Thursday, June 6, 2013

Exploring Suzhou - Field trip to Tiger Hill

Suzhou is one of the most beautiful cities in China - in spite of its growing urban population, it still has a very strong historical heritage. The classical gardens of Suzhou have been named as UNESCO World Heritage sites, and its numerous waterways and ancient stone bridges have earned it the moniker of 'Venice of China'! It's been almost 10 months since we've moved here, and I'm almost ashamed to admit that so far, I haven't really tried to explore this wondrous city!

So when Manasi's class announced a field trip to Tiger Hill, I jumped at the opportunity to volunteer! I have always enjoyed volunteering in Manasi's school - be it helping with the Guided Reading, or working as Parent Librarian, or going on field trips - it's a wonderful opportunity to see Manasi interact with her peers and observe the class dynamic as a whole! Of course, it doesn't hurt that Manasi thinks it's really cool to have her mom volunteer! And every time I come back from one of these things, it is with a new found respect for teachers - to make a career out of spending all your time with kids - this is something I could never, ever manage!

Tiger Hill and the YunYan Pagoda on top are one of the most recognizable sights in Suzhou. The hill is so named because it (apparently) resembles a crouching tiger - I for one did not get it! Another legend behind the name is that a white tiger appeared to guard the hill after a powerful emperor was buried here. Whatever you choose to believe, Tiger Hill is a must-see in Suzhou - it has been a popular tourist destination for hundreds of years!

South entrance to the park with the Pagoda in the background 

The field trip started early - buses started from the school at 8:30 am, and it was a ride of about 25 minutes. All adults had been assigned 3-4 kids - I had Manasi and 2 of her classmates. The kids had been given a worksheet to fill out as they walked past all the sites. Of course, I didn't make a very auspicious start - as I was getting out of the bus, I slipped and fell really hard - I'm sure the teachers were all wondering if they would be better off without me! Anyway, no permanent damage done, so off we went! 

There are plenty of scenic spots to be seen as you walk up to the Pagoda - the Sword Testing Rock, the Spring of Simplicity and Honesty, the Thousand People Rock, the Lu Yu well, the Zhen Niang tomb, the Verdure Embracing Mountain Villa - beautiful names, but all, I repeat, all the information signs were in Chinese. So none of us really knew what we're looking at! A guide would have been really helpful, but that wasn't an option with the size of our group. The only sign I could read was the one in this picture - though it made me laugh, I wish they would put up some of these in India!

 The Sword Pond is one of the more intrigiung sights on Tiger Hill. It is a deep rectangular pool, crossed by an imposing arching bridge. It is believed that the tomb of King Helu along with a cache of more than 3000 swords is buried in its depths. The mystery remains unsolved, as the site cannot be excavated - there is danger of disturbing the foundation of the Pagoda! Try as I might, I have been unable to gather any more information on this - there is nothing more exciting to me than a historical mystery! Again, a guide would have probably been able to explain further - I guess I just have to go back one more time!

Bridge over Sword Pond
Gardener working on a bonsai

Tiger Hill is also home to one of the largest collections of Suzhou style bonsai - the bonsai garden is located around the picturesque Mountain Villa. This was a perfect place for the kids to rest a bit, and have a snack. The blue sky, the sea of green all around, and the imposing Mountain Villa nestling against the hill - very peaceful, very soothing! Except that bonsai - Suzhou style or otherwise - really, really sets me on edge. I know it is considered to be a fine art - but I think it is a perversion against nature! Twisting off bits of root and stem with wire to physically stunt what could potentially be a magnificent, soaring giant! I am simply unable to see any beauty in these poor plants! Anyway, deep breath, moving on...

Mountain Villa & Bonsai Garden

With the kids straggling by now, we finally made it up to the Yunyan Temple Pagoda. Really surprised to find that this structure actually is tilted, and believe it or not, is known as 'Second Leaning Tower' - I'm guessing this is in reference to Pisa, which is really weird considering that this tower most certainly existed before the one in Pisa! The Tiger Hill Pagoda is ocatgonal, and not very tall - only about 7 stories, less than 50 m. It exists today as a symbol of ancient Suzhou. It is fenced off, so no climbing up - but the foot of the pagoda is a good place to sit and catch your breath before heading back down.

We were now headed to the North Entrance where our buses were waiting. The walk back was also very pleasant, plenty of shady trees, a light breeze - and just as I turned a corner, to my absolute delight, a smallish tea plantation. Close my eyes, and I could have been in Munnar or even Darjeeling! The name of this garden was sheer poetry - Cloud over Lingering Tea Fragrance - what I would do to just float away on that cloud! The green, green tea bushes, the sunshine dappling through the tall willows - a place to sit and dream!
'Cloud over Lingering Tea Fragrance' garden

We ended the field trip with a picnic lunch in a neighboring park - back in school at 2pm. It had been a really hot day - even though all the walkways are shaded by trees, it still is a long way to walk in the sun! There are some incredible views of Suzhou from the top of the hill, but we stayed away from these lookouts - kids and balconies at a height don't really mix well! I'm totally convinced that Tiger Hill merits another visit - without so many kids, and most certainly, with a guide! Of the 2 main festivals held at Tiger Hill, I've missed the Spring Flower Show - but Autumn Temple Fair, here I come!

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