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China (IX): The Paradise on Earth

Born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, and die in Liuzhou. -Chinese Proverb

Master of the NetsIts quite famous here among Chinese people that Suzhou and Hangzhou are the heavens on earth. I heard that first from one of our hosts, as she told us about the private gardens of Suzhou on a dinner. I must admit that I was little more than curious at that time and now I am nothing but ashamed for my naivety. Indeed, having been through the paradise can only give one the actual understanding of true nature of such a place.

If I had the freedom of describing Suzhou in one simple sentence, I would call it a unique and magnificent ensemble of lakes, gardens, pavilions and pagodas at the center of which lies the tradition of Wu culture. Even a week is not enough to enjoy the complete beauty of this historical city whose origins date back to 514 BC, i.e., about 2500 years ago.

As we had only one day, we decided to first visit the Master of Nets garden which was constructed in middle of 12th century during the reign of Southern Song dynasty. The garden is also called Fisherman’s Retreat and there is a famous story about fishermen saving the child of the one Shi Zhengzhi who was the original creator of the garden. That, however, seems a flimsy concoction by tour guides as a little research about the evolution of structure and design of garden suggests that the designer originally had the solitary life of Chinese fishermen in his mind. Its present shape has undergone many changes and expansions by poets, painters and government officials between 12th and 18th century. The garden finally became public property in 1958. Parts of the garden have been modeled for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The scenic ingenuity which impressed me most – and which can truly be understood as an essential characteristic of other private gardens – is the particular art in construction of windows with a specific scenic background. If you see it from far or through a camera lens, you would certainly doubt it as a framed picture. Another impressive thing is the use of natural marble with images inside and the placement of Taihu stones and Scholar rocks gathered from the Taihu lake. The place is truly mesmerizing as it forces you to interact with your self. One cannot escape falling in love with the solitude.

After going through the silk museum of Suzhou, we visited one of the oldest historical landmarks in China, i.e., Panmen gate – one of the two preserved water gates in the original ancient wall of 514 BC. The climb on the Tiger Hill pagoda was my first experience of the Buddhist temple. The temple is kind of abandoned and there are not many Buddha statues except the only two on the ground floor. The pagoda is famous because of its historical construction which dates back to almost 1000 years. I am still perplexed whether this is the one that is famously known as leaning tower of China. The 3 degree tilt is hard to pick if you are standing at the base. I asked the guide but she had no exact clue.

The greatest part, however, was the boat cruise through the Shantang canal which is actually a canal street along the famous Grand Canal. Because of this street, Suzhou is also called Venice of the east. All along the canal, there are houses of local people who were busy in their usual household chores reminding the cool old times of traditional river cities.

They say that if you have to visit only four cities in China, Suzhou is one of them.

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