We were sad to wave good bye to Hangzhou but our next destination was meant to just as interesting with a long history of silk. Suzhou is often called the 'Venice of China' because of its many waterways and we stayed near to one of these in a small traditional guest house down a tiny alley in the old city near to Guanqian Street. It had the feel of the Orient but with a colonialist flavour with a lot of dark woodwork, two open courtyards from which we could see the evening moon, high ceilings and period wooden furniture. After settling in we went for a walk nearby exploring the canals and eventually found our way on to Pingjiang Road with its myriad of small stalls, vegetable shops, street food, arcade, rickshaws and silent (except for their horn) electric scooters. There were small boats taking people for trips on the waterways with one of the lady punters singing to her passengers. We spent the evening walking and exploring before getting some beers from the supermarket (there aren't many bars or pubs and restaurants won't serve you beer unless you buy food) before heading back.
In the morning we walked to Suzhou Silk Museum which was vast and we spent several hours learning about the history of silk from ancient times to the present day, viewing lots of originals but also reproductions of very early pieces of silk such as 3rd C BC tabby weaves and 1-3rd C Jin weaves. The earliest actual silk was a complex gauze 168BC from Changsha. Displays also included costumes from different periods, robes, pouches, shoes, collars, and the development of Suzhou specific patterns, its speciality of brocade, and the highs and lows of the industry from the beginning to contemporary times.
They had several rooms dedicated to housing a working version of the production process including silk moth eggs, cocoons, and silkworms munching on mulberry leaves which gave us a chance to listen to them more, and see closely their development into cocoons. Lots had made their cocoons in the rafters and on the walls while some had a hole in the top where the moth had hatched and flown away. Outside there was a mulberry garden with several different cultivars of tree. One area inside displayed new development in uses of silk and leaves for science including treatments for cancer, chemotherapy and wound dressings. They had recreated weavers cottage interiors with artefacts and lifesize models of people working there. They also had machines from all of the processes and a magnificent room dedicated to velvet. Ruth found one of the most interesting items a sketch book showing the design processes of silk designer Qian Xiaoping, founder of the museum, with collection of her designs on brocade. There was also a large museum shop selling a large range of clothing, bedspreads and scarves.
Throughout our trip we have tried many different modes of transport and it was here that we tried another ... a pedal powered rickshaw who took us Dongbei Street near to the main Suzhou Museum. Our late breakfast/early lunch consisted of three skewers of deer meat (we thought they might be lamb when we ordered them) and a flatbread with spicy filling. We also saw some dumplings in the shapes of penguins and ducks. Suzhou is famous for its gardens and we visited the Humble Administrators Garden, which is a large series of interconnecting gardens, waterways, pool, paths, bridges, hills and pagodas. It was a tranquil spot despite the hordes of visitors. There were a multitude of different plants and trees and we recommend a visit here for any gardener or horticulturalist.
We took a boat ride down the canal with a young Chinese couple eating crisps, but unfortunately we didn't have the singing lady as our punter, but a slightly grumpy man who looked like he'd been driving this same boat for many years. We did however pass the singing lady on a boat heading the other way. On the way back we explored the bird and flower market, which was also full to the brim with dogs, cats, terrapins (painted or unpainted), tortoises and insects (some individually packaged in tiny plastic tubs) as well as succulents, budgerigars and finches. It was certainly an olfactory experience! For dinner that night we found a great restaurant with only three things on the menu: buns, soup and something else, probably tea. We had fried buns, which were delicious.
In the morning we went on the hunt for No.1 Silk Factory and and the former site of another silk factory, just to the south of the Waicheng River. We still hadn't really got the hang of the scale of Chinese cities so it took us a while to find them but we enjoyed discovering the spice and fish market on the way which had bags full of Sichuan peppers, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, fungus and orange peel, amongst other things. Eventually we found some refurbished buildings that looked like they could have been silk factory buildings and also a large new development modelled on the shape of traditional factory buildings that was eerily quiet as no one had moved in yet. Again it took us a while but eventually we found No.1 Silk Factory which was full with bus loads of tourists, both Chinese and western. Inside we again saw silk worms, cocoons, floss for quilts (made from rejected or incomplete cocoons), extraction of silk from cocoons, a long history of the mill which included the 'Rui Feng Silk Reeling Mill' in 1926. There was also a huge shop selling lots of silk wares, hence the bus loads of tourists.
We enjoyed our time in Suzhou and would recommend a visit there. Staying in the old centre gives you an insight into how life in China used to be, although now the city has grown to over 10 million and has a vast newly developed quarter.