Friday, December 4, 2009

Suzhou, city of gardens and canals


From "Paris of the East" (Shanghai), I took a side trip to nearby Suzhou, famous for its gardens and water canals that have earned it the title "Venice of the East. "

I was curious to find out how far the comparison actually went. Local Chinese claim that it was Marco Polo himself who supposedly awarded Suzhou this complementary title.

But it started to dawn on me during this trip to China that there's a great deal of "invented" urban legend passed off as legitimate here. Let's just say the same country that can build an empire out of knock-off handbags and bootleg videos has little problem with fudging historical truth a bit.

Nevertheless, Suzhou is a lovely city that does have gardens and canals. There are over 60 gardens that are kept in tip top condition and many that are UNESCO world heritage sites. One of the most famous gardens is called the Humble Administrator's Garden, which belonged to a high-ranking government official until his own son lost it while gambling. (I wonder who got cut out of the family will?)

Rocks used as intricate decoration inside the many gardens were so popular at the time of building that transporting them from long distances threatened to bankrupt the local government.

The crane seen in the tile mosaic represents longevity, a popular motif in Chinese culture.

Here, visitors can also view pagodas representing the four seasons of the year, and my personal favorite, opium desks for the bored housewives. What else can you do if your feet are bloody stumps and you can't walk?
I kept imagining Wife #1 enveloped in an expensive silk robe sitting here all zoned out and sinister, plotting how to undermine the other concubine mistresses.


On this day, I was also fortunate to take a ride on one of water village "gondolas" and be serenaded along the way. In this video, the woman pushing our boat spontaneously started singing. Come along for the ride...

video

Having been to both Venice and now Suzhou, the "Venice of the East", I can't say there's much similarity in the two. Sure, there is a big effort on the part of local government to keep the canals fresh and stink-free, much the same concern in the vile Venetian waters. However, while Venice is recognized largely now for its reputation of material excess, depravity and eventual decline, Suzhou is very much gearing up for its financial success, having one of the fastest growing economies in China due to tourism, manufacturing, and big surprise, the wedding dress industry!

In fact, there's more to come on all the love going around in Suzhou...

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