Sunday, June 8, 2008

China Trip: Grand Canal, Suzhou

After lunch we said goodbye to Mrs Chee and boarded the boat for our journey down the canal to Suzhou.

This trip down the Grand Canal was quite superb. The Grand Canal project begun 2,400 years ago creating an inland waterway stretching 1,113 miles from Beijing to Hangzhou. It is the largest man made canal in the world and it took 300 years to make.

The canal is very busy with some huge barges constantly passing us and being passed by us. Sometimes up to 10 or so barges were tied together in a long line and hauled by one tug, pretty difficult to control, I should think. The people in the boats were smiling and waving to us. We travelled 26 miles up the canal and the whole way we saw heavy barge traffic. Some of the barges were so heavily loaded that the wash from our boat looked as though it would sink them. We arrived just after 4pm at Suzhou (Soochow).

Suzhou means 'Plentiful Water'. Marco Polo found the inhabitants better traders than warriors. So much silk was produced, he reported, that every citizen was clothed in it.

After meeting our guide Eugenia we went to our hotel, Suzhou Hotel.

In the evening we went to the Suzhou Evening Garden Entertainment. It was a strange evening, we followed Eugenia round and round the gardens which were called Master-of-Nets Garden, in and out of different rooms and pavilions. There were eight different little performances, lasting about five minutes each. We heard and saw old musical instruments played. Classical Opera and drama. Some of it was very good, some not so good. The costumes were very colourful. There was one dance which was a beautiful girl with two white ornate fans pretending to be a butterfly in the garden, that was very good and her movements were so fluid. There was a sketch between a thief and a magistrate which was quite funny. And two men heavily made up with masks and with gorgeous clothes; they performed, and wished us all good health and happiness. We were all given sandalwood fans that smelt lovely.

Next morning we visited The Suzhou Silk Embroidery Research Institute. This place was quite incredible. The embroidery was unbelievable, it was so fine and the pieces done were incredible.

Some of the pieces looked photographic. There was a kitten with yellow eyes which was alive. We asked one of the women if they were still working during the cultural revolution, she said they carried on working but embroiled things like Chairman Mao. The pictures that were embroiled were double sided but stitched at the same time. I have never seen such beautiful embroidery anyway in the world.

We asked about the ladies' eyesight as the work was so fine. They all do eye exercises three or four times a day and not one was wearing glasses. Eugenia showed us how to do the eye exercises and told us she also did them night and morning.

Eugenia also told us how, as academics, she and her husband were sent to work on the land and were sent to quite different parts of China. They only managed to see each other once or twice a year.

After lunch we visited a factory that made sandalwood fans and also silk painted fans. We watched the intricate fretwork being done on the fans and then the master burning the pattern into the sandalwood. Eugenia told us "Americans buy everything, British look at everything, the Japanese copy everything and the Chinese eat everything"!!

The Market here was very good, nestling under the shade of the trees it was pleasant to wonder from stall to stall, we bought some teapots here. There were plates with Mao's picture on.

As we said goodbye to Eugenia at the railway station she said to us "I wish you good holiday, good luck, good happiness and good friends who will watch your videos and films when you get home", we all roared with laughter at the last bit. We were sad to leave Suzhou and would have liked to stay longer, quite my favourite place so far. We are on our way to Shanghai.

Arriving at Shanghai station we were quickly transported to our hotel The Lansheng Hotel.

Dating back a thousand years, Shanghai is five times the size of Los Angeles and home to over 13 million people. Heavy industry coexists alongside rich farmland. The Huangpu River which we can see from the hotel runs through the middle of the City. The river traffic is a motley flotilla of modern container ships and ocean going junks, their sails the colour of grime, of packed ferries and convoys of barges, warships, rusty coasters and bobbing sampans. China's prime port began a thousand years ago as a fishing village on mud flats near the Yangtze River's outlet to the East China Sea. Between 1937 and 1945 Shanghai was occupied by Japanese troops. In 1965 the Cultural Revolution was sparked off in Shanghai.

Our guide in Shanghai is Mr Chai who tells us the Cantonese eat everything on four legs except tables. And only very wealthy and famous people have cars here; all I can say is there must be a lot of famous and wealthy people here!!

Our first visit this morning is to the old city and Yu Yuan Garden, this garden is the only classical Chinese garden in Shanghai. Outside the garden walls, a large pond is besected by the Nine ZigZag bridge, so shaped to baffle any evil spirits. This links to a 400 year old teahouse which a a favourite place for the locals to take tea and cakes. There is a big dragon statue at the entrance to the garden.

The shopping here is brilliant. We watched an artist painting pictures of childrens names, the chinese lettering was interwoved with dragons and flowers, it was very clever and beautifully painted. Several of the group were having paintings done and they would be delivered to the hotel this evening.

We visited the Peace Hotel and went up to the 11th floor, where there was a wonderful view over the river and the City. The Peace Hotel has been a Shanghai landmark for nearly a century. The first owner of this hotel was Victor Sassoon. This was where Noel Coward wrote his play 'Private Lives', and in its heyday the hotel welcomed Charlie Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw on their visits to China.

The Huangpu River

We strolled along the Bund watching the traffic on the river. We had a Mongolian dinner tonight. The form here is you go along and choose what you want, fish, meat, vegtables, sauces etc, you then take your plate to the chef who puts the lot into a very hot wok and cooks it for you.

After dinner we saw an acrobat show. The show was fast and colourful and the best bit was the lion dance at the end.

Mr. Chai told us about his life. He was a red guard during the Cultural Revolution, until they sacked him because of his parents. He said we should all read the book 'Wild Swans' as it is really true and just like it happened to him and lots of people like him. Most of us had read this book before coming to China. It is the only book I have ever read twice.

Our first stop this morning is to the Jade Buddha Temple. This temple houses two priceless jade Buddha statues, one in the seated position and the other reclining. During the Cultural Revolution the only reason that these statues survived was: when the Red Guards came searching for religious artifacts to burn or destroy, the monks pasted pictures of Mao all round the jade Buddhas and all that the Red Guards saw was monks praying to Mao, so the Jade Buddhas were saved from destruction.

We then visited a silk carpet factory. If we had had more time hear we almost surely would have bought a carpet. We saw the weaving and cutting being done. A 9ft x 6ft carpet was about $350. They were very, very beautiful and the subtle mixture of colours was outstanding.

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