Our Suzhou adventures have been broken into three parts. This post is the second, about the Humble Administrator's Garden.
We had heard tell of the beauty ensconced within the Humble Administrator’s Garden and were anxious to see it for ourselves. The throng outside the gates seemed to indicate that there was something special inside. A small army of tourists milled in sun hats and face masks, their leader barking into a headset and waving her South Korean Flag in the air like a lasso as she attempted to herd them into something resembling a line.
We pushed politely through their ranks and went to the ticket booth. The cost was 90 RMB ($15 USD) per person (double that of Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai), but once we were inside the gates, we could understand why ...
“Building house and planting trees, watering garden and growing vegetables are the affairs of humble people…”
Built in 1513 during the Ming dynasty by a retired censor and named after an essay of the Jing era titled, “On Idle Living”, the gardens are a place of peace and reflection where tourists wander, open-mouthed and local families frolic harmoniously.
From the East entrance we walked along the garden’s north edge, past a pond brushed by low-hanging willows where we found the House of Sweet Smelling Rice, an open-air building framed by flowers and burgeoning apple blossoms. From there, the scenery continued in an unending flow of delicate buildings placed within the contours of luxuriant knolls, ponds, groves and waterways.
In the Central section of the garden (the most dynamic), a lone, red maple blazed against the white background of the Fragrant Isle. We ran our palms across the cool stones within the Pavilion of Lotus Breezes, studied the gleaming latticework of the Hall of 18 Camellias and admired the simple lines of a lone boat tethered to a bank outside the Pagoda Reflection Pavilion. Atop a hill of crooked paths, the rockery of the Floating Green Tower sat steeped in otherworldliness—a magnificent place to sit and admire the views. Plein air artists sprouted along the banks with their stools and easels, deep in concentration even as the crowds churned past.
In the late afternoon, we lingered over earthy glasses of green tea in the garden’s teahouse. A man chain-smoked earnestly in the corner and a house musician in Ming-era robes chattered to me in Mandarin and eagerly showed us his songbooks. One in English, even.
“While paradise lies high up in the heavens, Suzhou and Hangzhou lie down on earth… Aiyah! Both places are fair and fine. Aiyah! Aiyah! Both memories shine…”
We finally walked back towards the East Gate exit, stopping to sit at the edge of a quiet pool in front of the Celestial Spring Pavilion. Our expectations had been exceeded. We found the garden to be neither humble nor administrative, but a place of countless wonders.