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Source: Croatian Traveller
During his visit to Hangzhou in 1290, Marco Polo was so thrilled with the West Lake, i.e. Xi Hu, as the Chinese call it, that he readily accepted, wrote down and made popular the ancient Chinese saying that the “paradise is in the sky, and its reflection on earth are Suzhou and Hangzhou” – two cities only an hour and a half drive to the northwest, or southwest of Shanghai. They are similar and different, but what they have in common are the water and beautiful landscapes. In other words, they are an alternative to the energetic and busy Shanghai and other mega cities, hence a favorite destination of the urban population.
Suzhou is a city located on the coast of Lake Taihu that slightly touches the Yangtze river in the Chinese province of Jiangsu. Suzhou is one of the oldest towns in the Yangtze basin, built 2,500 years ago. Its old name during the Jin dynasty was Wuxian, and in 589 it was renamed to Suzhou. Numerous lakes, rivers and channels take up more than 40 percent of city’s surface. Marco Polo described it as an elegant and rich town with twelve thousand stone bridges, with such a magnificent arch that an entire fleet could sail beneath it, calling it the Venice of the Orient. Suzhou is full of traditional gardens: it is said that the garden-parks along river Yangze are the most beautiful in the world, and that the ones in Suzhou are the most beautiful of all of them.
As we were walking through one of them, the Lingering, and listening to the beautiful voice of a young girl accompanied by an instrument similar to lute, it became clear to us why throughout the history Suzhou has given so many artists and scholars. In this garden of order and harmony you can envy the former owners who peacefully enjoyed its beauty. Today, with numerous tourists, it is hard to find a peaceful spot to be alone. There are around 60 classical gardens in Suzhou, and ten of them are included on the UNESCO’s world heritage list.
Throughout history, it has been, and still is, a great center of silk. You should definitely visit the silk factory and the museum that reveals the well preserved secret kept for many centuries, the one of silk manufacturing, from the silk-worm to the finest brocades. The museum is wonderful, but the nearby store thrilled the group even more: from covers and linen that allegedly slow down aging and erase wrinkles from your face, to the traditional and modern clothes made entirely of silk. The prices are fixed, but they are much lower than in Croatia. Too bad that our time was limited and we had to move on.
Pearls are the best thing that goes with silk. Nearby, you will find many pearl farms. In a small manufacturing facility in Shan tang street, a women opens a clam with a knife and takes out a dozen little pink pearls. Next to her there are strings of pearls. She offers a necklace for 200 yen (around 20 euro), but you can probably buy it for half that sum. In the factory next to the pearl farm, the prices are also fixed, but if you buy a few items, they will offer you discount or give you a present. They also showed us a few tests to tell the real from fake pearls, first of all by rubbing the beads – the real ones cannot be damaged – and there is also the “tooth test”. When you place a real pear between your teeth you will hear the fine sound of teeth grinding, like you have sand between your teeth. Along with jewelry, they also sell pearl creams and pearl talcum powder. Make sure you buy it. Namely, the pearl powder is highly regarded in traditional Chinese medicine for its anti-aging effect, prevention of osteoporosis, to body detoxification.
From Suzhou we head towards Hangzhou, looking out the window at a new part of town. Parks and high tech plants, global brands, followed by villages and vast mulberry plantations. A two hours ride from the “paradise on earth”, the shiniest and most luxurious city in the world, as described by Marco Polo. Hanzhou, located on the shore of the West Lake, was founded 4,700 years ago.
Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province. With a population of 6,5 million, it is not one of bigger cities in China, but it is one of the most popular tourist destination for the Chinese because of its cultural, historical and natural attractions. Before taking a boat ride around the lake, we go to the 800-year old Buddhist temple of Lingyin. The legend has it that the limestone rock on which the temple lies is a broken piece of the Indian holy mountain that was mysteriously relocated to China. In its base is a labyrinth of caves decorated by sculptures and carvings of Buddha. The Lingyin temple is one of the biggest and richest Buddhist temples in China, and there are also numerous beautiful pagodas in the centennial forests.
We head to Lake Xi Hu, that lies to the west of the city of Hangzhou that it was named after (West Lake). Surrounded on three sides by hills, the lake has a surface of 6.5 square kilometers, with an average depth of only 2.27 meters. There are beautiful landscapes, hundreds of traditional boats cruising on the lake, water carpets of lotus flowers covering the shore area, series of temples and palaces along its coast. However, our best experience of the lake came in the evening. “The impression of the West Lake”, a spectacle on water, something you have never had a chance to see before. It is signed by Zhang Yimou, the best known Chinese director, known for his work on the opening and closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing. “Impression West Lake” is a spectacle of light, music, dance and acting… Because the stage is placed 3 centimeters below the surface, it looks like they are walking on water. A must see.
Don’t miss a tour of the tea plantations: around Hangzhou there are plantations of the famous Chinese green tea called Long Jing or Dragon Well, or the imperial tea. If you fail to reach the tea plantations, you can see a demonstration of tea drying and preparation in Shangtang Street in Hangzhou. Along with the tea houses, you will also find stores offering traditional works of art of Chinese craftsmen. The newer part of Hangzhou holds the concentration of private business, among which the famous one is most definitely alibaba.com, the biggest online commercial portal in China.