Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

IMG_3023A fellow writer from my writing group is of the view that food descriptions add sumptuousness to bleak travel words. Her advice worked as ‘Heavy Metal’ detox as till recently Dim Sum and Dumplings were same. A friend explained that the first is an umbrella term to define a family feast, lunch or brunch time, of variety of dishes and the second, my favorite, is dough shaped around fruits, veggies or meat in ball shapes and particular dish or cuisine of Dim Sum.

The rainbow additions to my diet changed my perception towards food. Another reason for hopping onto to the food cart is that writing about Hong Kong is similar to being repeatedly pushed through topic shredders as the Island city has been prodded and pricked with every alphabet. The F word helps in discussing what you have eaten, where you are going to eat: Michelin star, five-star or simply neighbourhood open-air food stalls, the once popular Dai Pai Dong, book cafes and fast food outlets to check out the esoteric or exotic such as Snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties. Add to the list combination cafes: books, motorcycles, flowers, art galleries, clothes boutiques and you wonder whether enjoying coffee/tea/juice on its own is unsalable or inadequate.

IMG_3012This was something different…Medieval Weapon Cafe on Beech Street, Tai Kok Tsui (Mong Kok neighbour). Tucked or rather palmed between hardware and general stores and crowded by delivery vans this tiny place in a warehouse dominated area is a surprise. The name attracted me, as did Longitude Dental Clinic in the same row, and we walked in to a 600 square feet area displaying armory and food counter. The swords, sheaths, visors, hand protectors, shields adorning the walls and on shelves transport you to the world of Iron Man, Garth comics or to some present characters I am unaware of. I wanted to click photographs straight away. Rei Tsang, the owner/director quietly reminded me that clicking is connected to eating and that we order food, it is a café.

IMG_3006Fair enough and the Chicken spaghetti salad washed down with pineapple orange juice was pleasant on taste. One can have sandwiches or pastries and pose with the Atlantean Sword (features in the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian) or the wide lethal Buster Sword and an appropriate tankard with tankard of coffee, tea, juice (set menu). What I liked, more sedentary, was the Chain mail, a steel mesh, a fashion statement.

Rei Tsang started this venture three months back (www.facebook.com/WeaponHouse) and is helped by his wife. The weapons are for sale, including cat armor modeled by his cat.

An interesting mix of comestibles and swashbuckling valour.

My husband trying out the medieval helmet

My husband trying out the medieval helmet

 

The Lovely Chinese Water Town of Old Hangzhou   

published in   http://www.tripatini.com

continuing with the Water Trilogy series covering Shanghai,Suzhou and Hangzhouphoto 2-80

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IMG_2919Hong Kong is forever in a flux; in a constant need to replenish and re-engage its outer casings. The latest, at least I visited it few days back, is the perky changeover of the former airport Kai Tak *and its surroundings.

IMG_2924The runaway has been converted into a cruise terminal and the three levels no-trims attached building features passenger and service areas including drops-offs, waiting halls, concourse and an elite shopping area awaiting footfalls of cruisers. On the ground floor level are fascinating snapshots of the airport through the ages and on the rooftop another iconic symbol, a gleaming ‘golf ball’ radome.

IMG_2922The highlight of this 23,000 square meters revamp is a rooftop garden reminding me of the 1.45-mile-long High Line Park in Manhattan, (Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West DSCN406734th Street, between 10th and 12th Avenues) on the elevated section of the disused New York Central Railroad spur or the West Side Line. Redesigned as an aerial greenway and rails-to-trails park it is an intoxicating cultural and relaxing hub amidst the bustle of New York City.

IMG_2927The Kai Tak Rooftop rendezvous offers family fun on the extended central lawn, fountain plaza, concrete walkways, viewing platforms for incredible views of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula.

IMG_2925It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, loosing our way and mix-ups on distance, but the crabbiness vanished on sighting the luminous cruise liner against the harbor vista. ‘The Old Hangar’ ambiance of ‘a cool industrial/vintage chic space with high ceilings’ was tempting as refuge from afternoon sun, but, we preferred the open spaces, the flora and fauna lining the concrete pathways, the strategically placed benches, temptations to laze well into moonlight or starlight, the closing time is 11 pm, and an interesting way to end the day.

 

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*Kai Tak or the Old Airport made way for a new International airport on Lantau Island on 6 July 1998 after 77 years of service.

Address: Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, 33 Shing Fung Road, Kai Tak, Kowloon, Hong Kong

 

 

 

Aisle’s Travel Theme…Handmade

Handmade wedding feast…… near Taizhou, China

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A city that comes together in diversity and versatility, offering up sounds, tastes and sights of a wide palate.

