-Gothic style of architecture, constructed in 1888, a reminder of the British Raj pre-independence and more recently the scene of Dec. 26/11 terrorist attack.
The August Kranti train, named after the August Kranti Maidan, formerly the Gowalia Tank Maidan from where the Quit India Movement, launched in August 1942 and the train metamorphosed into more than a steel contraption. I was hoping for a revolutionary journey as far as hygiene is concerned. Late booking of tickets had resulted in upper berths, a hurdle because for senior travellers to climb up is nothing less than an acrobatic flaying of limbs. The consolation is that one can ask a younger traveler to exchange seats, but our luck was on back-burner. There were senior citizens on the other two berths and an elderly lady on the berth along the aisle leaving us with no choice but to butt up.
Discomfort forgotten, this was the first long distance train journey in India after a gap of nearly thirty years. The earlier train journeys had mostly been short distances, to Nainital via Kathgodam or to Mussorie and Shimla and later after marriage between Delhi and Allahabad. The August Kranti would be covering nearly 1,377 kilometers in 17 hours and 15 minutes and in train speak it was one of the reliable ‘on time’ trains. The diehard BJP supporter, in adjoining berth, attributed this to present government’s railway policies and we hoped for the best…clean and sit-able for 17 plus hours.
The coach was clean but it was the morning train toilet smell that I dreaded. In 1998 I had traveled Hong Kong-Beijing-Shanghai-Hong Kong by express trains and sitting in the Indian train it was a reflex comparison with the lux coaches of the Beijing-Shanghai express, the spiffy uniforms of attendants, the bathrooms, the hot water availability. Though by end of Hong Kong-Beijing segment we were toilet searching for usable ones.
The train slided out of Nizamuddin Railway station around 4.50 pm, on time, and jogs, judders, lurches past New Delhi city swamps and algae ponds choked with plastic, industrial townships of Faridabad and Palwal towards Mathura- the land of Lord Krishna and his shenanigans. The Mathura platform played host to a cow or bull, could not make out from the moving train and I wonder how it came to the platform. So much for ‘Clean India’. The phone service provider had kept us updated about territorial boundaries as we crossed Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra…the last two in the night and early morning. Nothing appeared to have changed as the setting sun highlighted the stark villages, the mud houses in between newer brick constructions. As sunlight faded I turned inwards, to the compartment and its inmates.
We were sharing the lower berth, sitting with the lady, a silent request granted silently. The gentleman was not so obliging and stuck on to his lower berth. They were seasoned train travelers judging by the way they made themselves comfortable. The lady was enterprising, carrying her gastronomic condiments along…crushed cardamoms to add to the train tea and pickles and chutney as food asides. More interesting was her bagging the sachets of tea, milk, sugar, salt, tomato ketchup, served with tea and dinner, and by the time the train touched Borivili (Mumbai suburb), her departure point, she was richer by a few sachets. Her preferred mode of travel was train because of airline baggage restrictions giving credence to Santosh Desai’s words… ‘We never travel alone… we travel with our entire way of life and sometimes that has trouble fitting into an airline cabin’ (Mother Pious Lady..Making sense of Every Day India).’ Santosh Desai.
The gentleman, a shoe trader, was returning to Mumbai after attending his Guru’s camp in Mathura while the lady was on her way to attend the sermons of her guru in Mumbai. I found him taciturn and vocal by turns and the duo turned us into mute audience of their wisdom talk. Within time the conversation veered towards professions and economy and I watched how the lady inveigled an interview/assignment for her shoe designer granddaughter.
Finally, it was time to clamber up to our berths and In between toxic stares at the shoe trader, for not offering me the lower berth, I dozed into dreams of clean toilets, clean stations and gourmet cuisine. Waking up I realized that I should accept that ‘travel remains a journey into whatever we can’t explain or explain away’. (Pico Iyer).
The early morning scene of the peaky backwaters of Mumbai was a pleasant sight till we nudged closer to the city and the whistling local trains or steel cages transporting herds. Finally Bombay Central and a vortex of human bodies, stench and luggage, and we made a hasty exit for the taxi stand for commute to Dadar station. A 20-minute journey extends to more than 45 minutes, as the streets/lanes are jammed with humans, vehicles vying for tarmac space. The scene was reminiscent of Indian movies, of village bumpkins lost in the clamor and chaos of this tinsel town that is more squalor than cheesecake. One wonders why the state’s political parties squabble over beef bans and Marathi supremacy instead of channeling their energies towards making the city clean and livable.
