Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hangzhou, Suzhou and home

After a washed-out daytrip to the pretty town of Hangzhou and a walk around the beautiful West Lake (though it wasn't quite as special in the pouring rain) I decided to leave Shanghai to make my way up north, back to Beijing. I stopped at Suzhou, apparently the "Venice of the East" by virtue of it having a few canals, in much the same as we can describe Birmingham as "Venice of the Midlands". Making a comparison with Birmingham is unfair, however, as the place feels much quainter and more serene than its population of 6 million suggests. 3 days there was probably a little too many in retrospect as I exhausted most of the main sights, but it was a good place to relax and catch up on some reading before heading back to the capital.

Suzhou is famous for its beautifully designed gardens - some created as summer retreats, some as rehabilitation centres for the sick - which were a pleasant change from all the temples I'd visited so far. The gardens also seem to be an ideal destination for Chinese school trips and of course I agreed to pose for photos with groups of teenage girls - what can I say, I'm an altruist!

Glorification of the worker, just outside Mao's Mausoleum
Back in Beijing I barely had time to unpack before jumping on my flight back to London but I managed to catch a glimpse of Chairman Mao lying in state. Apparently Mao wanted to be cremated but the party decided that the most fitting tribute would be to preserve him and put him on display. At the time of his death in 1976 the party had to act quickly to preserve his body. Russia was consulted as to how they managed it with Lenin and they set to work commissioning designs for the mausoleum, coffin, lighting and every artistic nuance imaginable. The building was opened to the public 8 months later, though apparently not without its problems - the mausoleum had to be closed for "renovation" in 1997 as Mao was leaking formaldehyde.

Cynics will say that it's a waxwork model on display (apparently one was created in case the preservation process failed) and to be honest his face does have an unusual Terry Venables orange lustre, but regardless of whether it's fake or real, I think the average westerner passing through this shrine struggles to understand why the man is so revered. Millions of visitors are hurriedly ushered past his coffin each year, the vast majority of which are Mao's native countrymen paying their respects - oft-persecuted by his party and dealt unimaginable hardships by his mis-governance. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's excellent account of this man may shed some light on it, but for me it remains a mystery why so many choose to walk through those mausoleum doors.

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