"It's a lot of bamboo..." - I met this little fairy in the Garden of Cultivation, my favorite of all the gardens I saw in Suzhou last week. She tripped quietly in and out of the garden rooms, and looked at me with her dark eyes, contemplating where I came from and what I was doing in "her" garden.
My week in Suzhou was amazing, and exhausting. The whole trip was quite unplanned - I had wanted to see the ancient gardens for years, and all of a sudden, there seemed to be a suitable space in the family calendars, so I booked my tickets and hotel with two weeks notice. Of course, I missed checking what the Chinese were up to that particular week, and got to experience first hand how it feels to be a vacation with about half a billion of them at the same time. China Daily reported that about 760 million trips were taken within the country during that single week (they probably count even bikes... but still), and asked those "not needing to travel" to stay home instead.
Narrow lanes and waterways of Suzhou, the "Venice of the Far East" - balconies over the canals and beautiful, old latticed windows meet the modern aircon, barely hidden by the greenery.
Instead of panicking, I decided to take this as a learning experience about how it is to live in the world's most populous country. So there I was, queuing at 7:15 AM with the earliest of birds to get into the most famous gardens that are included in UNESCO's World Heritage List and also graded as Grade AAAAA on list of Chinese National Tourist Attractions. Of those, the Garden of the Humble Administrator, Lingering Garden and the Canglang Pavilion seemed to be on everybody's to-do list. As I soon learned, waiting any later would have meant several hours of waiting time... As it was, I got in relatively easily, but was soon caught up by countless determined tourist groups, all with guides holding up flags and shouting their messages over the sea of heads. Almost all of them were Chinese; only in the Humble Administrator's Garden did I meet an Italian group, all of whom looked quite resigned over the commotion.
The past meets the present - a little boy sits in the ancient tea house assembling a model of an aircraft carrier, the most recent purchase of China's military that was so proudly reported by the daily news while I was there...
The smaller gardens, accessible only through narrow, winding lanes and thus out of reach for the large tour buses, offered a respite from the crowds. It was in them that I spent hours, sipping my jasmine tea in the shade of the pavilions. While I could almost hear the Humble Administrator cry over the hordes climbing over his carefully installed rockeries and precious moutan plantings, it was in these small, intimate gardens that I felt close to their ancient inhabitants, and could imagine the soft sounds of the daily occupations - the clicking of the board games played by the women, the scholar's soft brush flying over his scroll, and the quiet rustle of the bamboo gently stirred up by the wind. What an amazing culture to have produced such sophisticated expressions of thought.
So now I have about 800 photos from my trip and need to go through and decide what to keep and what to show - not an easy task. I would love to be able to be able to give more than just an ordinary travel reports, but I'm not quite sure yet how. I guess I just have to work on it, and see how it goes - but for sure, there will be many posts from Suzhou in the coming days.