(Did not click any train and station pictures)
Duronto Express….Return from Pune
The return train journey was no Continental soiree across rambling Alpine villages or prairies of North America, but a staid rumbling in another superfast train, the fully air-conditioned Duronto express, across the plains of Central India towards New Delhi, the capital city of India.
We were advised to book berths in the Duronto, as it is the fastest train on the Delhi – Pune sector covering 1520 kilometers in about 19 hours and 45 minutes. The luxury is the fairly comfortable padded velour first class berths and the freedom to stretch, burp or loll. The full day cooped up in a coupe was slightly discomforting and I segmented my hours; first few hours, till lunch time, gazing out at the flashing landscape that was no ‘Picasso blur of light and color’ but burnt sienna of the Deccan soil. The patches of green fields, the flat mountainous projections in the hazy distance add occasional people brightened up the dull scenery of the Western Ghats.
The train makes it first stop at Lonavla and later at Khandala and I start to hum ‘Aati kya tu Khandala’ from film ‘Ghulam’, sung by actor Aamir Khan on-screen. The station is least inviting and I leave Khandala and my humming behind and look forward to, two more stops, ‘shining’ Gujarat. There is very little to differentiate between the villages and towns of the adjoining states, Xerox copies of each other, and it is the signboards that are giveaways of changing territorial boundaries. The people waiting on platforms mirror the city or state, the train had stopped at Surat and Vadodra, and we had a brief glimpse of colourful Gujarati turbans shielding business-dead pan faces. By this time the velour comfort takes hold and i stretch out, breathing the rhythm of ‘back and forth’ as the train trundles on towards the desert plains of Rajasthan…..it is night by the time we cross the Gujarat border. The clacking over the rail joints and brief stops in middle of night fail to rouse me from my sleep.
Train food is nothing to slurp over, a slight improvement, and the vegetarian and non-vegetarian Continental fare accompanied by ice cream, were edible. Being First class the service was good and the chicken cutlets with steamed veggies a shade better than the lunch fare.
We had opted for train travel, probably trying to relive the romance of the railways and not compare it with airline travel. The one advantage of land travel is that there are no long queues, security pat downs, luggage restrictions and most important, the space or leg room. Stretch, exercise or play along the aisle, as the young mother and her two kids were doing, and no reclining seat-in-your-face. I finished a 250-page novel, curled up on my personal berth served by polite attendants, oblivious to the occasional flares of light from villages and stations as the train hurtled into shadowy blackness.
The 5.30 a.m. knock on the door and the smiling attendant placed our tea trays on the stool. What more could one ask for? It was time to unwind and prepare to disembark. A journey to relive the past had come to an end, a sanitized journey minus the shenanigans and subterfuges of past journeys when we had to chain the luggage for fear of pilfering during the night. The caution is still there, despite armed guards and security on board. Also missing is the constant stream of vendors, not allowed in First class compartments, climbing in and out at different stations. The stations too bore the ‘bare’ look as the proliferating books, fruit and snack stalls regulated leaving the platforms for travelers and their luggage.
On time and we were in Nizamuddin Station, New Delhi….the beginning of the end.
From the mysteriously prosaic Shanghai we drive to Soochow or Suzhou cocooned in shimmering silken legends of antiquity and a refreshing introduction to a different face of China.
The drizzle-y weather fails to dampen the two-hour car journey along panoramic green fields speckled with occasional farm hands and blue motorized carts, as we enter Suzhou, situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River (Yangtze River Delta) on the shores of Lake Tai, guided by the setting sun through haphazard traffic and congested lanes. This is Suzhou in its present incarnation, a center of industry and commerce and one of China’s fast developing industrial cities. From our hotel room window, Holiday Inn Youlian Hotel, located close to the old town of canals and pagodas and the new of industrial parks and hi-tech zones, I see roofs of communal housing, blue and muted, lifeless and faceless.
