Those of you who have traveled to China know this charming tradition. Hotels provide their western guests with a business card. On one side, it explains that you are a guest of the hotel and that if you are found somewhere in the city, to please return you to the hotel. On the other side is something in Chinese. I assume that it says the same thing, but cynically wondered if there is any further commentary. Perhaps something about being another tourist who doesn’t bother to speak any Mandarin despite it being the most common language on earth. (Nearly four times more people speak Chinese than English!)
With my hotel card in hand, I took a cab to the world famous Humble Administrator’s Garden. It is the largest of Suzhou’s scholar gardens. Started in 1509 by retired imperial inspector, Wang Xiachen, it was made famous by his friend, artist Wen Zhengming who started painting there by 1535.
When my taxi dropped me off I asked where I could pick up my return trip. He nodded and pointed to the other side of the street. With my logistics settled, I could enjoy the garden.
Once inside, I was struck by the repeated use of wisteria. Right at the entrance there is an ancient vine, its flowers peaking over the tall garden wall. I am told that it was planted by the artist Wen as a gift to Wang (which would make it 500 years old!).
Wisteria also featured prominently in other important places. As a tray landscape it provided a focal point against one of the garden’s white walls. Wrapping a pergola it offered shade and fragrance. Covering an important bridge that connects two pavilions it was a delight to walk through and made a grand statement when seen from afar. Climbing on a rock, it pointed the way through a moon gate connecting two sections of the garden.
Wisteria is a member of the pea family and is native to China. Its long life makes it a symbol of longevity and devotion. Blue flowering wisteria are given as gifts to wish good luck to a friend embarking on a new venture.
With the garden about to close, I exited with the rest of the crowd - only to realize that the exit was different from where I had entered. There was no turning back. So even if I had remembered where my taxi driver suggested I catch a taxi to the hotel, it didn’t matter. I seemed to be in a completely different part of the city. Nothing looked familiar. A bit unsettling since I don’t have any Mandarin language skills. I wasn’t sure if Suzhou was a “hail a cab” city or if I had to walk to a “taxi pick up” area as is the custom in other cities.
As I considered my next move, a few men offered to ride me back on their motorcycle. That wasn’t going to happen, so I decided to go with the “hail a cab” approach. I walked to the busiest intersection and waved at every taxi that drove by. I must have been quite a site. It was rush hour but it only took a few minutes before a blessed cab stopped. I dug out my hotel card and happily gave it to him. Moments later he deposited me at my hotel.
If you ever find yourself in a foreign country and you don’t speak the language, be sure to carry a hotel card with you!
The Humble Administrator’s Garden is open every day and is located at 178 Dongbei Street.