Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Another Word on Suzhou

Suzhou is a city about an hour's train ride from Shanghai. I've been a few times, and I wrote a bit on Suzhou before. I find Suzhou an intriguing alternate take on Shanghai: despite being so near Shanghai, and also having a very large population, the feel is extremely different - among other things, it maintains more historic sites, it feels more like a city built on a river, and it doesn't have the shock-and-awe skyscraper districts like Pudong.

But I'll admit I didn't stay for long, just enough to get a feel and meet a friend I hadn't seen in a while. Eventually I'll make a long trip of it and have a wonderful take on the city and how it compares and contrasts to Shanghai.

From what I gather, metropolitan Suzhou is divided into three areas: the historic center, a more modern area that resembles a humbler version of Shanghai, and districts dominated by foreign-invested business parks. Naturally the historic center is of the most interest for a tourist like me. Shanghai doesn't really have extended neighborhoods with a traditional feel, the way Suzhou does. It's all very quaint, in a way perhaps a tourist to China would hope for:

Most of the area is just normal people going about their lives, but of course there are areas that are thoroughly tourist-ized, although perhaps not as professionally as Shanghai. As a trite example, on a hot day there were a number of vendors on a particular street selling drinks, none of which were refrigerated or even chilled. It goes along with yin-yang medical beliefs, but it was a bummer for me.

Suzhou is most well-known for a number of gardens. Rather than a Europe-style garden with kids playing on the lawn, it's a more whimsical take, where certain vantage points allow visitors to see sculpted landscapes, punctuated by understated buildings, bridges, and so forth. This one, the Humble Administrator's Garden, is very large, but it was also very crowded - I think it's best to choose a time when there'll be as few visitors as possible, or just to seek out less crowded gardens. To me the garden felt a little too busy, and only half-restored.

I then took a very long bus across town to see the Cold Mountain Temple. I got there after it had already closed, but when a monk saw that I was a foreigner he let me go in and have a look! There wasn't much to see in the dark, though. I was told it's famous for a poem written about it. Because it's short I'll copy it here: it's by Zhang Ji, A Night Mooring near Maple Bridge, and from thirteen hundred years ago:

While I watch the moon go down, a crow caws through the frost;
Under the shadows of maple-trees a fisherman moves with his torch;
And I hear, from beyond Suzhou, from the temple on Cold Mountain,
Ringing for me, here in my boat, the midnight bell.

According to the Chinese tourist board, the poem can lead to Buddhist Enlightenment! Although my preferred method remains putting a shoe on your head.

More impressive was a high-arching humpback bridge nearby, just like the US cliche of Asian gardens.

It was getting late, so I had dinner in Suzhou's downtown, which is concentrated, with one restaurant after the next. It looks fun, and was lit up like Vegas. Truth be told, both the dinner and my earlier lunch were pretty good - in particular the local specialties like eel that I thought were better than any equivalent Shanghainese version I've eaten.

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