Suzhou’s past splendor is everywhere — in once-grand houses lining centuries-old canals that make their way under still-existing 6,000 stone bridges, and in the many gardens, temple and markets. Marco Polo, the intrepid Italian traveler had described 13th century Suzhou as “Heaven on Earth”, referring to the 6000 bridges ‘such that one or two galleys could readily pass beneath them and where the citizens of this city, men of enormous wealth and consequence hobnobbed with philosophers, the literati and physicians schooled in nature’. *
The best way to unravel the antiquity of Suzhou is to move around on foot, in a rickshaw or to glide down its canals. With time constraints we had no choice but to move around on four wheels and our introduction to ‘ancient’ Suzhou began with Tiger Hill Garden, a massive treasure hunt set in 4000 acres. Su Shi, the famous Song Dynasty poet had said “It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill’. I suppose his advice being followed verbatim down centuries, as Tiger Hill is a popular tourist destination with visitors flocking the gardens, the stony pathways leaving poetic and calligraphic evidence on rocks and pillars.
From a distance Tiger Hill takes on a shape of a crouching tiger but legend has it that a white Tiger had appeared on the hill to guard the burial spot of King Helü of Wu and hence the name Tiger Hill. We followed our Guide and the crowds via the Wanjing Villa showcasing pot plants and Bonsai shrubs/trees, a specialty of Suzhou, covering an area of about 1,700 square meters; the Sword Pond (Jianchi) the watery hiding place of the treasured swords of Helu and past more selfie-clicking tourists to the famous landmark, the 1000-year-old Yunyan Pagoda or the Leaning Pagoda.
This is Suzhou’s answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Italy, and according to travel brochures is taller and predates the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The 48 meter tall brick pagoda with seven stories and eight sides dates its existence to the Five Dynasty and Ten Kingdoms Period (907-960) when Wu was one of the rulers. The Tower, completed in 961 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), started to lean during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). This symbol of Suzhou is a stone replica of earlier wooden pagodas and the existing wood brackets and lintels are mainly decorative.
On way to our next tourist stop our Guide pointed out the ‘Daughter Tree’ and I still have to figure out the English name of the tree. More than the tree it was the story associated with it that was interesting. The tree, synonymous with birth of daughter, was planted in the family courtyard and nurtured along with the new-born. With successive years the growing tree was visible from over the walls and people knew that there was a daughter of marriageable age in the family. Proposals from boy’s families would follow and once marriage fixed the tree was cut and the wood used to make cases and caskets to be given to the girl. I was really impressed by the convenient and unobtrusive way of finding matches, especially, in comparison to present day Indian matrimonial columns and dating sites. The few ‘modern’ courtyards we passed were bereft of the ‘Daughter’ tree.
From ‘Daughter Tree’ the talk veered towards Silk embroidery and in particular Su embroidery. Possibly in continuation to romance of marriages, girls embroidered presents to please their future mothers-in-law and would spend hours bent over pieces of silk. We visited the Suzhou Institute of Embroidery and could have stayed all day watching the end products slithering out of artistic fingers transforming squares, rectangles into works of art. The patience of each stitch, the technique, and the skill was a needle stroke of excellence. One can buy embroidery pieces from stores and workshops on Embroidery street, but this was the particular Su style of embroidery, double-sided embroidery, where one single piece of cloth displays the same subject or picture.
The visit to Suzhou silk factory was an unraveling of silk production and we watched fascinated the entire birth sequence, from pupae feeding on delicate mulberry leaves, wrapping themselves in cocoons and the unraveling of the strands to produce shimmering silk fabrics and lightweight duvets. We picked up silk scarves, soft and graceful, as keepsake.
Silken threads continue to mesmerize as we gawk at the wedding gowns on the fairytale ‘wedding’ street at foothill of Huqiu or Tiger Hill. The entire street and surrounding alleys and lanes are devoted to wedding gowns of different shapes, sizes and colors from 500 RMB onwards to cater to different tastes and pockets.
