Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Where did all the time go?

OK, this is a highly personal post and an exception from my rule of not posting family pictures... but at least it has something to do with gardens; the first picture was taken in 2006 at Great Dixter when the girls were 4 and 6, the second in 2012 in Singapore Botanic Gardens. Talk about a memory lane.

I wonder if they will love gardens as much as I do when they grow up completely?


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Squeezing through the Humble Administrator's Garden

By the entrance to the Humble Administrator's Garden - it is 7:30 AM and the tour guides are already busy waving their flags and gathering their troups. To the left, the Wu Zhu You Ju Pavilion with its striking four moon-shaped door openings and an old phoenix tree in the front (Pavilion of Phoenix Tree and Bamboo).
This is it -  Zhuōzhèng Yuán, the Humble Administrator's Garden, is on pretty much every list of remarkable cultural sights to be seen in China. It is considered one of the four most famous gardens in China along with the Summer Palace in Beijing, the Mountain resort of Chengde in Hebei Province and the Liu Lingering Garden, which is also situated Suzhou. In addition, it is a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site, and one of the Cultural Relics of National Importance under the Protection of the State as well as a Special Tourist Attraction (grade AAAAA) of China; the list of accomplishments is quite remarkable for one single garden...  and the crowds are thereafter.
The Wu Zhu You Ju Pavilion again, as seen through with its moon-shaped door openings; a rare moment when no-one was in sight; only half a second later this quiet view was gone again.
  Ta Ying Ting - Pavilion for Pagoda Reflection at the southwestern corner of the garden.
Not just the most visited and renowned, the Humble Administrator's Garden is the largest ancient garden in Suzhou and the whole Yangtze River delta, covering about 52,000 sq. meters (12.85 acres). it was originally built by Wang Xianchen between years 1506 and 1521, who was an administrative censor in the Ming Dynasty. He chose the name to indicate his expectation of retirement and settling into pastoral life (zhuō zhèng means literally humble administrator - in my opinion, a somewhat contradictory name to give for a garden on this scale...). Since then, the garden has changed owners several times and its present architecture and scenery are mostly in the later Qing style.
Beside the "Lodging for 18 pairs of Lovebirds" with its elegant, blue stained-glass windows, and a light, wisteria-covered stone and cast-iron bridge leading to it. 
What would a Chinese garden be without a boat hall? Here, the handsome Xianzhou Stone Boat, embraced by water on three sides and with two levels - it is much larger than many Chinese families real homes...

 The Mountain-in-View Tower is surrounded by water and lotus flower on four sides - when they flower in the early summer, this must be a breathtaking sight.
The names of the many pavilions and bridges in the Humble Administrator's Garden are enchantingly poetic. Yuan Xiang Tang - Hall of Remote Fragrance; Yi Yu Xuan - Leaning Against Jade Gallery; Xiao Fei Hong - Little Flying Rainbow Bridge; Xue Xiang Yun Wei Ting - Pavilion of Fragrant Snow and Luxuriant Clouds; Yu Shui Tong Zuo Xuan - Gallery of "With Whom Shall I Sit?" and numerous similar others had caught my imagination long before my visit in books invariably illustrated with ethereal photos where no visitors stir the quiet peace of the garden. Sadly, my experience couldn't have differed more from expectations built up by those pictures. As I mentioned before, my visit fell in the middle of the Golden Week following the Chinese National Day, and literally hundreds of millions were on the road, ticking off the most famous sights on their bucket lists. Instead of spirited wandering through pathways and pavillions, I pretty much squeezed through the gardens, despite hanging at the gates at 7:30 AM when they opened. After starting, there was absolutely no return against the steady flow of tourist groups with extremely loud guides shouting out their stories through microphones despite signs forbidding this explicitly. A bit stressed out - and desperately trying to be positive and see this as an experience in itself - I snapped my photos, often hanging over other people's shoulders or umbrellas or else. So take my advise and do not try to see anything on the lists of cultural wonders mentioned in the first paragraph during the Golden Week, unless you are extremely fond of walking breast to breast with unknown people.

Scholar's stones and penjing in the Penjing Garden - with several, exquisite miniature landscapes to be contemplated.

A view from the Penjing Garden - I can't help, but it reminded me too much of a cemetery... so clinical and so many penjing in dreary stone vessels...

Water forms a large part of the Humble Administrator's Garden; here, a long waterside corridor that winds along the east wall.

 A brief escape from the crowds up to a little hill with a pavilion on the top. "Please follow the official path" - and don't even dream about going back to take a second look at something you missed!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Back to Suzhou: The Garden of Pleasance

Yi Yuan, the Garden of Pleasance, opens up as an oasis in the middle of the bustling Suzhou city centre.
Today, I had a really a busy morning (again),so I craved for some soothing garden pictures to pick myself up...  thus yet another post about my garden visits in Suzhou.
The Garden of Pleasance (Yi Yuan in pinyin) is one of the lesser-known gardens in Suzhou. As it is not on the Unesco World Heritage list, it is seldom included in tourist group itineraries. Situated outside the old city area close to the new commercial centre, the modern business life keeps creeping closer; in the north corner of the garden, a greasy smell of frying accompanied by hectic rattle of pots and pans wafted quite unfittingly from above the old garden walls. Despite these occasional disturbances, the Garden of Pleasance lives perfectly up to the expectations set by its name; its compact, detailed design offered wonderful nooks and sights around every corner.
A long, covered corridor separates the eastern and western parts of the Yi Yuan.

