Suitcase and World: Suzhou. Silk and Garden.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Suzhou. Silk and Garden.

fter our morning visit to Zhouzhuang, we headed down the road towards Suzhou, about a half hour drive. Suzhou, in addition to being famous for its gardens is the *Silk Capital* of China. So, naturally, our first destination when we arrived into Suzhou was the No. 1 Silk Factory. Conveniently, the factory has a restaurant that caters to the masses of tourists that enter its grounds. So that’s where we had our lunch – a buffet of western style food. No offense to the Chinese but they should not cook western style food. The food filled the belly but there was definitely some funky tasting food. I was grateful, however, that the restaurant was air-conditioned. The heat and humidity is killing me. Ugh.

After lunch, we started our tour of the silk factory. I love factory tours. I think it’s so interesting when you take something in its raw state and transform it into something completely different and factories do this with the precision that machinery enables.

Our tour started with seeing the silk worm eggs and caterpillars. We saw caterpillars that were 15 and 25 days old. At the latter age, they are nearing the stage of forming pupae. The sole food source for silk worm caterpillars are mulberry leaves – there are plenty of plants on the factory grounds to supply the worms.

Next was to see the cocoons. The exterior of the cocoon is very light and dry to the feel. If you shake it, you can feel the pupae move inside. The vast majority of the cocoons – about 90% contain one pupae but about 10% contain two. The single cocoons go to making silk thread whereas the doubles will be used for the stuffing inside of quilts.

The cocoons are sorted by hand into lots that contain single pupae and lots that contain doubles.

The first stage of transforming single cocoons into silk begins with boiling the cocoons. This is done to soften the hard shell.

The threads are spun onto large reels and air dried. From there, they are color dyed. Our last stop, inside the factory, was to the weaving room where we could see looms mounted with the reels of colored thread and paper punch cards which are the patterns.

Next it was on to see how the double cocoons are transformed into quilt stuffing and then the obligatory visit to the shop where they sold the quilts and everything silk. I wandered throughout the store and although a few things did catch my eye, I must admit I wasn’t in the mood to shop so I left empty handed.

Back into the van and on to the Master of the Nets garden. In reading up about Suzhou for this trip, I was really excited about going to see this garden – it is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Suzhou. But after a long day in the heat and humidity and jet lag setting in, I was not at all enthused about going to see the garden.

We drove down a non-descript city street, got down at an non-descript intersection, walked a short distance down a non-descript alleyway and then stopped to wait for Andrew to get our tickets.

We then walked through a non-descript doorway and lo and behold, there was an enchanted garden on the other side! What a beautiful surprise it was! A bit of Eden, tucked away inside a non-descript city neighborhood. I felt energized by the garden views.

It was my first taste of what a masterfully landscaped garden could look and feel like and I was reveling in its beauty.

Despite the small crowd of people that were in the space, the garden is designed with little nooks and crannies that you can escape to for a bit of peace and quiet. I could easily imagine how tranquil the garden would be if absolutely no one else was there but me. Of course, I could linger in the garden for hours but we had to leave so it was a short, but very memorable experience.

We retraced our steps back to the van. From Suzhou, we headed back to Shanghai. It was about a two hour ride. Just as we neared the outskirts of Shanghai proper, the skies darkened, thunder and lightning struck and the skies opened up. It was a massive downpour that slowed traffic to a crawl. By now, it was also rush hour so at times the crawl turned into a complete standstill. We inched our way back to town and I was grateful I was the first to be left off. By the time I got back to my hotel room, I was tired from the day. All I wanted to do was take a shower, write in my journal and go to bed.

All in all, it was a great first day in China!!