China Travelogue-4: 70% imagination

Posted in Travel at 10:09 by RjZ

While sightseeing in China you can occasionally hear tour guides pointing out a rock formation, or garden design and reminding their Western tourist charges that ‘in China, you must look not only with your eyes, but with your mind and heart. At least 70% of what you see is in your imagination.’

Maybe still a bit jetlagged, we got up at a leisurely hour and, after a breakfast of noodles and dumplings at “easygood” a local fast food chain (they were, indeed, easygood), we made our way to the metro and then bus station to take a jaunt to Suzhou. Only a couple of hours outside of Shanghai, the city is famous for its gardens and comes highly recommended, so it seemed worth a look.

Orienting yourself after emerging from a subway station is often difficult, more so when the signs outside aren’t in any language you can read. We struggled to make our way to a ticket office and wound up getting bus tickets just a few minutes before it was about to leave (not that we had seen a schedule before hand), and finding the bus before it actually left.

4.50 RMB: noodles and dumplings for two
3 RMB: metro ticket
35 RMB: bus to Suzhou

We were feeling pretty full of ourselves for navigating this far without a hitch. Suzhou is popular with Chinese tourists so, right along with them, we were mobbed upon our arrival by taxi drivers offering to take us to a garden for 20 RMB and others offering a variety of tourist maps (only in Chinese). The map in the guidebook showed at least one of the more interesting gardens at less than 2 km from the bus station, so paying a cab driver almost as much as it cost to drive an hour and a half in a bus just didn’t seem fair. Silly trade-off, of course. If you know where you’re going, 2 km isn’t very far. We didn’t actually get lost on the way to the garden, but it sure felt that way for the better part of an hour it took to make the short walk.

Zhuozheng (Humble Administrator’s) Garden was initially a private garden, completed during the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644), and is well preserved today. Unlike classical gardens in Europe or naturalistic gardens of England, Chinese gardens were designed to be lived in and are comprised not only of plants and water features, but also rockeries and a multitude of buildings, halls, bridges and arbors. The garden isn’t nearly as large as the palace gardens of Europe, but much more densely packed. Chinese garden designs revel in a heightened aesthetic of the natural world. Zig-zagging bridges cross over meandering streams which empty into tiny lakes filled with koi and gold-fish. Everything looks like a classic silk painting of a natural scene available in the shops just outside the garden walls, except, it ends up looking as if it were built by architects who, using those paintings as a guide, had, alas, never actually seen nature itself. Nothing is really as one might experience it in the real world.
Fanciful rocks, Administrator's Garden Suzhou

35 RMB: entrance to the Humble Administrators Garden

We wandered around the charming buildings, stopping in a gazebo to look out over the wood ducks or bamboo forest, or in a pavilion to admire the strange rocks collected and displayed for their unusual forms. Plaques described each of the buildings in both Chinese and also (some form of) English, but it was easy to grow tired of reading them.

I was always thankful whenever the Chinese were so kind as to include English translations, but I can’t say they were always helpful. The problem wasn’t always poor translations though. It’s just that reading about how this scene inspired that poet from the Ming dynasty to write some couplet, which, of course, is lost in translation, just isn’t very interesting. The gardens are lovely and charming. The collection of over 1000 bonsai trees (a Chinese invention, where it is known as pun-sai) alone is worth the trip. And yet, it was starting to become clear that without a Chinese cultural education, the real impact of these sights would be lost on me.

I’ll return to this theme later when we float down the Li-river or visit caves in Guilin, but even when I am able to identify the fanciful images of dragons and mythical warriors, it clearly isn’t resonating with me as well as it is with the oohing and aahing Chinese tourists around me. Of course, travelers are often faced with this problem of not relating, aggravated the further they travel from their home culture. Chinese tourists in the United States surely must marvel at how we could possibly be interested in Walden Pond or where George Washington may have slept. None of this erodes how beautiful the garden is, it’s just worth noting that the locals may have a greater appreciation and enthusiasm then you will about this sight or that one. Keep it in mind when deciding where to go. I loved the garden, but by the time the trip was ending, I lamented not spending more time in Shanghai.

1.50 RMB: Water at a grocery store
3.00 RMB: Water near the garden. Tourists drive the prices up!
0.70 RMB: oranges
3.00 RMB: Fried sweet fingers. Alright, I don’t know what they were called, but that’s my name for this snack.
12.50 RMB: Lunch of dumplings and eggplant, a beer, and tea.
1.50 RMB: more water
26 RMB: train back to Shanghai
2.50: dinner from a late night stand in the back streets of Shanghai
12 RMB: Taxi back from the hotel after going the wrong way from the metro station and getting lost. At least dinner was cheap.

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