Sunday 29th October 2017

Beware of monkeys – NO funny; Dangerous of the bridge, no passing; The fruit will feel hurt if they are picked; Strictly prohibit kindling……OMG, Suzhou is a dangerous place!

No picking, and no standing…what are you allowed to do?

Strictly prohibit kindling!

Poor fruit!!!

Dangerous of the Bridge…indeed!

Beware of monkeys, NO funny

NO funny at all!

In spite of the plethora of warning signs, today has been a pleasant day, although I miscalculated badly in terms of weather. I had a mountain of homework to mark, so I spent the whole of yesterday indoors doing that, while the sun shone out of a cloudless sky outside, and as I had completed it by the middle of the evening, I decided to take today off to do some hiking in the hills near Suzhou, but I awoke to find a gloomy, clammy day had dawned, with bad air pollution trapped by low cloud and very poor visibility. If only I had done it the other way around! Still, I would probably not have enjoyed a hike yesterday, not being sure whether I would be able to complete the marking today.

I set off early by metro, and retraced my footsteps of two weekends ago to Shihu Lake, but this time, instead of walking southwards around the far end of the lake, I skirted the northern shore and arrived at the imposing entrance of the Shangfangshan National Forest Park, where I queued with some incredibly noisy tourists to buy my ticket.

The imposing entrance of the park

Once inside the park, I passed fairly quickly through the garden area and then headed uphill into the forest, passing along an ancient cobbled trail through the woodland. I soon reached the historic site of Lengjia Pagoda, where I scaled some steep steps and walked around the busy courtyard before heading further.

A fine display just inside the park

Is this China, or the Netherlands?

Blessed peace on the way to the pagoda

The Lengjia Pagoda is an impressive structure

As is so often the case, as soon as one leaves the main tourist zone, there is nobody around, and I rejoiced at being alone as I wended my way along a well constructed roadway, before veering off it at a hairpin bend and walking on along a woodland track that I am sure will be a butterfly heaven in the summer months next year (and which would still have turned up some interesting species even yesterday, had I not been stuck indoors marking!). I did manage to see a few birds here, including a beautifully marked White’s Thrush, some dainty Yellow-bellied and Black-throated Tits, and a skulking Red-billed Leiothrix.

Looking back towards the pagoda from the woodland road

I shall certainly come to look for butterflies along this track in the right season

I continued for some time along this trail, passing a few groups of walkers who were obviously on their way down after having done a substantial hike…but it was not long before I found my way barred by a heavily padlocked gate with a cctv camera mounted on a pole.

My way was blocked by a substantial barrier

Disappointed and perplexed as I was, my attention was diverted by a “bird wave”, a phenomenon which does not really feature in European forests, but somehow here in Asia it does. What this means is that one can walk for long periods in an apparently birdless forest, and then suddenly find oneself surrounded by foraging birds, which are there for a few moments before disappearing again. This one contained mainly Black-throated Tits, but accompanied by a Tristram’s Bunting, Pallas’s and Yellow-browed Warblers.

Once the wave had passed through, I suddenly remembered reading an account before I even arrived in China of a hike that someone had done on a mountain near Suzhou, and the person being blocked by a locked gate. I recollected reading something about following the fence to the right of the gatehouse and there being a gap in the fence after a few hundred metres or so. Indeed, there was a narrow track disappearing round the back of the gatehouse, and sure enough, there was the gap in the fence. How extraordinary that I should have remembered this account, and that by chance I should have found myself at exactly that spot today! Through the gap I went.

I somehow remembered reading about this fence

Yes, and sure enough, here’s the gap!

Although I could have walked on from here, by this time I was feeling a little hungry, so I stopped and ate my “Yummy Bun” before turning back as the weather was looking grim and I wanted to check the forest lower down as well. Eventually I reached the bottom of the mountain, and left the park.

The Yummy Bun was not especially yummy

I crossed the busy road outside and entered the derelict compound of what had clearly once been a highly prosperous Buddhist community, but which now had fallen on hard times, the main building having been fenced off and the outbuildings behind having been completely razed to the ground and the whole garden area having been turned into a total wasteland. I wondered if this might have happened during the Cultural Revolution, but it was definitely much too recent for that. I am curious to know how such an impressive complex could have ended up in such a state.

This temple has fallen on hard times. I wonder why

What on Earth has happened in the grounds of the temple?

My bird list grew further when I spotted a trio of Azure-winged Magpies flitting elegantly between the trees in the rubbish-strewn compound of the derelict temple, and a Grey Wagtail flew off from a fetid channel. I then continued my walk, retracing my footsteps of two weeks ago around the southern end of the lake, but in reverse. I was delighted to find a small group of highly discreet Mandarin Ducks roosting peacefully in the reeds at the southern end of a small island halfway down the western shore.

The Mandarin Ducks can just be made out, hiding in the reeds

Shortly afterwards, a gleam of sun peeped through the glowering clouds, and butterflies immediately appeared, including several Small Whites, a couple of Common Grass Yellows, numerous Pale Grass Blues and a few Chinese Commas.

The Small Whites here seem different in flight to their European cousins, yet when seen sitting they look the same

A Common Grass Yellow posed nicely for a moment

The Pale Grass Blue is by far the commonest butterfly here

The Pale Grass Blue showing its underside this time

Eventually, I reached the end of my walk, after looking back at the hills I had walked up in the morning, and drank in the peaceful scenery before heading into the maelstrom and back to work for another week.

A quintessentially Chinese scene

A dramatic sky over the wooded hills towards the end of my walk

I arrived at the restaurant zone near the park entrance, where the staff of each of the eateries were being lectured by their bosses, a phenomenon that I had noticed first a couple of weeks ago. During the period before the customers arrive, it appears to be the custom for the entire staff to go out in front of the restaurant to be given an inspirational haranguing by the chef or the manager.

Restaurant staff being lectured before the evening begins

Dedication to the boss is required in restaurants here, it seems

Finally, I found a short-cut through an enormous new shopping mall, where I was treated to a deafening performance of children acting some sort of Halloween-themed play in the middle of the shopping centre. And so to the metro station and home, after an eventful and sign-filled day!

The enormous new shopping mall I went into on my way back to the metro station

Halloween is not a Chinese festival, but the volume here would certainly indicate that it is popular!

The apartment complex where I am currently living in Suzhou

Is that young Champion there in that mirror?!

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