Friday, 5 April 2013

Tea in the Venice of China

It would be fair to say that China today is a very different place than it was 30 years ago. Its fast paced economy and commercial expansion appears unstoppable and in its wake much of the old landscape is fast disappearing. What most tourists are left with are ‘Chinatown-like’ images of what the old country might have been like; a pastiche of clich├ęd depictions of a bygone era. However, if you are prepared to venture out beyond the big cities, you are still able to experience a more authentic taste of China that has long since disappeared in many parts of the country. Tongli is such a town and despite being round 18 kilometres outside of the bustling city of Suzhou, it still provides a genuine insight into traditional village life within a uniquely preserved environment. Jules had read about this place as she trolled through various websites in preparation for this trip. What had particularly attracted her to the town was its mantle as the ‘Venice of China’ and with a history of over a thousand years, it had remained largely unchanged. It sounded so fascinating that we just had to make sure that we included it as part of our tour.

After about an hour and a half of driving we arrived at Tongli and while the old village was indeed very authentic, it was clear that this watery attraction was gradually being discovered by the outside world. In the surrounding areas new infrastructure was quickly being built and a host of commercial businesses were springing up with an eye to cashing in on the anticipated influx of tourists over the next few years. Fortunately this was all at arms length from the village itself, which could be visited by simply crossing over an arch bridge much like the ones you might see in Venice itself.

Once on the other side we felt as if we had stepped into another world in which time had stood still. We entered narrow streets that were lined by simple, but traditionally styled buildings. Some were residential, while others were small business trading much as they had done for centuries. Of course Jules was fascinated with the various eating establishments that were open to the streets cooking all manner of food. She couldn’t resist buying some sticky toffee on a stick from an old lady who was making it as she sat in the doorway of her home. Elsewhere groups of old men were playing chess, pedaled rickshaws were moving up and down the laneways and visitors sat drinking tea in the open air as they overlooked the narrow canals. Meanwhile, our guide had organized for us to visit one of the oldest teahouses in the village (established 1898) to enjoy our tea with some local food. This was definitely the most authentic eating experience we had in China, in a setting that was as genuine as you can get. We could only imagine the many conversations that would have occurred here over the years whilst sipping Chinese tea.

Of course we were quick to resume our walk around Tongli with its picturesque sites and photographic scenes around every corner. With 15 canals and 49 ancient stone bridges, it is no way near the size of Venice, but it is not as busy either. The village was certainly very quaint and largely unspoilt, at least for the time being. We enjoyed criss-crossing over the various narrow bridges to obtain different viewpoints of the town. Our guide was quick to point out that the three most significant bridges were Taiping (peace), Jili (luck) and Changqing (celebration). The story goes that when celebrating a wedding, the groom is supposed to carry his bride over these three bridges in order to obtain good fortune in their lives. Thankfully they are all very small bridges and close to one another!

Narrow wooden boats line the canals and still provide one of the major ways of moving around the 64 square kilometre town. However, the most fascinating of these crafts were the ones that provided perches for trained cormorants. These amazing birds earn their keep by diving into the water for fish, all for a guaranteed share of the catch. As we walked along the canals, we could see one of the local fisherman cleaning the catch as a group of cormorants sat on the boat patiently waiting for their cut of the haul. This was yet another scene that was typical of this remarkable water town. This was the type of place that tourists increasingly come to China to see, but are disappearing all too fast. We were certainly glad that we had extended our departure from Shanghai just one more day in order to visit Tongli. Even though it too was changing fast, it was still unmistakably Chinese.‘Venice of China’ remained like a remarkable time capsule that was both scenic and rich with history. We can only hope that it will remain that way and doesn’t, like so many other places, become swamped by the current wave of progress!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Strolling the Backyards of Shanghai

