A Farewell to Summer

The end of summer means a return to my regular work schedule. As a result, Jun and I now have different weekends. To celebrate the end of a wonderful summer, we decided to take a few extra days off and travel to Suzhou. Suzhou is an old city near Shanghai that is known for its classic gardens and canals.

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Day 1

We arrived in Suzhou early in the morning and went straight to the hotel to check-in. Since it was early our room wasn’t ready. We left our luggage at the hotel and decided to explore the area. Near the hotel was the Panmen Scenic Area located at the southwestern corner of the old city wall. There are a number of buildings and gardens here next to the wall. It was a beautiful place to start our trip. While there were a lot of areas visited by other tourists, there were a number of quiet spots where Jun and I could enjoy Panmen.

Soon it was lunch and Jun and I went to a local dumpling place and ate a variety of them. The dumpling, overall, were great. I especially liked the vegetable dumplings. We did discover that food in this region tends to be sweeter than in other areas of China. It was a bit of a shock to the taste buds. It did, however, serve as a warning about what we should eat on our trip.

After lunch we chose a slow path back to the hotel. Anything along the way we thought interesting we would stop and visit. We actually stopped at a few places. One of them was the Confucius Institute in Suzhou. It is part museum and part research institute. In the back of the Institute—hidden from the street—is a local market where people can buy trinkets. It’s a really fascinating dichotomy between the Institute and the market in such closed quarters.

Across the street from the Confucius Institute are two interconnected gardens: Keyuan and Canglang Pavilion. Both are unique in their own ways. They are two of the many gardens in Suzhou. Keyuan has a more organized garden with lawns and vegetation. Canglang has more organic and meandering layout with a number of rocky outcrops. It was a neat contrast to see these two gardens. They highlight how diverse the gardens in Suzhou are.

After visiting those two gardens, Jun and I were ready for a nap after having had to get up at 3:00 in the morning. We went back to the hotel to get our room keycard for our nap. When we got there we had to wait a bit longer. As an apology the hotel gave us complimentary breakfasts for the rest of our stay. That was a nice little surprise. We got to our room and took a relaxing nap.

After our nap, we took a walk along the Grand Canal near the Panmen Scenic Area. The Grand Canal was created as a means of ferrying goods between key cities in China centuries ago. The walk was nice, and we got to see the shift of the city from day to night. As we were walking we were looking for a place to eat. We decided on a little restaurant that sold local food. Jun ordered some nice dumplings, but I ordered a rice cake dish that was really too sweet. As a result we decided to go to a Vietnamese place nearby. The food there was quite nice.

From there we went back to the hotel to end the day.

Day 2

The second day of our trip was one of gardens. After breakfast Jun and I walked to the main area for gardens in Suzhou. On the walk there Jun and I got to talking about the region and how we were close to West Lake in Hangzhou. West Lake is important to Chinese culture as it has inspired Chinese literature, music, and art for centuries. I have had many people tell me that I should go and visit. Jun said that by high speed train it’s only an hour and a half from Suzhou and that we should just go. I readily agreed and he quickly bought train tickets on his phone. That was done and we had a plan for Monday.

The first garden we went to was the Master of Nets Garden. The garden is known for the fusion of nature, art, and architecture to create a unique whole. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has a replica of a portion of this garden . It was quite beautiful and interesting.

From there we went up the road to an alley with a temple and a museum dedicated to stone monuments. The museum is built on the site of the remains of Luohanyuan Temple. The most significant part of the temple left standing are the two twin pagodas that rise high above the remains. The day before Jun and I had seen an old picture of the pagodas at the Confucius Institute and we both wondered where in the city they were. By accident we had found them on our walk!

From there we went to Pingjiang Road, which is an old commercial street next to a canal. The buildings in this area are built in the traditional architectural style of Suzhou. It was nice to walk along the street and pop into some of the shops. We decided to stop at a café and rest for a bit while enjoying some cold drinks.

From there we went off on a side alley and ended up at an amazing garden: the Couple’s Retreat Garden. This garden was my favorite for two reasons. It was the quietest of all the gardens we visited. And the gardens were lush and breathtaking. I enjoyed my time there.

From there we walked along the canal and eventually ended up at the Humble Administrator’s Garden. It’s the largest of the Suzhou gardens and is renowned for its beauty. The only downside to being famous is that everyone wants to visit here. When we got there it was difficult to enjoy the garden with all the other tourists crowding every area of the garden. I mentioned to Jun that it reminded me of a visit to Disney Land with all the people and noise. While it was beautiful, the visit was not all that enjoyable.

