Revisiting the Beautiful Past in Suzhou, China
16 September 2015
“Hey, don't you think this place looks awfully familiar?”
It’s strange. Seemingly out of nowhere, a tingling sense of déjà vu washed over me. But I have never stepped foot on this land before. Then just as suddenly, it struck me. What stood before me were scenes right out of historical period dramas that I have grown up watching – except that in this case, there were no shoddy props and replicas, and that the only cameras I see are the ones slung on tourists. No wonder it was all so familiar! I figured this is the closest I can get to experiencing ancient China without a time machine.
Here I am, in the cultural and history-steeped district of Wuzhen, Suzhou, where an ancient town escapes the modern city’s hectic pace of life.
Divided into East (Dong Zha) and West (Xi Sha) zones, the Wuzhen Water Town was the highlight of my visit. It is made up of an complex network of waterways and winding alleys that clearly have seen better days. Yet, this was a place where an elusive rustic charm calls home. A canopy of black-tiled roofs – supported by dusty brick walls and chestnut-brown wooden pillars – hang over balconies that open up to the Grand Canal which meanders lazily through this town, carrying with it a sense of peace that is calming for both the mind and soul.
Whilst making my way across a time-battered stone arch bridge, I was engulfed by a fleeting thought; a realisation of how countless men and women before me were presented with this exact same view, albeit in at a different age and time. I paused for a brief moment to take it all in. Here, I make out a silhouette of the Pan Men city gate – an impressive monument through which passed the whole gamut of human emotions – fear, relief, anxiety and joy – over the course of its 2,500-year history. Still majestic in all of its 15-metre high glory, the only signs revealing its age are the clusters of hardened moss scaling up its stone walls.This is nothing short of an adventure. It was exhilarating.
The aroma drifting out from nearby tea-houses roused me from my inner musings. In the crisp of spring, steam clouds trail upwards like mythical dragons often referenced to in Chinese folklore. “Time for dinner. Let’s see what this place has to offer.” In my opinion, the best way to experience a country is through its food. Well, Suzhou cuisine panders to those who like their dishes sweet. The clever fusion of fresh, natural ingredients – think steamed chicken served in a watermelon and plump freshwater prawns stir-fried with tea leaves – lends the dishes a saccharine hint that can only be comparable to the sweet memories that I’ve created here.
Rounding off the meal with a divine cup of fragrant Bi Luo Chun tea, I overhear a tour guide declare proudly to his party that picturesque Suzhou is today dubbed the Venice of the East. I look out to the boats plying the waters in the scenic distance. Turning my attention back to my little teacup, I couldn’t help but to give a silent nod in total agreement.