| We took an early morning bullet train from Hangzhou to Suzhou, which took 1 ½ hours. We were met by Yvonne, a petit, middle aged tour guide. Suzhou has 11 million people, but its roads were not as crowded as in Hangzhou. It is one of the oldest towns in China, going back 2500 years.
Suzhou is known as the Venice of China because of all the canals. The local peddlers sold their produce to the housewives from boats on the canals. According to Yvonne, the local women are considered the most beautiful in China because of their mellifluous local accent and great complexion from sleeping on silk.
The completion of the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou during the Sui Dynasty (5th C. BC).opened up the town to merchants. The canal was 1800 km (1200 miles) long and took 6 years to build by 4 million peasants. The story goes it was built by a Sui emperor who wanted to reach Suzhou easily to play with the town’s beautiful women. It is still navigable about halfway but only used locally. There is one overnight commercial boat from Suzhou to Hangzhou.
We spent 1 ½ hours at The Lingering Garden, built in the Ming Dynasty in 1539 AD. It is filled with Taifu rock from Lake Tai, near Suzhou. The rock farmers hewed the rock from the mountains around the lake, roughly shaped it and left it in the lake for 5-6 years for shaping by water erosion. A “Great Rock” has 4 attributes - wrinkles, slim, holes and holes that go all the way through the rock. There is a Great Rock in this garden standing 6.5 m tall and weighing 5 tons
The garden had a Hall of the Mandarin Duck, named this because mandarin ducks mate for life and are a symbol of fidelity. The Hall consists of two rooms back to back, one for entertaining male guests (this one has the better view) and the other for entertaining female guests. The female side had a opium couch. We saw a similar hall in the Garden of the Humble Administrator the next day.
After a delicious buffet lunch in a fancy hotel, we visited a government silk factory called No. 1 Silk Factory. Yvonne used to raise silk worms so she explained the 30 day cycle of the silk worm from the moth leaving the cocoon, laying eggs, growing into a worm and the worm making its cocoon. We watched them unravel 8 cocoons to make one silk thread, all by machine and then weave the thread into cloth.
They use 10 double cocoons (2 pupae) to make silk batting for bed quilts. That was their big seller and Bob bit. We brought a silk batting home for the bed. They also had a huge store full of silk clothing. I tried to buy a jacket but couldn’t find one that fit.
The last thing we did with Yvonne was visit the Suzhou Museum, which was designed by I.M. Pei (whose family comes from Suzhou) to resemble a traditional courtyard house and garden. It opened in 2006 and houses thousands of historic works of art and artifacts from Suzhou, including many paintings from the Wu School of Painting, famous in the Ming Dynasty, more than 400 years ago.
We saw a special exhibit from the Shang Dynasty (1600- 1046 BC) including the Oracle Bones, which I just finished reading about in a great book by Peter Hessler, called “Oracle Bones.” There was also a special exhibit of Chinese paintings of bamboo, mostly from the Qing Dynasty (1644 -1910 AD).
After dinner, we walked to the Garden of the Master of the Nets which puts on a nightly one hour performance of traditional music, dance, comedy and scenes from Kuncu Opera for the tourists. One walks from room to room in the garden, each room having a different short performance. The buildings are lit with fairy lights, just beautiful.
It took us a while to find the Garden. We walked down very busy shopping streets full of people. We asked for directions from shopkeepers who never heard of the Garden. We stumbled on it after almost giving up on finding it.