Sunday 8th October 2017

Strictly prohibit leisure

Despite a sign proclaiming the above, today I enjoyed my last day of leisure before starting my teaching here in Suzhou. I took the sparklingly clean Suzhou metro for just a few stops, and then negotiated a less than sparklingly clean street with no pavement and ran across a busy highway to reach the Shihu Lake Scenic Area…and scenic it was.

Shihu Lake is flanked on its eastern shore by numerous blocks of flats

But to the west it adjoins a hilly area, the Shangfeng Hill State Forest Park

The Sky Mirror Pavilion, with Shangfeng Hill behind

Although the zone closest to the entrance was busy with Sunday sightseers, it was not long before I was able to enjoy being semi-alone, and the tranquil lake with its backdrop of wooded hills was a joy to behold.

A boat passes in front of the distant hills

The walk around the lake crosses several stone bridges

The dreamy wooded hills, topped in the distance by the Hanyuan Temple

I walked along a causeway across the middle of the lake and then headed up the western shore. Birds were not much in evidence, apart from a few Night Herons and Little Grebes, but I was soon enjoying a fine selection of butterflies, many of which were attracted to the ornamental flowers growing along the shoreline. The highlight was undoubtedly the unfortunately named Common Bluebottle, Graphium sarpedon, which occurs all the way from India to Japan. Two of these agile and active butterflies were fluttering over the flowers, as usual with their wings constantly moving even when feeding, making photography difficult.

The Common Bluebottle is a spectacular species

Catching 2 Common Bluebottles in one shot was a fluke, even if they are not quite sharp

A Painted Lady posed cooperatively

As did a beautiful female Indian Fritillary

The other main highlight was several more Lesser Purple Emperors, Apatura ilia. At first I wondered if they might be Freyer’s Purple Emperor, Apatura metis, especially as they were often to be seen flying around and settling on narrow-leaved willow trees, which are apparently the larval food plant of that species, but my photographs clearly show a large black spot near the outer margin of the forewing, which is apparently diagnostic for the Lesser, not Freyer’s Purple Emperor.

The bold black spot on the forewing proclaims this to be a Lesser rather than a Freyer’s Purple Emperor

I saw at least 5 Lesser Purple Emperors during the afternoon

A few birds appeared in this quieter area, including a small flock of Masked Laughing-thrushes, Black-throated and Eastern Great Tits, Long-tailed Shrikes and some unidentified leaf warblers.

Chinese Comma butterflies were numerous here, but my attention was drawn to a new species for my China list, the Chinese Bush Brown, Mycalesis gotama. I had seen this species many years ago in Japan, where it is also common, but it is always nice to reacquaint oneself with butterflies after not having seen them for many years.

Chinese Commas were numerous around the lake

The Chinese Bushbrown was an addition to my list

Another old friend from Japan that flew past without settling at all was the Japanese Swallowtail, Papilio xuthus, but I contented myself with photographing a Pale Grass Blue, Zizeeria maha, that posed with its wings open for once, and a Common Grass Yellow, Eurema hecabe, that was too engrossed in nectaring deep in a flower to notice me approaching.

A Pale Grass Blue sat with its wings open

A Common Grass Yellow was busy with nectaring

A pleasantly rustic scene close to bustling Suzhou

Lotus plants thrive at the northern end of the lake

An ancient residence

The contrast between the traditional and the modern takes some getting used to

I finally reached the north-western corner of the lake, where a large area behind a derelict temple had been turned into a foul rubbish tipping area, but all in all it had been a very pleasant and relaxing walk, and it came as something of a shock to find myself back in the maelstrom of bustling Suzhou again as I walked back to the metro station.

The pace of development here is frenetic

Public To Lets? Are they really for rent?!


Friday 6th October 2017

Into the “wilderness”

A little frustrated by urban life here in Suzhou, I decided to aim for the hills today. A subway journey of just under an hour took me to the terminus of Line 1 at Mudu, and I then walked along a busy highway towards some low hills that did not look too far away. The temperature was pleasant, and it was not long before I started spotting butterflies, and at one point I had to venture into a bushy area to try to gain a better view of a huge black and white Nymphalid species, but unfortunately it disappeared before I could see it well.

A left turn and a short further walk brought me to the entrance of a country park, where I was greeted by a friendly security guard. I headed away from the road, and almost at once I found myself in my natural habitat: open forest with plenty of butterflies to enjoy. A series of high-pitched bird calls alerted me to a flock of delightful Black-throated Tits. Clearly closely related to our Long-tailed Tit, this colourful, dapper little gem roves through the forest in flocks, making a similar sound to the Long-tailed Tit, whose call I well remember my birding friend Jon Robbins accurately describing in Japan as a ‘spluttering twitter”.

My kind of place: wooded hills and a butterfly haven

Easily the commonest large butterfly here was the Chinese Comma, Polygonia c-aureum, which I was already familiar with from my days in Japan. These were everywhere, gliding around and perching cooperatively, for once.

