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Published: November 2nd 2014
On top of Tiger Hill in Suzhou
is a very old pagoda that was built in the tenth century. Over a thousand years later, it remains aloft, though it leans considerably to one side. Because of its tilt, no one is allowed to venture in. Instead, it’s boarded off and peaceful. There are trees and moss growing on the stone walls and it is surrounded by a leafy courtyard with benches and picnic tables.
Completed in the Song Dynasty, the pagoda and park have a long history. The area has been mentioned by wistful poets and scholars who used to wander amongst its bamboo groves. In recent years, when they dug underneath in an attempt to repair the faltering supports of the pagoda, they found a chest of ancient Buddhist manuscripts. According to a plaque at the entrance, it is also the burial place for a king who was vanquished in a battle during the Spring and Autumn Period. After he died, a white tiger came and sat on his grave, thus giving the hill its name.
It’s hard to imagine that it was once possible that such large creatures roamed the hills of Eastern
Even today, Tiger Hill is an oasis; though it doesn’t look promising on first approach. C and I took a bus from downtown Suzhou . We almost turned around at the entrance because it just looked like one vast parking lot. However, once we drew closer and passed through the official gate we were greeted with tree-lined paths, cobblestones, white walls, and quiet enclaves. There are gardens, ponds, and extensive bamboo forests. In spite of being a Saturday afternoon the park was relaxed. Every time I visit a place like Tiger Hill, or Mt. Wu in Hangzhou, I immediately think of old China…far away from the honking and traffic, free of skyscrapers and smog.
Maybe I’ve been watching too many movies, but it’s always nice to get out of the city.
After our move, we tried to take as many weekend trips as possible before the heat and summer obligations set in. For the May 1st holiday, we decided to brave the busy train station for a visit to Hangzhou
. Because many of the tickets were already sold out, I could only get a seat going to Hangzhou’s East Train
Station. While more modern than its cousin, the station is also located much farther from city center. The taxi line was immense, so I crammed on the metro along with population of Zhejiang Province. It was so claustrophobic that I got out and tried to take a bus…big mistake. It wasn’t until several hours later that I finally made it to the hotel.
While the vacation got off to a horrible start, it quickly redeemed itself. I went for a long walk on Mt. Wu, whose trails were invitingly empty in spite of the holiday. Along the backside of the hill are a series of boulders and small caves. Jammed in the crevices are sticks of incense, dripping candles, and porcelain figures of GuanYin. Later, I met C at the West Lake, where jubilant crowds had taken over the grass, much to the chagrin of the whistle-blowing security guards.
The next day we took a bus along the lake and went for a long walk around the gardens and ponds. I don’t remember the exact name of the place, but it was incredible. Apparently part of some sort of stream restoration project, the water
in the pools was crystal clear. There were dragonflies, lilies, flowers, and willows. At one point, we even saw a kingfisher with a bright orange beak. We stopped for lunch at the village and later hiked up to a viewpoint in the hills. Again, I don’t remember the exact route we took, but that’s the reason why I love Hangzhou…there’s so much serendipity. If you just start wandering around in the hills you will stumble onto something interesting!
Our next outing was another trip to Suzhou the following weekend. We stayed in the same old hotel (Pingjiang Lodge) with its creaky floors and antique furniture. It didn’t rain so much this time. Instead of rushing around trying to see the sights, we mostly sat by the canal and drank tea. We did make it back to the Couples Retreat Garden as well. Tiger Hill was the definite highlight, and well worth the bus ride.
We also made a return visit to Zhujiajiao
, another water town just an hour from Shanghai by bus. There really isn’t a lot to do there, which is part of its charm. The picturesque old town is situated on either
Tiger Hill, Suzhou
side of a large canal. Most visitors come for the afternoon to take a scenic boat ride and have a meal at one of the waterfront restaurants. It was sunny when we arrived, and at one point there were so many boats on the canal that they were practically bumping into each other. The helmsmen just laughed and joked with one another, using long poles to carefully maneuver their boats through the tourist parade.
It’s worth pointing out that when I say “tourists” I am not referring to foreigners. While you do run into both expats and groups from Europe and America, tourism in China is overwhelmingly made up of domestic visitors. While a growing number of young Chinese are traveling independently, a lot of the older generation will book a tour through an agent, which usually includes transportation, accommodation, and lodging. Whenever I see a large throng of people following a beleaguered guide brandishing a flag and microphone, I often wonder why they bother. In the end, it seems to be both the ease and affordability of these kinds of trips which attracts people.
Zhujiajiao is a great place to people watch and
ponder some things. Aside from sitting by the canal, there are numerous shops selling trinkets, a traditional garden, and very pretty temple. It’s still probably my favorite of the nearby water towns simply for its relaxed atmosphere and easy access to Shanghai.
In June, we were able to squeeze in two more weekend trips. The first occurred over the Dragon Boat Festival holiday when we again went to Hangzhou. I had booked a newly opened youth hostel in Manjuelong
, a small village not far from the city. The hostel itself was fantastic. Our room was bright and clean, with a balcony overlooking the misty hills and the grassy roof of a dilapidated temple. Out back there was a terraced yard with outdoor tables and swing chairs. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to go to Hangzhou to hike.
