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Of Shanghai... and Suzhou

Rasheeda Bhagat

They might belong to the same country. But the ever-bustling Shanghai and the quaint town of Suzhou are two completely contrasting experiences, says Rasheeda Bhagat.


The many colours of The Humble Administrator's Garden in Suzhou

A first-time visitor to Shanghai is likely to be blown off her feet. Right from the massive Pu Dong airport, to Shanghai commercial district and its breathtaking and dazzling waterfront, known as the Bund, everything is huge and mind blowing in Shanghai.

Even as you land at Pu Dong, you can't help noticing its modern architecture. Huge, sleek and flat Fujisu TV screens, displaying flight information adorn every corner of the sprawling airport. And unlike Indian airports, the immigration counters are aplenty, the baggage claim areas spacious, and it is a relief to exit the arrival hall within 20 minutes.

But when it comes to exchanging your money, that's another story. At the airport or elsewhere, this is indeed a hassle, but a minor one, considering the rich experience this city holds out to a visitor.

Shanghai is a city that needs to be visited. A walk around the Bund, a shopping spree on its famous shopping street Nanjing, close to the Bund, and it is difficult to believe tourist literature that tells you that unlike Beijing, Shanghai's history does not date far back, and until 1842, "it survived as a small sleepy fishing village."

The word Shanghai, in Chinese, means `by the sea', and the city itself is divided into two halves by the Huang Pu river.

Shanghai is clearly China's showpiece for the rest of the world. It boasts of a large number of business and luxury hotels, but most of them come with a big price tag, leaving little options for the budget traveller. The trick is to move away from the city centre and seek accommodation about 15-20 km away. Then Shanghai can become affordable for modest purses. And the distance away from the city centre should not worry you, because there is a very efficient network of air-conditioned buses to reach you to your destination.

We are told that in 1990, China chose Shanghai to drive the country's economic progress. A booming construction industry, (which continues to boom till date, furiously creating additional capacity for several years into the future), an increasing number of private businesses and considerable foreign investment followed, attracting a huge ex-pat community, which make this a truly cosmopolitan city.

Shanghai's resurgence as an economic powerhouse of China is best seen in the rapid development of the Pu Dong New Area, created from an erstwhile sleepy farmland.

Along with its economic development, Shanghai is now trying to get its art and culture act together. The impressive Shanghai Museum and the architecturally striking Shanghai Grand Theater are two examples of this attempt.

We were a group of women delegates attending an international conference on gender at the Fudan University. While some of my colleagues managed to squeeze in a couple of hours at the Chinese opera, this journalist missed out in a futile attempt to chase a Shanghai professor for an interview! But the women who made it vouched for the opera's excellent quality and said that English translation enabled them to follow the entire show.

The most attractive part of Shanghai is, of course, the Bund with its classic colonial riverfront. In the evening, this portion springs to life, with boats and other vessels dotting the river, and the glittering hotels and other skyscrapers on the riverfront lighting up the sky.

Often described as a combination of Liverpool and Manhattan of the 1920s, the Bund is known officially since 1949 as Zhongsan. During Shanghai's riotous heyday, it was not only the city's financial centre but also a hectic working harbour where anything from tiny sailing junks to ocean going freighters unloaded under the watch of the British — and later American and Japanese warships. Everything arrived here, from silk and tea to heavy industrial machinery.

An impressive network of roads and ring roads and two of the largest cable bridges in the world connect the eastern and western parts of the Huangpu river. Never mind the contents of your shopping list, a search for them is bound to take you to the premier shopping street of Shanghai - the Nanjing Lu, one of the busiest streets in this mega city. Neon lights, glittering window displays and food joints dotting various parts of the street, greet you. Depending on the depth of your pocket, you can pick up here any brand in the world as well as first class copies.

But then at some point, even the most compulsive shopper tends to get weary of the big stores and years to run away from the hustle and bustle of the teeming streets of Shanghai. The organisers of our conference strongly recommended the historic city of Suzhou, famous for its gardens and silks and located about 100 km from Shanghai. Classical gardens are the pride of this ancient city crisscrossed by waterways and greenery.

The fast progress we made on the excellent network of flyovers connecting Shanghai to Suzhou was amazing. The driver of our van was a woman and the excellent road and disciplined traffic enabled her to keep the Toyota van cruising at a steady 80-90 km speed. We hit the city in 100 minutes and were taken straight to The Humble Administrator's Garden.

You realise soon that this beautiful garden is far from "humble", spreading over an area of 5.2 hectares. With a history of 500 years and dating to the Ming Dynasty, this is the largest classical garden and biggest tourist attraction of Suzhou. A brilliant specimen of a privately owned garden, it kept us spellbound with its beauty and majesty, with the brilliant red of the trees, the vibrant colours of the Mandarin ducks in one of the marvellous waterscapes, the bonsai garden and other numerous chambers holding oriental treasures and art-de-facts.

Extensive, rustic and natural, this garden displays effectively to the tourist China's "stone culture". The different chambers and their names tell you a lot about the "humble administrator" who built this garden. For one, surely he was both a poet and a romantic soul. Or else he wouldn't have created one chamber just to "listen to the rain", or another one just to "embrace the moonlight." As you wander around, you begin to imagine the spots where he must have touched the clouds or listened to his favourite music. Here is a sample of some other areas in this garden; the Lotus Pavillion, the Fragrant Isle and the Elegant Stone Room.

The artistic and imaginative use of different kinds of stone; whether to construct chambers or just lay the roads and the walkways is remarkable in this place. It would be worthwhile to set apart an entire day to just walk around the three different areas in this garden. In November, when we visited the place, the weather was perfect; the sun was out but there was that nip in the air, which made a brisk walk both a necessity as well as a pleasure.

The tourist literature tells you that He Lu, semi-mythical ruler of the Kingdom of Wu, founded Suzhou in 600 BC as his capital. But it was the building of the Grand Canal a thousand years later, which marked the beginning of the prosperity of the city. The silk trade was established early here and till today it remains one of Suzhou's main sources of income. My Danish colleague's 10-year-old daughter Julia bought a beautiful silk umbrella of the classic variety for just 10 Yuan (Rs 60)!

This is one of the less crowded and more picturesque towns of China and give you a well-deserved retreat from the demanding pace of Shanghai.

Picture by the author

Fact file

How to get there: Shanghai can be reached from Bangkok or Singapore by air. Suzhou is on the main Shanghai-Nanjing railway line and can be reached from Shanghai by train in 90 minutes.

Where to stay: There are various options for business and luxury accommodation in Shanghai. For the budget traveller, there is accommodation, but about 15-20 km from the city.

When to visit: The best time to visit is from May through October.

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