 A view of the pond from the other side of the corridor, and a zigzagging stone bridge a bit further into the garden. It connects both sides of the central pond and huge rockeries topped with a pavilion can be seen on the other side of it.
The Garden of Pleasance is one of the youngest gardens in Suzhou. It was built by Gu Wenbin, the Governor of Ningbo in Zhejian during the Qing Dynasty as late as in 1874; a garden called the Garden of Harmony from the time of Ming Dynasty already existed on the site. The new owner renamed his garden Yi Yuan, the Garden of Pleasance, for "remolding the temperament and prolonging the life span". It is quite small, only 0.6 hectare, but despite its size includes all the best features of classical Suzhou gardens - well-proportionate pavilions, a serene pond and cave-dotted rockeries and peaks. Despite the occasional inharmonious whiff from outside, I loved this garden. It was well-proportioned and offered just enough (but not too much) variety, like a a pleasant, amicable haven to sit in or wander through. Also, it had a quaint little tea house, where old ladies were sipping their teas and playing cards, enjoying a soothing respite from the bustle of the city life outside... A wonderful place for a quiet pause after - or between - the more well-known gardens of Suzhou.
Inside a the largest hall of the garden (seen from outside in the last picture of the post); a stylish arrangement of furniture, painting on wooden panels, scholar's stone and ceramics.
 A courtyard in the back of the hall, with huge containers and Lake Taihu stones with imaginative forms that can be carefully contemplated.

Views from the studies and halls are always carefully planned; here, a huge Lake Taihu stone appears in the middle of the view from the latticed doors and windows.

A three-tiered boat hall from the land side; boat pavilions were built by the ponds for enjoying the waterscapes or for hosting parties. They can also be used to express one's longing for a secluded life - I wonder what was the case here? The pathways of this garden were so small, that taking pictures wasn't an easy task.

 The boat hall from the other side of the pond, with the huge rockeries towering on the left side.

View from the top of the rockery, with the pavilion that can be seen in the fourth picture of this post. 

And down to the dungeons.. the rockeries are punctured by caves and connected by single stone slabs that act as bridges. I have to admit that I almost panicked when I couldn't find my way back through the maze; in the end I just climbed over to the other side, which is a naughty thing to do, but I couldn't help myself.

A moongate to the inner garden with bamboo, and an lively, undulating wall; some say that the form of these walls is supposed to remind of the backs of flying dragons, which is a fascinating thought.

And a final picture of the large hall opening to the pond that forms the centre of the garden; all of the pictures above are actually taken from situations around it - like the zigzagging bridge to the left. The Garden of Pleasance is an intimate, harmonious garden to visit if you want to see more than the four most famous ones (all of them included in my upcoming posts) in Suzhou.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bollywood Veggies in northwest Singapore

From front to back: blue and orange sweet potatoes, pineapples and several types of bananas growing at the Bollywood Veggies organic farm in northwest Singapore. All of them can be bought at the farm and enjoyed at their lovely but curiously named bistro called Poison Ivy. I had one of my most delicious lunches in Singapore there - which is an achievement in this food-obsessed city. Yum!
With population density of over 7500 inhabitants per square kilometer, Singapore comes clearly second to New York, where 10200 people are expected to happily cohabit on a same-sized plot. So it comes as no surprise that for someone like me who grew up in Finland where only sixteen people roam on a similar lot, Singapore feels quite like a well-organized ants' nest. Still, I couldn't agree less with some of my fellow expats - I don't like that epithet at all, but use it here in lack of another, short description of us people living our lives outside the countries whose passports we carry -  who regularly complain that Singaporeans never touch the soil, but only travel from their high rise apartments via the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport system, a local term for the underground system) to their air conditioned workplaces.

Bollywood Veggies' charming and knowledgeable guide Anthony Hopkins (a proud Welshman), giving us a lecture about the development of bananas.
Anyway, I could not agree less with them, and I am going to prove that. I've already posted about how Singaporeans live in their parks and gardens, using them as their own exercise venues, places of meditation and contemplation, and for having fun with their families and friends (actually, another post is under progress...). Also, there are numerous gardening clubs and societies, offering advice from vegetable and fruit farming to bonsai growing - all adapted for citizens who often have only a balcony to play with. And one thing is for sure, the people making claims about Singapore only being about shopping and glitz have certainly never visited Kranji countryside in the northwest part of the island, west of the Johor bridge to Malaysia. Here, several organic vegetable farms mingle with koi, frog and goat farms, and all of them their produce on ths spot or sometimes even deliver to your home. Of course it would be naive to believe that their would be enough for the whole population of Singapore, but they make a serious effort. As a by-product, they educate visitors, especially kids, about the virtues of growing your food and taking care of the planet.
A week or so ago, I had a scrumptious lunch with some Finnish ladies at the bountiful Bollywood Veggies farm in Kranji; their organic bistro Poison Ivy serves everything but noxious delicacies. Sadly, I forgot to take my camera, so I have very limited visuals from the visit. But lesson from this post is that as you see only what you want and expect to see - so if you think that Singapore is only about malls and shopping, get out from your bubble and open your eyes, and you'll be richly rewarded. Happy gardening!

Tunnels growing several types of exotic looking beans; ginger and bananas in the background. Bollywood Veggies grow hundreds of species from papayas to aloe vera, bitter gourd, long beans, snakegourds, tapioca, wintermelons and many more. They also have a herb garden with Indian borage, dill, basils, lemograss and other Asian herbs. Many fruit species like crystal fruit, breadfruit, butterfruit and papayas thrive on the farm, together with medicinal trees like horseradish tree and West Indian pea tree. A visit here is highly recommended!