The little village was comprised of blocky white houses, many of which were newly built. There were lots of restaurants and tea shops. In particular, the restaurant directly across the street from the hostel served up one of the best meals I’ve eaten in China, perhaps in my life.
two hikes I would recommend for anyone who is interested. If you live near Shanghai and you want to know, read on. Otherwise, skip my rambling attempt at giving directions! Manjuelong Hike 1
Walking slightly uphill for about 15 minutes on the main road will take you to a dripping cave once inhabited by a hermit monk. It’s just a park now with a few picnic tables and loads of mosquitos. From there, you can turn right up the hill, staying on the paved road until a series of steps leads the way into the forest. After a sweaty hike of 30 or so minutes you reach a gorgeous vista of the tea fields and can see all the way to LongJin Village nestled in the opposite valley. Continuing on the trail through one of the tea plantations will take you on a loop back down to the village. Manjuelong Hike 2
The next day we did another long hike, this one in the hills on the opposite side. Again walking up the main road from the hostel, take a left turn along a series of stairs that
leads down and then up to another road. Continue bearing left and follow the road as it branches up toward a cluster of houses. Before reaching the caul-de-sac follow a yellow arrow left onto a series of stairs. It looks like you are ascending to someone’s property, but keep going. Between the larger white buildings and a small, wooden house follow the yellow arrow (painted on the ground) into the forest. You’ll walk along a dirt path through some groves of bamboo and finally happen upon the tea fields. It’s absolutely gorgeous – mist clinging to the bamboo, singing birds, rows of wiry tea bushes, and several old tombs resting peacefully amongst the greenery.
If you keep following the arrows up the hill and along another you will eventually be connected with a paved path that leads to a view of the river and city. From there, you can make the steep descent down to Tiger Temple or head back along the ridge to reach LongJin Village.
And so we spent most of our holiday exploring the hills – happy, sweaty, and muddy. It was a great experience and I can’t wait to go
By mid-June we were starting to feel a little warn out, having been gone nearly every weekend. However, we wanted to go to one of the area’s most famous water towns: WuZhen
. Many people had insisted it was a “must see”, primarily for its well-preserved architecture. We took a bus on Friday afternoon from Shanghai’s South Bus Station. It was an easy 2-hour ride and unlike the busy corridor between Shanghai and Hangzhou, the scenery was primarily fields and trees, with a few small farming communities along the way.
Once in WuZhen we were accosted by a friendly but desperate group of touts. If you don’t feel like negotiating a rickshaw, there is an easy 1 Yuan shuttle that will drop you directly at the gates of the scenic area. WuZhen is divided into two such zones: Xizha (West Scenic Area) and Dongzha (East Scenic Area). You must pay an admission fee. There is a combined ticket if you want to go to both (I believe around Y150/person) and there is also a discounted entrance to visit Xizha after 6 pm. It is also possible to stay inside the scenic area. There is
a desk at the main gate that handles bookings for small guest houses. Some even have patios along the water.
We ended up staying outside of the scenic areas at a hostel (WuZhen Riverside Inn) in town, about a 15 minute walk from XiZha. Our window looked out over the canal and outside the door was a narrow street packed with vendors selling shoes, combs, carvings, silk shirts, and scrolls. The manager had studied abroad in England and spoke with a slightly British accent. He gave us some good advice about where to walk around and provided us with coupons for breakfast at the restaurant next door. When it came time to leave, he even drove us back to the bus station in his own car.
Our first afternoon, we went for a walk in the neighborhoods near our hostel. This turned out to be the highlight of the trip. Unlike the scenic areas, which are preserved for the sake of visitation, people were still living along the canal. Peeking in doors of the rambling wooden houses we could see residents cooking in dark kitchens, reclining on wooden benches, and watching TV. Children played
on their bikes and old women fanned themselves as they carted bags of groceries home from the market. Everything looked like a postcard: rusty bikes leaning against weathered wood, stone archways, moto-rickshaws bumping along the cobblestones.
That night it poured and it was still raining the next morning. From our window we watched the weekend market across the canal. Vendors in raincoats and straw hats laid out their vegetables on the ground, huddled under their umbrellas, gave up, went home. The worst of the torrential downpour stopped by noon, though it was still drizzling. We took the opportunity and headed out for XiZha. Everything was dripping and obscured by mist and the smoke from steaming vats of stinky tofu.
XiZha was really beautiful. The old buildings had been converted into tea houses, cafes, and restaurants. There were shops selling traditional crafts like handmade shoes and oil-paper umbrellas. You could buy local snacks, watch demonstrations on calligraphy, and see how silk had been dyed during dynastic times. It was one part museum, one part amusement park (no rides, but plenty of costumed characters). It felt a little stilted, but still a fun glimpse into the
So there you have it…spring trips in a nutshell. I always seem to be at least six months behind, but better late than never!
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