We soon left to have a late lunch and a break from the visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

After lunch we went to the Lion Grove Garden, which was the last garden we visited that day. Its name comes from the number of rock features that resemble lions. It was a nice garden with a nice play of color in the building features. It was a nice contrast to the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

From there we finished our sightseeing with a walk to the North Temple Pagoda. When we got there the park was closed, but we were still able to admire the pagoda. To be honest Jun and I were a bit done with visiting places. We decided to finish the day with dinner. As we were walking to the fish restaurant we wanted to try, Jun noticed a place that sold sweet dumplings (tangyuan). Jun and I are accustomed to the dumplings being small. We were both surprised to see these dumpling being huge. They were so nice and delicious. After we finished them we then went to dinner, which was also good.

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And that was the end of this busy day!

Day 3

The day started at the Suzhou train station for our journey to Hangzhou. It was a quick trip to Hangzhou East station, and Jun and I were soon on our way to the West Lake.

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We first had lunch at a local restaurant. This time I thought the food was good, but Jun was a bit unhappy with it. At that point we both agreed the regional cuisine was just not for us.

We decided that we would try to walk around the whole lake. As we were walking we took in the beauty of it. Along the lake are a number of temples, museums, and gardens that offered a nice diversion from the general beauty of the lake. The first place we stopped at was Qianwang Temple. The temple resembled many other temples, but it did have a number of interesting murals depicting parts of the history of West Lake.

From the temple we continued our walk until we got to Jingci Temple. At the high point of the temple you can see Leifengta, which is a newer structure at West Lake. Jun had visited once and said it wasn’t worth the ticket price to visit. I was fine with that. I was able to still take a nice picture of it.

From there we went up Su Causeway. There are a number of gardens off the causeway that are beautiful and peaceful. Jun and I just enjoyed spending some time there and taking in the views. We were fortunate too that we got to see so many of the lotus plants along the causeway.

At the end of Su Causeway, Jun and I took a break and had tea on an island near Bai Causeway. After finishing our tea we walked along that causeway on our way back to where we had started.

When we got back it was dinner time. We both decided to have something different, which ended up being sushi. We found this restaurant in an alley house that was quite romantic; an appropriate place to have dinner since it was Chinese Valentine’s day.

After dinner we went to the train station for our journey back to Suzhou.

Day 4

The last day of our trip! For a bit of change we went to the village of Tongli in the southern part of Suzhou. Tongli has a lot of canals and gardens in a small area. It was easy to get to by a combination of metro and a short bus ride.

When we got there we enjoyed walking around the side streets and seeing the canals. The first garden we went to took us by surprise. When we first went into Gengle Hall we thought it would be small and a quick trip. It turned out to be significantly bigger with a nice garden in the back. It was also a nice contrast to the other gardens in Suzhou with a more rustic feel.

The next place that was also of significant size was the Pearl Tower Garden. This one had a number of halls and a nice garden, but it also had a theater in it. Suzhou is also known for its opera, so it was nice to see this traditional garden theater.

There were a number of other gardens we saw, but they were nothing compared to Gengle Hall and the Pearl Tower. Soon our enjoyment of Tongli had to come to an end; Jun and I had to get to the airport for our trip back to Shenzhen.

Our vacation was a great way to end our summer. The whole summer had been amazing, and this was a wonderful way to say farewell.

Charming Chaozhou

A few years ago an acquaintance of mine brought to my attention a city in eastern Guangdong—Chaozhou—he thought I would find interesting. The city is full of history and culture that has had a global impact. Many of the overseas Chinese who emigrated from China prior to the twentieth century came from this region.

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Jun and I had planned several times to visit Chaozhou, but due to weather and schedule conflicts we were unable to go in the past. Recently, we found that we had a free weekend and decided it would be an ideal time to go.

Day 1

We left Shenzhen in the morning and got into Chaozhou a little after noon. When we had finished checking into the hotel we decided to go to the old part of the city. We started our exploration of the city on Paifang Street. The street is neat. For about two kilometers the street has numerous paifangs—entry gates—interspersed every few meters. Chaozhou is the first place I had seen a street with so many paifangs placed in this way.

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The first thing we wanted to do was find lunch. Jun had researched a number of things that he thought we should try. We found a street restaurant and ordered sweet taro and an oyster omelet. Simply delicious.

After we had finished lunch we went to Kaiyuan Temple. The temple is fairly large with a number of prayer halls on the grounds. The buildings at the temple were a mix of old and new. We enjoyed seeing that mix at the temple.

