“It’s the peak of tourist season” said our driver. He was pissed. He had a difficult time looking for a parking slot. “Summer time, also in China, meant travels for many” he added.
Since early 2000, several Chinese, especially those from rural areas began exploring the world via travels. Some began visiting large urban centers while others began traveling as far as Europe. I remember reading somewhere that this is the era of Chinese tourists all over the world.
Anyhow, despite the crowd, I was still bewitched by the charm of Suzhou. In spite of the influx of people inside the Humble Administrator’s garden, I still felt the sense of tranquility and somehow invited me into meditation.
Generally, Suzhou is a City of Garden. As earlier noted, there are more than 200 gardens of various sizes. Many of them were landscaped as early as 7th Century and as the locals believe, the landscapes for each signify the deep emotions of the owners and their admiration of nature’s beauty.
I read somewhere (I think, a website on traveling to Suzhou), the Classical Gardens of Suzhou represent the unification of the natural environment and the domestic life. This means the gardens were conceived to be appreciated, roamed, and lived as well. The landscapes were designed to imitate the natural wonders absent in an urban space. In other words, these creative works of art were meant to make the absent (i.e. nature) present in a fast developing urban center.
I believe I felt such conglomeration of making the absent present when we entered the Lingering Garden, occupying an area of almost 6 acres (I think it was something like 5.8 acres). The garden is located outside Changmen Gate in Suzhou. Originally a private garden, our driver mentioned that, it is one of the four most famous gardens in Suzhou and in the entire China. The garden is a typical Qing style in terms of design and motif.
The peculiar about this garden, methinks is the presence of elaborately and lavishly designed halls with calligraphy writings as ornaments (I hope I am reading the writings correctly as ornaments). The halls are connected by different doors and corridors that somehow resemble a maze.
After going through winding corridors from the gate, we reached the central part of the complex. A man-made lake welcomed us. The sound of rain as it kissed the lake water made the ambiance very, very calm and very relaxing. Surprisingly, the crowd in this garden was so quiet and so “well-behaved.” I felt visitors just wanted to appreciate the beauty of the complex. Perhaps, the beautiful scenery enabled them to calm down.
The Lingering Garden was commissioned by Xu Taishi, an impeached and later exonerated official in 1593 CE. Stonemason Zhou Shicheng designed and built the eastern section of the garden; which for many locals, the most beautiful scenic part of the entire complex. It was for this reason that Lingering Garden was also known as the East Garden.
What was also so memorable in visiting this garden was our encounter with a traditional kunqu stage.
Unfortunately, the stage is no longer exclusively for a kunqu perofrmance, I have seen this traditional opera in modern theatre houses. I have always wanted to see a kunqu in a traditional stage. While there was no performance, my wild imagination helped me visualized how a kunqu performance was once upon staged in the auditorium. Today, the stage is used as an audio-visual theatre to narrate the history of the garden.
After an hour an a half of tranquility, we had to travel one hour eastward. The goal was to visit our last garden for the day: the Retreat and Reflection Garden located outside of Suzhou. Interestingly, it is in Tongli, one of the few ancient water towns of China.
After buying some mementos, we called our driver and rested well. We were told we should be expecting more walking at Tongli.