1971…Pune City, the ‘Queen of the Deccan’, a quiescent suburban town of wide leafy roads showcasing famous landmarks: the Aga Khan Palace where Mahatma Gandhi had spent few years as house prisoner; the Osho Ashram in Koregaon Park; the Film and Television Institute catering to Bollywood, Tollywood and all the other cine woods of the country; the Armed Forces Medical College and the National Defense Academy at Khadakwasla; the forts, temples and parks. To next-door neighbor, Mumbai, the city is a ‘releaser of tensions’ and to the locals, a bastion of Maratha culture and legendary Shivaji* and celebrious Maratha warriors, the Peshwas, who had challenged the mighty Mughals and the English army.

This was my first visit to Pune and the thrill of traveling in an ‘officer’s carriage’, allotted to my brother posted at Bhusawal, Central Railways, spilled over onto the city of wannabe film stars (Film Institute) and spiffy services cadets (NDA). It was a two-day trip and while my brother did his work, we (mother, youngest brother and me) visited the landmarks of this laid back town.

Pune City....the changing city scape

Pune City….the changing city scape

Subsequent visits exposed different facets of the city and the 2015 Pune is a constantly expanding suburbia. Mushrooming high-rises, pubs, boutiques, lounges, malls, hotels and industries shadow the green luxury. In Koregaon Park we are greeted by a barricaded Osho Ashram and the opulent Starbucks, more of a ‘decor’ lounge than a middle end coffee shop that one finds in the USA. The congested labyrinth of Camp area, choking with shops, roadside stalls, disintegrating colonial structures and proliferating education centers embracing narrow lanes are giveaways of the concussive new face of Pune.

Banyan Roots

Banyan Roots

The one constant are the abundant nebbish roots of the majestic Banyan trees. The trees are an intrinsic part of the city and at odds with the present of multitudinous ‘steel ants’, mopeds and two wheelers, mapping Pune’s narrow lanes and arteries. The influx of professionals and businesses has increased footfalls and traffic snarls with width of roads stuck in time.

A Punaite will argue that despite the people onslaught the city has retained its elegance and charm typified by the ‘dragon fly’ energy and attitude of a scarf covered face, with only eyes visible, slicing through traffic. This unique sartorial style is the ‘silent’ approach towards ‘girl power’. Altaf Tyrewalla, a ‘Pune Mirror’ columnist, writes that the city is guided by the young’s choice in clothes, entertainment and cuisine.

IMG_1722The city is swarming with the young, thanks to the flourishing educational institutions, IT industries and closeness to Mumbai. One has to live in a city to know its corners and warts and in twenty-five days we did manage to experience the banyan-tree resilience of Pune.

IMG_1731April is the month for Alphonso mango, piled up along roads, lanes and market stalls. This year the fruit is expensive due to recalcitrant weather but it does not stop the mango mania invading thalis (platter of assorted dishes), desserts, ice creams and shakes adding color to the city’s food spreads. We try the Marathi ‘thali’ (platter) and find that it is a platonic love affair and one needs to develop resilience for a sustainable relationship. Friends insist that home cooked Marathi food is not ‘so theekha (spicy) or clone-y’ and one can order specific Marathi and not a blend of Marathi, Rajasthani and Gujarati. I relish the Vada Pav from a roadside stall, somewhere in Camp area, as my friend’s driver insisted that it was the best Vada Pav* in town. Our neighbors, a young IT couple insist that we  try Irani tea and ‘Maska’ Pav and I get a taste of the functional at a Wanowari tea stall. A Pav (burger bun) is a Pav whether served with Vada (potato fritters), Maska (butter), Misal (spicy curry) or meats…a case of pedestrian with exotic.

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The color blue….rarity in Gurgaon

The 2015 trip is more of fresh air and discussions about ‘polluted’ Delhi vying with Beijing for top honors in air quality. There are no trips to Amanora Mall, the new shopping address in town, forts or temples. I sit in my little corner of a hill under blue skies, a rarity in Gurgaon, and watch the ubiquitous water tankers toil up the steep hill road of NIBM, Khondwa. Another Pune…

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*Shivajien.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shivaji

* Vada Pav…. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vada_pav

Backwaters......Mumbai

Backwaters……Mumbai

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.

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Personal fiefdom…Mathura Station

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

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Pune Station

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.

IMG_2830We 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.

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Green cover

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.

A.H.Wheeler...still continuing

A.H.Wheeler…still continuing

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.

WATER TRILOGY – 2……….Suzhou

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On way to Suzhou…the color green

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.

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View from hotel window

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.

IMG_0235Suzhou’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’. *

Tiger Hill….Wanjing Villa

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.

Yunyan 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.

Our embroidery purchase

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.

IMG_0223The 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.

Wedding gowns on sale

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.

unnamed-9Whatever 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.

IMG_2095One 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.

unnamed-2From 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.

IMG_1815Any 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.

IMG_0236 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.

unnamed-112. 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 unnamed-10imagine the tiptoeing around of the inmates, the servants and minions, conforming to societal restrictions.

IMG_1799But 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.

unnamed-12The 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.