Chinese landscaping is a blend of art and nature and in 13th-century Suzhou landscaping art reached its zenith. There are more than 200 gardens, private as well as public, representing the garden styles of the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The reason for the profusion of gardens was that the region south of the Yangtze River had produced some of China’s most refined scholars, painters and poets and the gardens were their personal property and their refuge from life’s disillusions and also place to create art, poetry and music. We have time for only one, the Master of the Nets Garden designed during the latter part of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
The Master of the Nets Garden or the ‘Ten Thousand Volume Hall’, was assembled in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi the Deputy Civil Service Minister of the Southern Song Dynasty government. The story is that the owner of Master of Net’s garden was grateful to a fisherman for saving his daughter from drowning and named the Garden after him. A more prosaic version is that the owner, a bureaucrat, got disillusioned with his government job and proclaimed that he would rather be a fisherman than a government official.
Whatever the reason, nature lovers are grateful for this ‘miniaturization of the larger universe’ with rock formations, placement of trees, ponds, pavilions and resting areas and the immaculate zigzag tile patterns, intuitively one does not stomp, that give an impression that one has traversed great distances. The rockeries, waterfalls, paths and corridors are perfectly placed amidst shrubs, trees and flowers, including the Longevity Bridge, a miniature arched bridge in the Central Garden. Our Guide made us step up and down to increase the years in our lives.
One can sit for hours in the quietness of the pagoda in the courtyard lulled by the peaceful ambience of the Garden. I look around at groups and solitary artists engrossed in capturing the scenes in their note books and wonder what they must be thinking. Or like me imagining the jeans and skirts and sneakers transform into silken robes with feet encased in silken embroidered shoes, flitting between trees, pavilions and rockeries.
The 5,400 meter garden is divided into three main sections: the Residential Garden, the Central Garden and the Inner Garden. The buildings, such as the Hall for Staying Spring, the Ming Scholar’s Studio, the Peony Study, the Watching Pines Studio and the Appreciating Painting Studio are easily accessible from the garden. The high point of the Central section is a lotus-filled pond, the Rosy Cloud Pool set amidst a limestone “mountain” and the poetically sounding ‘Washing My Ribbon Pavilion’. The name resonates with a fisherman’s song… “If the water of the Canglang River is clean, I wash the ribbon of my hat. If the water of the Canglang River is dirty, I wash my feet.” This is another China, of history, memory, and even nostalgia.
A brief stop for tea at the gift shop and we stepped out of a masterpiece into reality of gift sellers hawking mementos.The best time to visit is during April and May when blossoming flowers add color to the greys and browns or during Fall for a different take on the canvas.
From the Garden to the Temple was in natural sequence of events and Hanshan Temple or Cold Mountain Temple, a Buddhist temple and monastery in about 10,600 square meters did not disappoint. The temple, located near Fengqiao about 5 km west of the old city of Suzhou, owes it fame to a poem, “A Night Mooring near Maple Bridge”, by Zhang Ji, a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet. The Bell of Zhang Ji’s poem had disappeared a long time ago and the present bell in the tower is a re-modeled version. Every year on New Year’s Eve in China’s lunar calendar, the bell is tolled to pray for the happiness and safety of the coming New Year.
A quick walk around the Grand Prayer Hall, the Sutra-Collection Building, Bell Tower, Fengjiang Pavilion and Tablets Corridor and the symbolic 42 meters Puming Pagoda, a five-storey Buddhist pagoda erected in 1995. The other historical relics in the temple are the statues of the Buddhist patriarch Sakyamuni in the Grand Prayer Hall and of the three eminent monks, Xuan Zang, Jian Zhen and Kong Hai.
Any visit to Suzhou is incomplete without sashaying down the canals of this ‘Venice of the East”. There were no shades of Venice in our matter of fact boat ride and instead of prolonging the agony of the boatman preferred the colorful 3.2 kilometers pedestrian/cultural Shantang Street or Baigong Di along the meandering Shantang River. This street, flanked by ancient temples, ancestral halls, memorial arches and guildhalls, was the gift of BaiJuyi, a Tang Dynasty poet who wanted to connect the street with Tiger Hill. This “First Street of Suzhou’, boasting of 1100 year, history retains its original character transforming itself into a roulade of gleaming red lanterns and music wafting from the eateries, pubs and residences. The famousBantang Bridge is the divider between the eastern section, fromDuseng Bridge inChangmen, showcasing old residences and shops and the West part, from the Tiger Hill, the scenic area.When we left, at 5 p.m. the street was already filling up with young and old, families and companions for a slice of the exotic.
