Suzhou I’m told is even more beautiful than Hangzhou. Once you cross the industrial barrier of what used to be the silk capital and has now become the IT capital (both your mouse and computer have probably been made here), it’s one exquisite garden after another. Not sure I’ll get to appreciate them because…the rain has not stopped and shows no sign of doing so anytime soon.
Very surprisingly, the suburbs of Hangzhou display incongruous developments of small sino-Cape Cod apartment buildings, clapboard (or some synthetic material imitating clapboard?) with gables, topped with pointed mandarin hats and the occasional turret with bow-window. Very cheery.
Fate gave me a break! By the time the high-speed train reached Suzhou station, the rain had stopped. Someone also gave me the brilliant idea to use the hair dryer to make my shoes usable again, operation I must report that was crowned with huge success. I was mobile again.
One day in Suzhou, like in many other places, will be highly insufficient, but I’ll have to make do. My hotel seems to be rather eccentrically located, but the West Garden and the Liu or Lingering Garden (a Unesco World Heritage site) are in the neighborhood. Liu Garden alone ended up being more than enough to fill the afternoon. What a total enchantment! Nature miniaturized in so many enclosed landscapes, separated by pavilions and framed as individual tableaux through doorways, latticed windows and the bend of winding paths. You suddenly discover a pond, an abandoned sampan, a bridge, an isolated pagoda. Then a surrealistic maze of craggy rocks standing, bent over, lying down evoking fleeing clouds, a burst of lightning, splashing water, The Buddha’s footprint, the head of a tiger, a dragon sleeping by a pond.
And a quality of silence that inspires people to whisper rather than shout, as if beauty had the power to absorb noises. A serene harmony in a game of hide-and-seek between mineral and plant lives, earth, sky, water, as they paint fragmentary frescoes through openings as round as the moon.
I had time for the tea house: a whole thermos of water for a bagful of tea so fragrant that the more you diluted it, the strongest it seemed to get. And, as a bonus, on this Tuesday afternoon, parasol-twirling dancers looking like so many azaleas, singing girls playing the pipa (the Chinese 4-string mandolin) and more pretty girls in traditional costumes posing on a bridge. I know, it sounds tacky, but I was nevertheless totally taken.
Back at the hotel, I noticed a very odd-looking Chinese girl standing by the front desk in the hotel’s uniform. Dark, somewhat Asian-looking but not quite and rather full-bosomed for a Chinese girl. Eurasian perhaps. She smiled. Do you speak English? A little bit, said with a strong French accent. She explained that she was in a training program. A twenty-year old adorable mixture of Spanish father and Italian mother. She was looking forward to going home in Lyon. We commiserated on the hardship of eating Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“O that I could have wine (or I’ll settle for a French meal) without a wine-supervisor sitting beside me.” That’s a Song dynasty saying, when the wine-supervisor was responsible for officials’ behavior at feasts and festivals. But there was hope: his name was Régis, owner of Bistronomy, a longish taxi ride from here.
It was worth it. His French fries were to die for. After two months on the road, little things like that become meaningful.