After the temple we walked to Guangji Bridge. The bridge was built in 1170 AD during the Song Dynasty. Originally the builders constructed the bridge out of a number of boats connected with a walking platform, but over time many of the boats were replaced with stone structures. The builders of the stone structures, however, left a section of the bridge with the boats to ensure passing boats could traverse the river. The bridge was really neat and a fun experience.

On the other side of the bridge we went to Han Wen Gong Temple. This temple was built in memory of an important administrator of the city. The temple grounds are built on the side of a hill and has a number of nice courtyards. Jun and I liked the cool breeze that came from the river as we went around the temple.

When we were done seeing the temple, we walked along the river and enjoyed the sunny afternoon. We eventually walked back to the old city. We walked through some of the alleyways and lanes of the city to see what the atmosphere of that area was like. From there we stopped at a museum dedicated to a local artist near the main gate tower. While the artwork was nice, we both enjoyed the air conditioning more.

From there we walked up Paifang Street towards the Buddha Lamp Temple. We were lucky we got there when we did; the temple was preparing to close. They were kind and they let us in. The significance of this temple is the lantern it had, which sailors had used to navigate the river.

By that time Jun and I were hungry; we went to have beef hotpot at one of the more known places in the city. Dinner was great and it was a wonderful way to end the day. From the old city we went back to the hotel to enjoy a quiet evening.

Day 2

The next day we went to West Lake. When we got there we had breakfast at a soup noodle place. It was a hole-in-the-wall place, but the noodles were nicely prepared. From there we went into the park. We walked around the lake and the forested area and saw some interesting remnants of the old city. Parts of the old city wall, temples, and gate towers were some of the structures hidden inside the park. It was an interesting mix.

We spent a few hours at the park. From there we walked through a different part of the city. We stumbled upon a Song Dynasty house and a temple dedicated to Confucius. They were interesting, but nothing spectacular. As we were going to the Confucius Temple Jun spotted a place that sold Chaozhou rice rolls. Jun wanted to try this dish, so we decided to have some. They were quite good and had a nice peanut sauce.

When we finished with the rice rolls, we decided to take a stroll on Paifang Street before we left for the train station. We walked to the end of the street and stopped at a juice bar, a café, and had a few last Chaozhou snacks before catching the bus to the train station.

Jun and I had a wonderful time in Chaozhou. The food was great, and the culture fascinating.

 

Peace and Solitude at Feixia

When I first moved to China, my teaching center gave me a guidebook for the country. One of the entries was about a place called Feixia in central Guangdong. I read the entry but never really thought I would actually go there; it’s not the typical tourist spot for foreigners. I mentioned this place to Jun one day and he said he could plan a weekend trip if we wanted. I said sure if he was game, which he was. He went and planned an amazing trip.

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We left Guangzhou for Qingyuan in the late afternoon. When we arrived we checked into our hotel and then went exploring around the central area. We walked through a park and across the bridge and found a really neat restaurant for dinner. They cooked the food at the table using wood fire. It was a nice dinner and a wonderful start to our trip.

The next day we left early for Feixia. It was a quick drive there and we soon bought our tickets. We then took the ferry across the river to start exploring the area. Feixia has a lot of Taoist temples along the mountain paths. We noticed that most of the other visitors were taking the bus up to the main temples. Jun and I decided to hike along the path up the mountain to explore the area.

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Because we were essentially the only ones on the trail we had it to ourselves. It was really nice to go along the trail in silence and explore the area without anyone else. We passed many gateways and saw a temple nestled next to a spring. It was quite magical how the temples and gates were a part of the forest.

We soon made it to the first temple palace. These are a combination of temples and living quarters that are grouped together to create a palace like structure. They are really interesting and in the Feixia area there are two of these palaces. The first is better kept, but the second one has more character. Large parts of the second palace is unoccupied. These unoccupied areas are rustic. They give a nice glimpse into the craftsmanship that went into building this palace and maintaining it over time.

At the top of Feixia was a temple and a pagoda that offered spectacular views of the valley. It was an exhausting hike up to it, but the view was amazing.

 

Jun and I decided to take the bus back down and start our journey back to Shenzhen. Jun booked tickets on a train leaving from a nearby village, so we made our way to that village. It was interesting to see this place: Yuantan. A lot of the buildings in the village are quite old and interspersed in alleyways surrounded by newer buildings that are next to the main roads. In these alleyways you can see people preparing traditional medicine as they have for centuries. It was a nice experience to see that part of China.

Soon we were on the train and back to Shenzhen; Jun and I had a really nice weekend in Qingyuan and seeing Feixia.