After spending a week in Korea to teach a creative writing camp, my wife Marcie and I have arrived in Shanghai for a bit of R&R.
This is our first time in this city, but it’s a place I’ve long wanted to visit. I’ve associated Shanghai with adventure since I was kid, which I think is largely thanks to Hergé’s graphic novel, Tintin and the Blue Lotus . . . not to mention the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Since Shanghai has been so romanticized in my imagination, it had a lot to live up to! Marcie knows how I’m wired, so she made sure to pre-book us a hotel just a few minutes away from Old Shanghai. This is a traditional section of the city, filled with beautiful architecture, history, and culture.
We headed over to Old Shanghai mere moments after dropping our luggage off in our room. This was mid-afternoon, and the place was teeming with tourists. We found the sights, sounds, and smells intoxicating. Incessant vendors were vying for our yuan, plying us with everything from cheap knock-off watches to luxurious jade necklaces. And, of course, everything in between. We found that we were shoulder to shoulder in many of the quaint alleyways!
The queues for the food stands were seemingly endless and there was a horde of people at the entrance to the famous Yuyuan Garden. Marcie and I looked at each other and knew at once what we needed to do: come back first thing in the morning.
We enacted our plan, arriving by 9am the following day. By comparison to our experience the previous day, we felt like we were ruling the old city. The avenues were clear, the lines absent.
We headed straight for the Yuyuan Garden and at once stepped into a magical realm. I cannot express how much we love this place. Here is a perfect marriage between nature and human architecture, a harmony that is expressed through one scenic sight after another. Every time we turned a corner, we found ourselves gasping.
In one spot, a dragon swims across the top of a stone wall. In another, a spritely creature peers from the lip of a roof tile. Turn a corner and you find yourself glimpsing a lion state through a whimsically-shaped doorway. A walkway meanders across a serene pond where giant carp tipple near the surface. Rock formations with “spy holes” grant amazing perspectives of the pagodas and pavilions.
It’s hard to put into words, and the photos also barely do it justice. But, below, are a few images from our exploration . . .
First of all, I loved all the various doorways. I do not (yet) know the symbolism of the different shapes, but they were a variety of kinds. Aesthetically, my favourite one was what I call the “ice cream” doorway.
Water is an important aspect of the garden’s balance. Many gates, bridges, and canals are featured throughout the space.
Bats are a lucky symbol in Chinese architecture. You can find them on door latches, window shutters, and roof tiles.
Throughout China (and the world, for that matter), you can find the pair of lion threshold guardians. The male has one paw raised and placed on a sphere. The female has her paw raised and placed on a cub on his back. I saw many of these on a previous trip to Beijing and there are many throughout Shanghai as well.
Below are photos of a pair of stylized lions. They look different than the traditional ones, but the key elements (the sphere and the cub) are still there. The male represents the external world; the female, the internal.
At one point during our explorations, I spotted Marcie sitting in a quaint pavilion . . . daydreaming, I suppose!
I was quite intrigued by the holes through the rocks, which afforded interesting views of the garden architecture. So many children’s books feature items such as “seeing stones”, so I kept peeking through these natural windows to contemplate the garden details.
I loved the sculptures that decorated the walls and roof tiles. I was especially enamoured with this dragon wall. You can imagine this magnificent creature oscillating along the wall. His claws are splayed, his maw is open, and below his beard is a delightful frog. This was my favourite place in the entire garden.
Here is a traditional guardian figure decorating a roof. You can find these details throughout the garden.
And, finally, here is our “selfie” in the garden, gazing into a mirror at once spot near the entrance of the garden.
Of course, it goes without saying that we highly recommend this garden. Get up early to visit Old Shanghai and enjoy a magical morning!