October 20 – 21, 2013
It took a few turns before it dawned on me that I was lost in a complex labyrinth of rock. I could not even retrace my steps to where I had entered. People who could help me could not understand me; those I could ask were just as clueless. I broke into a sweat despite the autumn chill. I didn’t mind losing my way, but I did mind missing the appointed time given by our tour guide to regroup. I couldn’t be the idiot that held up everyone’s schedule. Finding the exit was a fluke after I had been running in circles like a hamster on a wheel. By then, what I had feared happened. I was the last tourist on the bus. As I got on panting, the whole group erupted into applause and cheers. I turned redder than Chairman Mao.
We had just toured the Lion Grove Garden (Shizilin), one of many classical gardens in Suzhou, known as the city of gardens. Built in 1342, this ancient private garden was given to more flights of fancy than its more formal imperial counterparts. It so inspired whimsy that as I was posing among the rocks, a Tanzanian girl sidled up to me in lightning speed to photobomb the shot. Had she been less charming than she was, that pleasant surprise could’ve been a creepy experience of a total stranger suddenly snuggling by your side.
Chinese gardens curiously contained more rocks than foliage, hence the labyrinthine rockery. It was said that cavernous spaces within rocks compelled to open the heart as it confined it as well from the noise and cares of the world. These limestone rocks gathered from a lake had been perforated and chiseled by both man and nature to resemble animals. The sculpture stones, gleaming in whiteness under the sun, conjured up lions in various stances: some playing, others crouching. A central pond kissed by drooping willows lay quiet and inconspicuous, blanketed as it were by a field of lotus. Every several paces, halls and pavilions designed with elegant calligraphy and woodwork lent a stable stop and relaxing respite for visitors from the rocky, uneven terrain.
The guide had no sooner announced that we were going to see the Leaning Tower of Suzhou than my eyes rolled. Another imitation Chinese product, I thought, except that the Tiger Hill Pagoda (Yunyan Pagoda), built in 959 CE, the oldest in Suzhou, predated the Tower of Pisa by two centuries. A mere two degrees skewed the leaning fame to Pisa, looking precariously tilted at five degrees as opposed to Tiger Hill’s three degrees. The pagoda seemed to stand upright from the other side of the hill. It was said that the Tiger Hill Pagoda resembled an erect tail of a sleeping tiger rising from the graceful contour of the land.
But lean it did. Upon closer approach, the seven-level brick pagoda apparently tilted toward the northern slope, thanks to the uneven erosion of its base, half in stone, half in soil (now reinforced). Despite the tilt, as one of the few masonry pagodas, Tiger Hill had lasted more than a millennium, outliving the more vulnerable wooden pagodas of its time that succumbed to earthquakes and lightning strikes.
As fate would have it, I lost my way again. This time, I made sure I had company from our group. A few of us had not realized that the guide expected us back at the entrance; instead, we traversed the whole length of Tiger Hill, a long way from end to end. Turning back to where we came would’ve taken longer than going further down the hill, a walk made more pleasant by the cool forest canopy. Much to our guide’s undisguised dismay, the bus had to pick us up at the other side of Tiger Hill, a retrieval operation he had previously declared to not be permissible.
This trip was sponsored by China Eastern Airlines which flies daily between Manila and Shanghai. Book flights here or call China Eastern Airlines Manila Reservation at +63 2 789 9125. Suzhou is a couple of hours away from Shanghai by bus.