Sunday, November 10, 2013

October 15, Suzhou

Another fascinating day!

The highlight of the day was the Garden of the Humble Administrator, which I've read is one of the four best in all of China. I have no idea who gets to choose. This garden was unlike the others I've seen – maybe they are all so different? It was absolutely glorious.

This garden was huge, over 15 acres, much of it consisting of water in various configurations, paths, garden, and buildings. First I was enthralled by the lotuses growing in the water everywhere. I had never seen a lotus leaf before and now I understand why they are so important to the Buddhists. One leaf grows up on a stalk, and the leaf can be three feet in diameter. I took several photos: the shapes were so compelling.

One pavilion contained an exhibit of an art form that Suzhou is known for: pictures created not by painting or drawing but by embroidering with a single fine thread. They had a film loop showing how it was done, with a frame at which the top and bottom had rollers to scroll the completed and the to-be-done fabric (for long pictures). The design is made with single-thread stitches: unbelievable, and a technique that permits such delicacy. These photos were taken there. 

An important part of the garden is the masonry. I don't mean the contorted rocks I've shown you before, which of course were there in quantity, but the stonework of the paths. Such care was taken with them, so beautiful.

And there were many moon doorways. This one framed a lovely patch of green.

Some of the loveliness was verbal. There was a sign pointing to the locations of these places:

The Listening to the Sound of Rain Pavilion
The Hall of Elegance
The House of Sweet-Smelling Rice
The Hall of Distant Fragrance

Who could not be enchanted by names like this?

Arriving at the garden the taxi went through an area where there must have been 50 huge tour buses, and of course the garden was crowded. I figured it's a skill one can develop to see the garden without seeing too much of the people, and hearing the wind rustle the leaves without hearing too much Chinese being spoken – most of which is pretty loud. When I first arrived here the decibel level was so high I thought the speaker must have a hearing impairment, but I've learned that is common. There were many tour groups, mostly Chinese, led by a young person with a flag and a portable loudspeaker system. You can imagine how intrusive such noise is in a place designed for quiet and tranquillity. Here is a picture of one such person and her friend.

Something that astonished me was the extent to which the Chinese are addicted to their cell phones, particularly the cameras in them. Even though there were surely thousands of people in that garden, I honestly did not see one other person besides myself actually looking at the garden. Instead, what they did was to pose their friend or family member in front of some aspect of the garden they had decided in .005 seconds was beautiful, and take their picture, many with fingers in a V shape for some inexplicable reason. The garden was always the backdrop, never the focus. People posed and posed and posed and posed. Will they forget they were here otherwise? People here use their cell phones so much that many of them also carry around backup power sources the same size as the phones or larger: when the phones run out of power they plug them in to the backup. I went into a gazebo-like pavilion built out over a part of the lake and joined half a dozen usually young people, every single one of whom was staring fixedly at their phone screens. I couldn't understand it.

By the way, I counted all the children by sex in the two or three hours I was in the garden. Small sample, no proof obviously, but if this was representative there's no sex-selection for males going on. I counted 20 boys and 23 girls.

At the garden I thought of Bach's B-minor Mass, my favorite piece of music. I've always thought that if I listened to it every day for the rest of my life, on the last day I would still hear something new in its complex beauty that I hadn't noticed before. A Chinese garden is like this but even more so. I could sit in the smallest garden for hours a day and I am sure that every day I could find something I hadn't noticed before. In this sense, a Chinese garden is superior to the B-minor Mass: I could sit and stare and notice and observe for as long as I wanted and the garden does not change, or at least not quickly, but I can't extend a measure of music in the Mass so that I can notice more about it. The music moves on inexorably; the garden waits for you.
Leaving the garden the alley is lined with – how else? – many shops. Out at the street I was besieged with people offering to drive me where I needed to go. Because I had taken a taxi there, I knew what a reasonable fare was: 20 yuan, about $3.50. These folks said 50 yuan! I laughed. Then a young man pointed to his scooter. I told (showed) him that I would pay 20 and no more: a deal! It was a glorious ride! Naturally someone who hustles tourists wouldn't drive quite as slowly as others I've seen and in fact this guy tried to pass everyone and generally did. I was thrilled that it was a good distance, from the northeast corner of square-shaped downtown Suzhou to the southwest corner. I loved it.

I am writing this on the train from Suzhou to Hangzhou, which has an area called West Lake that is supposed to be very beautiful. Although I'll just have tomorrow morning and afternoon there before I return to Shanghai, I am eager to see it. I have been befriended by a very young woman with nearly no English. She has taken me under her wing because she is taking the same train. Going down the four flights of stairs to the train platform she treated me like an honored elder, carrying one of my bags and gently holding my elbow. I felt like a treasure. Then getting off the train I met another young woman, Shell, an art student in Hangzhou. We fell into conversation and she invited me to spend the day with her tomorrow. You bet!

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