Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tour of Suzhou, China


Sunday was our only full day off, so we went on a guided bus tour of Suzhou. Considering the experience it was a R300 well spent. We saw many of the sights that has made Suzhou famous.

We started out at the Lingering Garden which has been around for over 400 years. We had a really good English-speaking guide who explained a lot about the meaning behind the various symbols. For example, in one room there was a square marble slab next to a circular marble slab. The square resembled the Earth as it was still considered flat in those days and the circle resembled the sky. Together the represented harmony. Unfortunately there was just too much information to remember it all, so I'll leave you with the pictures (many more here):

Our team: Marco, Andre, Asief, Eugene, Graeme and Stephen

That bottle of coke cost about R3 :-P

Plenty bonsai trees

We then visited this fresh water pearl factory shop, which sold pearls for almost nothing. This stopover wasn't actually part of the usual tour and was a treat offered by our guide as he really enjoyed our group. Unfortunately I don't know enough about jewellery to go buying on my own so I didn't get any as cheap as it was. This is where I started meeting a couple teams for the first time. Here's a snapshot of the mayhem at the shop (it was bad enough before we arrived!):

We then had some lunch, which wasn't so great. The Chinese really try to hard to serve us Western food, but they just don't know how to do it properly so they should stick to what they do best! It was buffet, but check out these evil Chinese tactics:

Suzhou is famous for many things, mostly for it's gardens which we had already seen one of. Another thing it's famous for is producing the best silk in China. The next place on our agenda was the No. 1 Silk Factory. There we got to hear the life of a silk from the birth of the silk worm to finding the thread of the cocoons to making the final product. It was a very interesting experience watching the hard labour involved and how the workers worked together with the machines to produce the silk thread from the cocoons.

At the end we had some time to look around in their silk shops. They had such an abundance of silk products for sale, all so cheap, that it was very difficult to decide on what to buy. In the end I only bought a queen-size silk duvet for about R700, which comparing to the price of a feather duvet in South Africa is damn cheap!

Baby silk worms chowing on mulberry leaves

Threading eight silk strands together

Finding the thread of the cocoons

Reading design on punch cards to knit silk fabric

Workers producing a silk duvet

Our next stopover was the Humble Administrator's Garden. It is the largest of the gardens in Suzhou and is one of the four most famous gardens in China. As much as I loved the gardens, we spent so much time in the first one that by the time we got to this one I, along with many others, were getting a bit tired of seeing what was for us mostly the same thing. I would have definitely have enjoyed them more had I seen them on separate days as the heat was also getting to us by now.

Below is the inside of the entrance to the garden. This door is made of steel on one inside for strength and wood on the outside for beauty. The level of detail in the carvings is mind boggling. The inset towards the center of this image is a fully detailed sculpture.

Inside the garden, with four viewing areas. Each viewing area was designed for a different season, for example the spring viewing area was located to take advantage of viewing the blooming of the flowers. There is another viewing area where he would go to drink his tea and see the four moons:
  1. The moon in the sky
  2. The reflection in the water in front of him
  3. The reflection in the mirror behind him
  4. The reflection in his cup of tea

The Grand Canal of China is the longest canal in the world, stretching all the way from Shanghai to Beijing for a total distance of roughly 1,770 km. The canal dates back to the 5th century BC, so it was an amazing opportunity to get to take a boat ride down a part of it as the final part of this tour of Suzhou. It lasted about 45 minutes (no we did not cross the entire length of the canal!) and the rocking of the wakes made us very sleepy after the long tour. We got to see some very nice sights, including some ancient temples.

The boats we rode in. We had to take two as the group was too big.

View from the boat as we crossed the canal

By the end of the tour we were completely knackered. It started out at 11:00 and we got back past 17:30. It was really well worth it though as we got to see everything Suzhou was famous for: the gardens, the silk, the canals and the fresh pearls.

There was just one thing left for us to do at the end of the day and that was team registration. Unfortunately we had just missed the last bus provided by the RoboCup organisers so we had to pay a whopping R2 to catch a public bus. Thankfully one of the volunteers came to help us decipher the bus schedule and get us onto the correct bus or we would have stood no chance. The registration process was fairly painless, besides us having to sign our lives away 17 times. This was the first opportunity we got to meet our German team members from RWTH-Aachen.