Didn't we have a lovely time, the day we went to Suzho

The pre-IDF Shanghaifest continued on Monday, as we took part in the traditional Day Of Local Culture. “Be downstairs in the hotel lobby at 8am sharp for an 8:15 departure!
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

The pre-IDF Shanghaifest continued on Monday, as we took part in the traditional Day Of Local Culture. “Be downstairs in the hotel lobby at 8am sharp for an 8:15 departure!” warned the PR, as he briefed us for our big day out exploring ancient architecture in the Chinese countryside.

I made it by 8:05. There was nobody there. Darn. I'd missed breakfast, and now it looked as if I'd missed the charabanc. At 8:10, a fellow hack appeared – and told me that things were running a little late, and that PRs and journos alike were still enjoying a leisurely buffet breakfast in the dining room. I managed a couple of very ripe fermented tofu squares and a dumpling. No coffee.

And then it was out, out and away. We slipped through the morning Shanghai traffic like a hot knife through butter – if that butter had been well mixed with large rocks and tangles of wire. As befits a Chinese city on the make, the roads are filled with heavily-laden lorries, shiny cars and a terrific assortment of mopeds, bicycles and tricycle carts. It's notable that while there's no shortage of heroic lane changing and Red Arrow-worthy formation near-misses, the absolute psychotic madness of Beijing driving is missing. Shanghai is a laid-back place, by Chinese standards.

About an hour into the odyssey, there was a brief hiatus for a bio-break at a service station. One of our number (M*k* M*gee) discovered that the shop sold tins of Tsing Tao beer, and used his senior status to persuade a younger, more impressionable writer (*shl*y V*nce of the R*g) to acquire a couple of tinnies to take the edge off the morning. A more sensible member of the party (R*p*rt G**dwins) sensibly demurred from this alcoholic madness, and went into the shop to buy some water. Unfortunately, while picking up his 2 yuan (around 14p) bottle of purity, said sensible member noticed 100ml green bottles of 56% Chinese rice spirit for 3 yuan (yes, that's around 21p). Unable to resist the childish urge to one-up his elder and better, he invested. Egged on in the car park by reprehensible members of the public relations community, he performed the Pepsi Taste Test, pronouncing it better than the water.

Pictures exist. It's best to accept that fact, and move on.

Which we did, ending up shortly afterwards at the Garden of the Humble Administrator in Suzho. As our guide explained, this was one of the finest gardens in China, built in 1509 by an imperial civil servant who fell under suspicion of abstracting state funds in order to sustain his horticultural habits. He explained all by saying that as a very humble and underpaid functionary, he needed the place to grow vegetables. The name stuck, and is thought by experts to be one of the earliest recorded uses of irony.

The place is known for its tranquility, spiritual balance and exemplary use of architecture: these ethereal traits were sadly masked by its swarms of tourists, gentle drone of camera shutters and early spring bleakness. We walked the Hall of Distant Fragrance, and thought of the not-so distant chemical works we had passed a little earlier. We crossed the Small Flying Rainbow Bridge to see the 36 Pairs of Mandarin Ducks' Pagoda, and meditated on hoi sin sauce. As we took in the many lumpy pock-marked rocks, soup-coloured lakes and channels, and endless examples of Ming Dynasty architecture placed with exquisite care on the perfectly cadenced landscape, we heard how the white-painted walls represented the paper against which the physical gardens were daubed, establishing the art of gardening as a resonant analogy of painting.

That was a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of an ancient and highly aesthetic culture, and little need be said about those who felt that there were an awful lot of rocks to see and an awfully long time to see them in. Enquiries were made about the status of the little green bottle.

Our spirits refreshed, we moved on to the Suzho No. 1 Silk Factory Co. Ltd. This is a working plant that takes silkworm cocoons and processes them into duvets, and it was truly fascinating to see the process take place right in front of us, from the hand sorting of the raw cocoons, through to the enormous, steaming machinery that boils, plucks and unravels them in a clattering hall-sized gizmo seemingly plucked intact from the age of the dark, satanic mills. Even more fascinating was the chain of Jacquard looms that pulled chains of punched cards through ten-foot tall weaving mechanisms: the world's first programmable machinery, still noisily at work.

But perhaps the most exciting part was the fact that with Western standards of health and safety many thousands of miles away, nobody cared that the visiting horde of hacks could poke, pry and peer as closely as they liked to the finger-mashing brass and electric mayhem. We all survived – which is more than can be said for the silkworm pupae – and some were so exhilarated that they parted with many thousands of yuan for silk duvet covers that they suddenly discovered they couldn't live without. Suspicions that the small production line couldn't possibly fill the very large retail outlet attached were dismissed in favour of admiration of the extreme commercial savvy of the Suzho No. 1 Silk Factory Co. Ltd.

After lunch, more gardens. Our rock and pagoda appetites were by now more than sated, and a collective madness took hold of the susceptible. Small parties detached themselves from the group and went on ahead of the guide to artistically lounge over prominent landscape elements, much in the manner of basking seals, to enhance the photographs taken by other tourists. Further demands were made of the little green bottle.

The atmosphere on the coach back to the hotel was that of an exhausted school party dozing away the effects of over-excitability. Our guide took advantage to offer the services of his friend the tailor, who could visit one's hotel room that very evening and deliver a hand-made suit two days later. Any questions we may have retained about the ability of China to continue its breathtaking economic progress were comprehensively boiled, pulled into strands and woven into a fine cloth of complete belief. We were delivered back home as beautifully processed as any pupated mulberry moth caterpillar.

Ah, but would we be as perfectly converted to unshakable belief by Intel? Tomorrow, we'd start to find out.

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