By Stump Connolly

There is a version of China that lives on silk screens. Babbling brooks roll over smooth stones under century-old cypress set beside misty mountains. Peace, happiness, serenity, and longevity live together in harmony, and our job as human beings is to appreciate it.

That is no more true than inside the ancient gates of Suzhou (pronounced SEE-cho), renown for its gardens, canals and fine silks.

An Oasis of Contemplation

Never mind that it is surrounded by eight million people working in one of China’s most successful enterprise zones, the old city of Suzhou is a place for Zen contemplation. Its city wall dates back to 514 B.C. For centuries, it was a summer retreat for Ming and Qing Dynasty emperors. Today, its lazy canals and waterways cut through the delta of the Yangtze River are still a favored retreat for China’s capitalist elite.

If you brave the traffic jams that make the 50-mile ride from Shanghai into a two-hour ordeal, you will pass huge industrial parks manufacturing Adidas shoes and Apple computer parts, to name just a few Western clients. But on the Affordable Asia tour, you may also wind up––as we did––in the Pan Pacific Hotel for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving Dinner, No Gravy

The hotel is another five-star accommodation, a modern array of pagoda-roofed wings that includes three restaurants, two swimming pools and a health club. Its ownership recently changed hands from the Sheraton group to the Singapore-based Pan Pacific luxury chain, which may explain why they were serving turkey and mashed potatoes (no gravy) when we arrived. Instead of cranberry sauce and creamed onions, the trimmings included sliced pig’s ear and chicken feet. But you have to go with the flow in foreign lands, grateful for what you get.

The morning after our arrival, the benefits of staying at the Pan Pacific become readily apparent. Outside our back door is a public garden you can stroll at your leisure. There are pagodas on islands, quiet nooks in the rocks for contemplation, and lagoons populated with gold fish the size of Asian carp.

The park leads to the Panmen Gate, the 2500-year-old gateway to the city, and a series of bridges that span the moat around old Suzhou. From its ramparts, you can see the slow flow of people through the garden on one side and hear the construction of a luxury shopping mall on the other.

The Master of the Nets Garden

There is time now on our tour for souvenir shopping––Merry Christmas everyone, hope you like the scarves and handkerchiefs––and lunch, but our destination today is The Master of the Nets Garden. This is the smallest of 20 classic gardens in Suzhou that UNESCO designated as a world history site in 1997, and one of the most elegant.

The garden was established in 1140 by Shi Zhengzhi, a civil servant in the Song Dynasty, who was inspired by the simple and solitary life of a Chinese fisherman. It survived multiple owners, often falling into disarray until in 1795, ownership passed to Qu Yuancun, a scholar well versed in the classics and literature. He added and remodeled buildings, planted trees and arranged stones around the courtyards, then invited other scholars to study there.

Tapestries on the wall depict mountains and water, a traditional sign of harmony, and many of the stones in the garden are inscribed by Li Hongyi, an imperial official and master calligrapher who acquired the property in 1868.

In the summer, the garden opens at night for a series of eight performances in different parts of the garden. With color lights reflecting on the ponds, you wander from place to place and watch a ten-minute performance of Chinese opera, instrumental music, dance or singing then move on. But the performances ended the week before we arrived.

The I.M. Pei Museum

Afraid of getting caught in rush hour on our way back to Shanghai, we sadly skipped the Suzhou Museum designed by I.M. Pei and opened to the public in 2006. Pei spent his summers as a boy in Suzhou and his design brings the classic forms of the old China into the modern age. The museum houses a variety of ancient Chinese art, paintings, calligraphies and handmade crafts; and its gift shop is a showcase for local artists working in the same motifs today.

In all the bustle of modern China, The Master of The Nets Garden is a humble reminder of the value of solitude. But contemplation takes time, and when you’re traveling with Affordable Asia, time is at a premium. Only two days left until we return to the United States, and Shanghai is still to come.

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