Suzhou (苏州) and Wuxi (无锡).
You would have read from our story of Hangzhou (here) that Suzhou is the other half of paradise on earth according to an old Chinese saying. So in a way this was like part II of the search for how heaven on earth looks like…again.
It was winter. And we took a long weekend away from Shanghai and decided to go on a road trip with some friends and colleagues. This road trip took us first to the city of Suzhou, supposedly part of ‘paradise on earth’ and where we had the famed “dongpo” pork belly (东坡肉). Wow, that’s one dish you surely need to try. Then it was off to Lake Tai (太湖) before rounding off our time at Wuxi to spend time with friends.
Suzhou, is it really paradise?
Lying 100km southeast from Shanghai this is an old dame of cities, being founded in 514BC it is said. At the southern terminus of the Grand Canal (运河), it came to be a bustling commercial center through the enormous amount of grain and other products that had to be transported to northern China. Thus the city grew rich on this and an industry that it is still renown for today – can you guess what that is?
Even with repeated damage from sieges, the city remained resilient and developed a reputation for having some of the finest private gardens of the gentry class in China. Thus one cannot be in the city without visiting one of the many restored versions, such as the ‘humble administrator gardens’ (拙政园).
If one read up about it, a typical Chinese garden is normally enclosed with walls and furnished with pond(s), rock works, trees and flowers.
Some might be familiar with the term rock garden.
Well it means exactly that, a garden comprising of rocks that resemble animals, faces or perhaps even famous mountain landscapes. And many halls and pavilions too these gardens have, connected by winding paths and zig-zag paths. It is said if one moves from one part to another, one can experience carefully composed scenes just like the unrolling a scroll of landscape painting. This is deep, so one needs to have an artistically framed mind.
Of course how can one leave out the many temples of the city. With so many to choose from, we decided to give “Northern Pagoda” (北寺塔) a go. Now this pagoda temple is considered the oldest south of the Yangtze river so some literature say. Although the present pagoda was built during the Ming dynasty, the original site and structures which it replaced is said to be more than 1700 years old.
It is worth climbing to the top like we did for the widely different views of the old and new town of the city. One can make out Tiger Hill to one side and the skyscrapers outside the old town moat area on the other. There are also numerous old whitewashed Chinese houses in the surrounding area. Can you see them in our grainy film photos?
Now there were many more gardens and temples to visit, but we decided to hunt for lunch instead. And what did we have? You guessed it, we had the famous DongPo pork belly. Named after the famous poet governor Su Dong Po, this dish is actually considered a Hangzhou dish that was created by accident! Well… When you taste it, perhaps you might thank Su Shi 苏轼 (real name of the man). Sigh, such a pity that we actually took more time to dine than to do any sightseeing! LOL.
Yet another lake?
We drove on towards Wuxi, but not before stopping along the shores of the lake Tai (“Taihu”) for dinner. One of the specialty dishes is the use of tiny white fish (same size as Ikan Bilis in southeast Asia) to brew a broth and/or stir fried with vegetables. The soup was prepared in special urns that keep it warm for hours.
The photo is a little blurred, but this is how the urn where the pots are warmed up looks like. Many restaurants were vying for business, but since we had “insider” knowledge, chose the best one!
Lake Tai is China’s third largest lake at more than 2000km² and was known for its fishing industry, evident in what we ate the night before. And Mel’s colleague from the plant in Shanghai took on the role of guide as we drove around the lake. He explained how the water pollution had came to contaminate the lake from all the industrialization that was rapidly taking place. And we were talking about this in the winter of 2000! It is sad to know that the negative effects of industrialization can cause damage to such a large body of water (well if the sea can be polluted…). It shows how the environment is interconnected and that any one part that is damage may affect another.
Now nearer to the city, we went to the scenic area that is known as “turtle head peninsula” (鼋头渚). We first went to the “Fairy Mountain”, where a shrine exists and where two big locks signifies the binding relationship between a couple.
Many people tie little red strings with lockets or padlocks to the strings. Obviously it was very popular with couples seeking to profess eternal love for each other. Hah! So putting locks on bridges elsewhere in the world is not novel!
We ended the drive into the city of Wuxi, though it was more of a social event to meet up with friends and their families for meals etc. So, not much in the way of sightseeing nor photos. At least not for public sharing anyway.
Now if there is one other recommendation we have, it would have to be tea. Just like Hangzhou, this region is renowned for the harvesting of high quality leaves – specifically the “bi luo chun” (碧螺春) variety. Regarded by connoisseurs as the best, its combination of fruity taste and floral aroma earned it the praise of Chinese emperors! Sample some and decide for yourself!
It was an enjoyable weekend, and with the highways connecting Shanghai with Suzhou and Wuxi (about 89km and 110km away respectively) one can easily makes a day trip if so wished. Or simply take the train. Now that the high speed rail reduced the connection to just 30 minutes from Shanghai to Suzhou. It’s easy!
Our journey took place in December 2000