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    Posted August 8, 2014 by
    Bhopal, India
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    Suzhou and Hangzhou in 1982

    We took a train from Nanking for Suzhou (earlier Souchhow) which was only around 200 kilometres away. It was not like the current Chinese trains, high-speed and streamlined. It was more or less like ours, a chair car. The car was built in East Germany (in those days Germany was divided between East and West, East Germany being a satellite of the now-dead Soviet Union and West Germany was a flourishing democracy).

    While the cars were not much different but what appeared to be different was the attitude of the workers. I happened to observe the lone woman who was, in our terminology, the coach attendant from the time the train rolled in until we got off it in Suzhou. As soon as the train came to a halt she unfolded the steps for passengers to get off the train on to the platform which was at a lower level. Then she wiped the handle bars with a cloth of all the accumulated dust and stood by the side of the entrance. When we had all got in with only our hand baggage (they did not allow heavy baggage in the coach) she folded back the steps, closed the door and locked it. Then she helped stowing away our bags on overhead racks, swept the floor of the bogey and eventually served us hot coffee that she made for us. Her job included the ones across several lower level hierarchies of Indian Railways and she seemed to be pretty happy about whatever she was supposed to do.

    Suzhou is another ancient city of China with around 2500 years of history but, no, it never seemed to have had the privilege of being the capital in recent times. However, it was founded as the capital of Wu Kingdom in the 6th Century BCE. Its antiqueness is seen in the waterways and roads that run together forming, as they say, a “double chess board”. Being located in the delta region of the Yangtze it is a watery place with lots of ponds, canals, streams and lakes. No wonder it is considered the “Venice of China”. Being wet with lots of water around it is one of the greenest cities I have ever seen.

    And, there are gardens and gardens – there are scores of them, beautifully laid out with paths and typically Chinese pavilions. According to an old saying, the gardens located south of Yangtze are the best. Some date back to the 6th Century BCE and attempt to, as UNESCO said, recreate natural landscape in miniature and depict the “profound metaphysical importance of natural beauty in Chinese culture”. Several of them have since been declared by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. I recall having seen a huge garden of numerous bonsais carefully tended and beautifully displayed. There cannot be two opinions about Chinese aesthetics; it seems to be embedded in their genes.

    A landmark of the city, the Yunyan Temple Pagoda is more than a thousand years old. It is reckoned as the most exquisite pagoda built by the Song Dynasty rulers. At a height of around 50 metres the Pagoda is of 7 storeys, octagonal in construct with balconies on each floor with eaves above them. Along the inner walls there is a winding corridor but one has to use a movable ladder to go up the storeys. From inside, the Pagoda is like a tube and the absence of stairs was ascribed to the much older method of construction of pagodas

    Suzhou is also known for amazingly intricate and beautiful embroidery. The embroidered items that we came across in our hotel and elsewhere were mind-blowing. The effort and patience that had gone into them was indeed unimaginable. And then, every item was a thing of beauty and is inevitably exported.

    Hangzhou, earlier Hangchhow, is only 100-odd kilometres away from Suzhou and is another beautiful city in the Yangtze basin. It is also ancient and has been the capital of Southern Song Dynasty from the 12th Century until Mogul invasions of the 13th Century. Reckoned as one of the most beautiful cities of China, Hangzhou was probably included in our itinerary for its touristic interests. Its West Lake, a huge water body, has since been declared a World Heritage Site. Most of the touristy activities were restricted in and around it and, like Suzhou, numerous gardens were laid around it.

    Among the ancient cultural items the Six Harmonies Pagoda is important. Unfortunately we could not see it. Hangzhou is known as the “Porcelain Capital”. Chinese ceramics and porcelain are known the world over from ancient times. After all, the word “china” came into being because of Chinese exquisite ceramics. Their porcelain is of a fine variety, smooth to touch, translucent and delicate in looks. In a garden we came across ceramic furniture – stools, tables and things.

    Like in Suzhou, the gardens are beautifully maintained with lovely colourful pavilions. Beautifully designed and painted from inside each is a work of art. In one of them a shutterless and glassless window showed well-tended plants in natural setting. It appeared like a painting and but for the window frames one would have taken it as such. Some of the pavilions were decorated with massive porcelain vessels of various colours, mostly blue and red overlaid by painted flowers. Those were things to be seen to be believed for our uninitiated eyes.

    Both Suzhou and Hangzhou are no longer what they used to be in 1982. Suzhou has a thriving industrial Park, a project that was commissioned in association with Singapore and an Export Processing Zone. The city is now catered by, both conventional and high speed trains, the latter covering the distance to Shanghai only in little more than an hour.

    Likewise, Hangzhou also is now a highly industrialised city with products in diverse sectors. It has an Economic and Technological Development Zone, an Export Processing Zone and a Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone. A variey of industries located here feed the rising Chinese economy. No wonder, there are numerous bullet trains running between it Shanghai making it in 45 minutes

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