Close on its heels is the 1000 years old Pingjiang Road, once home to literary scholars, high officials, and members of the nobility and the best-preserved cultural-protection zone of old Suzhou.
A major disadvantage of conducted tours is time packaging and China towns require prolonged visits to know more about their antiquity. Suzhou belongs to this category.
2. Mid-way between Shanghai and Suzhou we had stopped for lunch break at Zhouzhuang, a water town straddling the Yangtze River Delta. The blatant commercialization with gated entrance, ticket booths and accompanying amenities takes away the aquatic feel of this Qing and Ming dynastic throwback.
Busloads of tourists, locals and visitors, pour in at regular intervals to relax or appear bored at the contrived natural settings disbursed for a 100 RMB ticket. Avoiding the frenzied sellers we walk along the waterfront, mesmeric picture postcard scenery of loopy willows and bobbing boats and daily life rituals.
It is a small town dominated by mansions and canals and our first stop is a refurbished Shen house, located to the southeast of Fu’an Bridge on Nanshi Street, constructed by one Shen Benren, a wealthy merchant,in 1742 during the Qing Dynasty. The mansion, encapsulated within five archways, seven courtyards and more than 100 rooms of different sizes, is a brick and mortar wealth impression put together in an area of 2000 square meters and built along both sides of a 100-m-long axis. The connecting courtyards are surrounded by dwelling quarters and to reach the inner most courtyard a visitor had to pass through 5 gates and winding corridors. The house is a maze and one can imagine the tiptoeing around of the inmates, the servants and minions, conforming to societal restrictions.
But more picturesque and unique were the fading, dilapidated water front houses, once white with blue roofs hidden by willow curtains dipping in the greenish waters of connecting canals.
Lunch was in one of the old family restaurants along the river, and on the next table I could see a family enjoying the famous Wansan pork shank, a specialty of Zhongzhuang. The dish, named after Shen Wansan, was once the prerogative of the rich. The Wansan Pork Shank is prepared by slowly stewing whole pork shanks (thighs, or upper legs) in large crockery pots flavored with special spices and herbs for nearly 24 hours till the flavors infuse into the meat. The meat is then sliced, garnished with fresh herbs, and served on platters as the main dish of the banquet. Listening to the Guide talk about the pork and pastries had certainly made me hungry.
Another unique Zhouzhang custom is tea drinking referred to by various names: “Grandma’s Tea Drinking”, “Spring Tea Tasting”, “Full Moon Tea Drinking”, “Pleasure Tea Drinking”, and ” Tea Talking”, all of which belong to the tea drinking custom of “Sado South of the Yangtze River”. (Sado being a reference to the very refined and highly ritualized Japanese tea ceremony sometimes spelled Chado.) The’ Grandmas tea drinking’ was an elaborate ritual involving collecting rain water, instead of tap water, in large, free-standing ‘dragon’ water vats placed permanently in the courtyard. The collected water was then tapped into special crocks and brought to a boiling point over an open-air wood fire. The boiled water was poured over the tea leaves in an urn and made to ‘sit’ for some time and then the tea transferred into a pre heated teapot.
Lot of hard work for a simple cup of tea but I suppose it encouraged social interactions between different age groups. One could see the special Zhouzhuang tea sets, brightly glazed blue and white porcelain on special lacquered, trays in the shops.
The high spots of this water town are the stone bridges spanning the river and the waterways. The prominent one’s are the twin bridges, Shide and Yong, constructed between 1573 and 1619 and referred to as Key bridges as each bridge has one square and one round opening similar to ancient keys. The other bridges from the Ming and Qing dynasties are the Fu’an Bridge, a 1355 single arch bridge with towers at each end, at east end of Zhongshi Street across Nanbeishi River and the Zhenfeng Bridge spanning Zhongshi River and connecting Zhenfeng Lane and Xiwan Street.
Our next stop is Hangzhou….another legendry water town set amidst tea gardens and lakes.