Sunday, September 20, 2009

Suzhou (Soo-Jo)

Suzhou is considered a "suburb" of Shanghai...along with other towns such as Hangzhou, etc. Shanghai boundaries seem endless when you are driving to get just about anywhere else, OUTSIDE of it's limits. Anyway, the family decided to take a one day trip out to Suzhou. Allen has been several times for work and has always mentioned that I might like it. He was right.

This "little" town of about 5 million people (compared to Shanghai's 20 million) is very charming. It seems to encompass a wide variety of local delights that would appeal to many kinds of people. Just to name a few...

First, some of it's skyline borders a large lake. The lake has several areas of boardwalk, where people can leisurely stroll, passing parks, gardens, statues, etc. It's newer residential and industrial districts have a very "Orange County-esque" feel to it. The streets are wide and...master planned. There are art museums and beautiful buildings. The residential apartments have impressive entrances and there are tons of sidewalks and pathways, meandering through smaller park areas. felt good. The older part of the city hosts several key points of interest, such as several very old zen gardens, small water towns, ancient architecture, quaint shops and old, weeping trees along the thoroughfares.

We chose to spend our time doing three primary activities, all of which explored the city in very different ways. First, we visited the newer sections of town...the "OC" part. We ate lunch at Burger King and meandered our way through modern buildings and shops. The entire area boasted of very modern amenities, including an outside play area for kids that you didn't have to pay for in advance! That is actually the FIRST I've seen in China. Usually, the play areas are confined to indoors activities, with lots of kid-proof padding on the equipment.

We then headed towards the older part of town to visit a Silk Factory. This was, by far, the most fascinating activity for me. Believe it or not, I was like a kid in a candy store. These kinds of things fascinate me...not TOO unlike the same fascination and curiosity in...let's say...learning how two snakes mate. It must be the scientist in me. Ahhh... Now YOU want to know how two snakes mate, RIGHT!? hahaha

ANYWAY - We learned a lot about silk worms, the process of making, drying, imprinting and dying silk. We got to see and touch mature silk worms, who were munching away on their favorite snack...Mulberry leaves. In fact, they don't eat anything else. The backs of the silk worms were INCREDIBLY soft and they were big enough to "pet." Ryan was brave in actually holding one...until it moved in his hand. Ryan also touched the back of one as well. Brandon liked looking at them, but didn't want to touch any of them. We learned many facts about them, such as, from birth to cocoon to moth stage, they live about 60 days. A mature silk worm is about 25 days old, before they begin the cocoon process. What I really liked learning, is that in order to get the silk, "they" have to wait until the entire process of the cocoon begins...and ends. So, all of the cocoons they process to extract the silk threads, have [naturally] dead or NO pupas in them. We saw machines in use in the factory that were about 80 years old. Attendants on the machines were showing us how each cocoon produces a single thread of super fine silk. They use water and high heat to soften the [naturally] strong cocoon. After drying and dying the silk, they use an imprinting system to produce certain patterns, which look like a series of steel punch cards attached to a large loom. To make quilts, pillows, etc., they hand spread the silk over a large area, layer by layer.

Some interesting facts...
We discovered that it takes about 300 cocoons to make one silk men's tie. About 600 cocoons to make one ladies scarf. Wow! That's a LOT of cocoons! The quality of silk often depends on the season the silk came from, such as, spring, summer or fall. The spring silk worms produce the very finest silk because that's when the Mulberry leaves are the best (here in China). Interesting, huh?! Silk is a natural allergy-free SUPER strong...warm in the winter and cool in the summer...and is INCREDIBLY soft, whether in raw or final form. I mean, even the worms were super soft! Silk is not farmed in the winter due to the fact that there are no Mulberry leaves for them to eat.

I absolutely LOVED our trip to the silk factory! It was a really great education! A few expats have mentioned that they have bought these silk quilts over here and they LOVE them. However, they can't find them - anywhere - back in the US. They all seemed to have wished they had gotten more when they had the chance. Like I said, they really love these quilts. And now, I can see why.

After a well satisfied trip to the factory, we headed to one of the many ancient gardens in Suzhou. We ended up at the Master of the Nets Garden. This garden was created as a place to meditate in the 1200's...that's old! Almost anywhere you go in China, you are reminded just how puny and young your own culture is back home. Walking through a garden like this, you try and imagine people walking along the same paths and entering the same doors, almost 2000 years ago!!! It's quite mind boggling at times...and utterly fascinating.

After the zen garden, we decided to head home. It had been a full day of activities for all of us. And SO MUCH FUN!!

The boys did pretty good throughout the day. I had thought that they were just tagging along in the silk factory, but the FIRST thing Brandon mentioned to his teacher the next day were the silk worms he saw in Suzhou and how silk is made and how soft it is...not to mention MANY other facts that I thought he had completely missed. Goes to show never know what kids might be learning at any given time. He showed about 3x more excitement the day after he saw them, then when we were actually walking through the factory. Ryan, however, was very curious at the factory. He not only showed us his adventurous side by trying to hold a silkworm, he was very intrigued by the actual cocoons themselves and touched many of them, exploring their texture and shape. He also showed fascination at the heating and water process and couldn't wait to touch the "raw" silk. AGAIN, even more reasons why I, personally, loved the silk factory tour! It is very satisfying to see my kids learn so much, using their tactile senses.

Another interesting fact...
Many people here in China eat the dead pupas that never make it out of the surprise, right? haha However, when our tour guide showed us the sac left over after is was soaked and heated, she held it up to the light. You could see oils in the sacs that were high in proteins that were not only nutritional, but also used for cosmetics and skin care products over here as well. The pupas, themselves, are also high in protein. proteins from the sacs of dead silkworm pupas...maybe THAT is their secret! ;-)

And the MOST, all encompassing, exhilaration from the silk factory is that you, me...everyone...can bask in the pure, unadulterated, luxious feel of a silk item...WITHOUT the guilt that thousands of innocent silkworms died for the pleasure. I'm sensitive to this since I'm surrounded, day in and day out, by a "Life is cheap" philosophy. You can imagine that life is LESS than cheap for animals and all other sub-human creatures over here.

So...ENJOY your silk products people!!! The silk produced by silk worms are a GIFT in the most natural form!

And one of the MOST important reasons why I liked Suzhou so's CLEAN!! The air is cleaner, the streets are clean, the buildings are clean, etc. In fact, I saw THREE different street sweeper trucks cleaning the streets in one day and Brandon saw TWO. I have never even seen ONE street sweeper truck here in Shanghai - yet. ;-)

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