Monday, August 16, 2010

Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland

So I finished reading this on the train up to Portland a couple of weeks back. ...I love traveling by train. It's a much more relaxed, not to mention comfortable, experience than air travel, and more scenic than car travel - plus, you can read. If this country invested half as much in rail as it does in highways, life would be a lot more pleasant.

We went up because we were craving dim sum, and you can't get that in Eugene. We went to Chinatown in Portland, but the dim sum we had was disappointing, because it turns out the good restaurants have moved to a new Chinatown in the 'burbs. In fact, downtown Chinatown is kind of dying, we discovered (it was our first time), which is a shame, not only because the location is so good, but because there are a lot of funky old buildings there that one would like to see thriving.

And, more than anything, because Portland's old Chinatown does have one absolutely awesome attraction that can't easily be moved out to the suburbs: the Lan Su (as in PortLANd-SUzhou, Portland's sister city) classical Chinese garden.

I've never been to China, so I can't swear it's authentic, but it was built by craftsmen from Suzhou about ten years ago, and it's said to be the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China. Certainly it beats anything else I've seen in the States. It's smallish, as befits an urban garden, but it feels quite spacious, due to the cunning layout which fills the space with nooks and crannies and odd-angled vistas, preventing you from seeing the whole thing at once, water or land.

Both in its contemporary situation and in the tradition it's supposed to represent, it's an urban garden, as I say: it's meant to be what a scholar in the city might have had at home, his peaceful oasis and refuge from official duties. For that reason, the skyscrapers and occasional traffic noise contribute to the effect, rather than detracting: they remind you, gently, what you've shut out beyond the walls.

What's within the walls is quite beautiful, combining traditional architecture and landscaping to provide a sequence of picture-postcard views of water, flowers, trees, rocks, buildings. I think the best view is to be had from the second floor of the teahouse. Which is, note, a functioning teahouse with a dizzying variety of teas and sweets to complement them.

There are worse ways to while away a summer Sunday afternoon than drinking oolong tea and eating moon cakes and toasted pumpkin seeds in a Chinese garden.

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