I must admit that I’m not a gardener! When it comes to firing up a lawn mower or whipper snipper, I’m up there with the best of them, but as for the actual selection of plants, garden layout and the design of interesting water features, I’m at a bit of a loss. I guess this harks back to my days growing up in Australia when a backyard garden simply consisted of an open grassed area (ideal for backyard cricket), a spot down the back fence for an incinerator (remember them) and a strategically placed barbeque close to the house. Thankfully, both Australia and I have come to realize that there can be more to the domestic garden than just that and in recent years our TV sets have been flooded with shows demonstrating how we can miraculously turn our patch of earth into a veritable domestic paradise; an idealic sanctuary for contemplation or simply a getaway from the hustle and bustle of daily life! Since living in Japan, Jules and I have much admired the way small outdoor spaces have been transformed into tranquil havens and we were not at all surprised to find that the Chinese were also seeking to achieve that same goal centuries before Australia was even on the map. While Jules and I were in Shanghai, we were fortunate enough to visit two beautifully preserved domestic gardens that revealed just how sophisticated these early designs actually were. Here we discovered that despite living in one the most over populated cities in the world, there has long been innate desire to retreat back to nature within your own backyard.

In the old town of Shanghai, the Yuyuan Garden (also called the Yu Garden) provides an amazing departure from the busy lanes of the nearby market place, which still retain the character of a bygone era. This 440 year old classical Chinese garden was not your average local garden, but was built by a senior government officer and was later restored some 200 years later by a family of rich merchants. It spans around five acres and is dotted with beautifully constructed pavilions, bridges, ponds and rockeries. The centrepiece of the garden is the ‘Exquisite Jade Rock’, which as the story goes, was originally bound for the Imperial Palace in Beijing, but was salvaged when the transporting boat sank near Shanghai. The strange thing is that the prized stone isn’t actually made of jade at all, but rather Huangshi Stone which is a particular soft coastal rock that is valued for the number of holes that have been weathered through the rock overtime. Looking much like an 11 foot chunk of Swiss cheese and with 72 holes, this is apparently a particularly valuable piece of stone although to be honest, I couldn’t quite see the attraction. What I could appreciate however were the rocks, pavilions and ponds of the inner garden, with schools of red, orange and yellow Koi fish visibly swimming in the water, fat from years of constant feeding from visiting tourists. The scene provided a unique glimpse of the privileged life that the wealthier members of Chinese society would have enjoyed during the Ming Dynasty. It remains a beautiful haven from the outside world that fortunately these days can be shared by all.

Another garden we visited was at Suzhou, which is regarded by ‘garden connoisseurs’ as one of the finest examples in China. The ‘Master of the Nets’ garden is much smaller than the one in Shanghai (660 square ft), but it is no less significant and it was recently granted UNESCO World Heritage status along with several other gardens in the area. This garden was inspired by the philosophical writings about the simple and solitary life of a fisherman. Apparently, it was built by yet another high-ranking government official in the 11th century and after being passed to several generations, the garden gradually fell into decline only to be restored in the 1700’s. It was another government official (I sense that a pattern is emerging here) who gave the garden its name after declaring that he would rather have been a fisherman than a bureaucrat, although I’m not sure that a fisherman could have quite afforded this residence. In any case, what he created was a most impressive residential garden that successfully fused together delicate traditional Chinese architecture with all of the calming elements that nature has to offer. The main feature is a large central pond with a pavilion delicately placed in the water, which is only accessible by a small bridge. From here, views representing the various seasons could be easily seen. We could imagine the tranquility this spot would have offered its original residents and the great pleasure it would have provided to them and their many guests.

As Jules and I strolled around the gardens of these splendid Chinese residences, our guide would point out the many symbolic icons that were discreetly built into their numerous design features. While generally being decoratively interesting, it seemed that just about every form, image and structure also had the important task of somehow delivering good luck, prosperity and long life to its owner. Only history can tell whether they actually fulfilled their task, but it would be true to say that these gardens would have certainly been very appealing backyards from which to contemplate such eternal hopes.