From Shanghai to the Classical Gardens of Suzhou (Part 1)

A one and a half hour westward drive from Shanghai is the city of Suzhou in the province of Jiangsu.

The city is home to kunqu, the oldest form of Chinese Opera and listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2001. The city is also known for its canal systems that are comparable to those in Europe. Many of these canal systems such as the one found in Tongli are gateways to beautiful gardens landscaped between 11th and 17th century. There are about more than 200 beautiful gardens in the city and in the entire province. Of these gardens, 69 are preserved and listed as National Heritage Sites of the People’s Republic of China. From the list of 69, nine (including one found in Tongli) are inscribed as World Heritage Sites (WHS), collectively labeled as “Classical Gardens of Suzhou.”

It was July, summer-time in the Northern Hemisphere. Summer meant conference season for the academic community. My organization, the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR) flew to Shanghai for the 2019 Annual Conference. As in my previous participation in an IFTR conference, I would always extend another day to do some sight-seeing, particularly a nearby WHS.

For this IFTR, the nearest cities with WHS destinations were Suzhou in North-West and Hangzhou in South-West. I originally wanted to see both the Classical Gardens of Suzhou and the West Lake in Hangzhou. I tried to consult Klook with regards to possible trip going there but to no avail.

Gladly, I came across a travel website that advertized a car/van rental from Shanghai going to nearby cities as far as Nantong in the North, Wuxi in the North-West and Hangzhou in the South-West. I googled the company and found good reviews online. I immediately emailed the contact person, who happened to be the company owner as well. He was very accommodating and very helpful. I learned from him that the gardens are closer to Shanghai than the West Lake. He was also very kind to describe what would be seen in these WHS’s. I just came from Beijing and saw the Summer Palace, which according to him resembles the West Lake so much.

Anyhow, I was with my colleagues for this trip. I was so relieved – I would not spend so much just to do some sight-seeing (hahahahaha, selfish interest, b*tch).

Our first two days in Shanghai were very gloomy and sad. For two days, it was raining heavily that even sight-seeing in the city-center was a problem for us.

The Bund, a tourist destination in Shanghai (Photo: SAPT)
The old weather station located at the Bund (Photo: SAPT)
Pudong, the CBD of Shanghai as viewed from the Bund (Photo: SAPT)

But call it luck, we were able to walk along the Bund without rain on our first night.

The Bund is a waterfront area in Shanghai. It is located at the western bank of the Huangpu River in the eastern section of the Huangpu District. For some people, the Bund is a shortcut to Shanghai Central Business District (CBD). But for sure, it is an important tourist destination in Shanghai. As a tourist destination, it is a heritage district composed of buildings and wharves built from the 1860s to the 1930s. The Bund is not the CBD. My local friend, who also acted as our guide when we were in Shanghai pointed at Pudong as the CBD, which is located opposite the Bund. The best view, as noted by our guide, is from one of the decks of the Bund.

Anyhow, on our fourth day in Shanghai, we were already happy to see the sun shining brightly. All of us successfully presented our papers and our other “agendas” (including official business meetings) were successfully met and convened.

On the last day of the conference, our local friend informed us that the Saturday would be a very rainy day in Shanghai including its nearby province Jiangsu, where Suzhou is located. But you know, we were still hopeful for a sunny day since any weather system has never been reliable (a very fickle-minded friend so to speak).

It was not raining in Shanghai. So we left our hotel with warm smiles on our face. As soon as we exited the freeway, we were welcomed by strong rains.

It was raining in Suzhou.

The UNESCO website notes the Classical Chinese gardens were designed to capture the beauty of natural landscapes in private residences. Conceived and built under the influence of the unconstrained poetic freehand style originally seen in traditional Chinese landscape paintings, the gardens are noted, as the UNESCO Website writes “for their profound merging of exquisite craftsmanship, artistic elegance and rich cultural implications. These gardens lend insight into how ancient Chinese intellectuals harmonized conceptions of aestheticism in a culture of reclusion within an urban living environment.”

One of the lakes inside the Humble Administrator’s Garden (Photo: SAPT)
A beautiful landscape inside the complex (Photo: SAPT)
One of the many bridges inside the garden complex (Photo: SAPT)
One of the many canals inside the garden complex (Photo: SAPT)
One of the many pavilions inside the garden complex (Photo: SAPT)
One of the many pavilions inside the garden complex (Photo: SAPT)

Our first stop was the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

We were quite overwhelmed – not because of the rain but because of the number of people. We thought about 75% of Suzhou residents were in the garden. We were told that many domestic tourists who travel to Suzhou make sure to see this monumental garden when they visit the city.

How populated the site? Imagine this: we lined up to get our ticket at 08:45, we were able get inside at 09:50. Then, traversing inside the garden was also challenging. It was difficult to get photographs without being bumped by hasty tourists. It was difficult to get photographs without other tourists being accidental photo-bombers. But we still managed to get amazing photographs. As they say, if there’s a will, there’s always a way!

The Humble Administrator garden, as the brochure notes, contains numerous pavilions and bridges set among a maze of connected pools and islands. It consists of three major parts set about a large lake: the central part (Zhuozheng Yuan), the eastern part (once called Guitianyuanju, Dwelling Upon Return to the Countryside), and a western part (the Supplementary Garden).

We spent around two and a half hours in the site – including several stops due to heavy traffic of human movement inside the garden.

It was a tiring-rainy morning for us.

We rested for a while and people were still flocking the entrance of the garden. On one hand, I felt envious that domestic tourism is really dominant in China. My b*tchy side was yelling at me: of course, it should be – just imagine how huge the geographical land mass of the country, its people have the opportunity to see other parts of the country, they have to grab it. The other sister of my b*tchy side was also telling me: but do you think they go there to appreciate the place? I do not have an answer. Who am I to judge? The kind of appreciation I do is definitely different from the kind of appreciation these people do.

The other part of me was quite saddened for over-tourism. And it was difficult to truly appreciate the tranquility of the garden as publicized in many travel pages. The crowd was too loud and too rowdy. I wanted to sit down and enjoy a restful moment with nature but could not do it due to the noise of tourists as they passed by.

After filling in our tummies with local noodles and ice cream, we immediately rushed to the next garden. As suggested by our vehicle provider, we went straight ahead to the Lingering Garden.

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