The Chinese Comma is a little less angular than its European cousin

Blues were also a feature here, the Long-tailed Blue, Lampides boeticus, appearing wherever its larval foodplant, a climbing bean, was growing. The Short-tailed Blue, Everes argiades, was also in evidence, as was a pugnacious Small Copper, Lycaena phleas, that kept chasing away a Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, that tried to settle on the same patch of Aster flowers. I could have been forgiven for thinking I was back in Brittany, as I had enjoyed seeing all of these species there this past summer, but one other blue, the Forget-me-not, Catochrysops strabo, took me off to India in my thoughts, as I was familiar with that species from there, while a mating pair of Pale Grass Blues, Zizeeria maha, and a number of Eastern Pale Clouded Yellows, Colias erate, transported me to Japan, where I used to observe them.

Long-tailed Blues were everywhere

A tattered Short-tailed Blue added to the European feeling

The Small Copper would not accept competition from other butterflies

Even a Painted Lady was not allowed to sit for long

A mating pair of Pale Grass Blues was a pleasant sight

One of several Eastern Pale Clouded Yellows that were nectaring here

The Indian theme was continued by the presence of numerous splendid Indian Fritillaries, Argyreus hyperbius. The male looks much like the fritillaries we see in Europe, entirely spotted with black on an orangey-brown background, but the female mimics the poisonous Danaus chrysippus, having black and white wing-tips like that species, and even fluttering in a Danaid-like way.

The male Indian Fritillary looks like a typical fritillary, tawny all over with black spots

But the female Indian Fritillary is spectacularly different, with black and white wing-tips

A little further on I came to a series of temples, complete with chanting monks and clanging bells. From here I ventured up into the hills, which were covered with low pines between the rocky sandstone outcrops. A running race was going on, and every now and then some copiously sweating runners, of both sexes, would come puffing past, some race officials cheering them on. Just over the crest of the ridge, I spotted a large butterfly skimming around a tree, and a closer look revealed it to be a late and very damaged Lesser, or possibly Freyer’s Purple Emperor, Apatura ilia or metis, which I only just managed to photograph as it flew out of shot!

The Purple Emperor is just visible as it flies off

The hills were in fact rather over-run with people, hardly surprising I guess as these are among the closest natural areas to downtown Suzhou, and they must constitute the city’s lungs as well. In fact, looking down on the city from the wooded hills brought home just how much air pollution there is here, as the hazy air demonstrated. I had hoped to be able to see the giant Taihu lake in the distance, but it was invisible in the murk.

Monks were chanting in the tranquil temple

A rustic scene close to Suzhou

I approved of the mottos on this bull’s plinth

I reached the top of the ridge, only to find huge numbers of people around the Lingyan temple with its impressive pagoda, but the queues for tickets put me off the idea of going in, and I continued my walk.

Looking down into Suzhou’s murky atmosphere

Some very loud bird calls alerted me to a party of Masked Laughing-thrushes, a species that may well be a “lifer” for me, but I have not got my World list here with me in China. Laughing-thrushes are engaging birds that hop through the forest and undergrowth, making short flights on rounded wings and then disappearing into thick brush. A Hoopoe also made an appearance on a dead branch, seemingly unconcerned by the people close by.

A confiding Hoopoe was an unexpected sighting

The Indian theme was emphasized again by two brief sightings of Indian Red Admirals, Vanessa indica, that I glimpsed as they shot by, and the day was brought to a close by a beautiful, tawny Peacock Pansy, Precis almana, which I was unable to photograph as it was chased off by a male Indian Fritillary. All in all, though, a therapeutic day of nature close to the great Suzhou conurbation.

I did my best!


Thursday 5th October 2017

Duck gut on a stick and other delights

Yesterday I ventured into old Suzhou with a team of university colleagues, and it was not long before we were confronted with China during a holiday week: the place was absolutely packed with people.

The main shopping street was absolutely packed, although the other streets were almost empty

We meandered our way along Pingjiang Lu, a narrow pedestrian street by the side of a canal, literally surrounded by a sea of people, almost all carrying some kind of local delicacy and chomping away on something as they walked along. A bowl of fiery red objects turned out to be chicken’s feet, one of the dishes that I had sampled on my visit to China back in 2004 (and not one that I shall be rushing to reacquaint myself with).

Chicken’s feet, a delectable morsel for the locals here

While waiting for one of our colleagues who had to queue for a long while for the public toilets, we noticed a girl in front of us nibbling on some stringy objects impaled lengthwise on wooden sticks. I commented to one of the group that they looked like a type of worm, but he then asked her what she was eating, and her matter-of-fact answer was, “Duck gut”. Apparently, duck intestine grilled with chilli sauce and strung on a stick is a popular dish here. None of us rushed to buy some.

Eventually we turned out of this human river into a quieter side-street, again by a canal. A sudden splashing sound revealed an aged man swimming along through the distinctly dingy brown water, obviously doing his daily exercise routine. How anyone could survive the pollution in what may well have little better than an open sewer is an interesting question. Perhaps he is now immune to everything after extended exposure to every possible form of microbe.

The quieter side street

An old man swam past through the dingy water

Our final destination here was the Couples’ Garden, one of Suzhou’s renowned ancient yuanlin, or ancient private compounds that were originally designed to balance Confucian ideas of urban social duty and Tao concepts of worldly retreats in nature. The clever use of the limited space makes these gardens extraordinary, with their ponds, ornate bridges, pavilions and artificial rocky hillocks, all crammed into a tiny area.

The Couples’ Garden is a visual delight

A Chinese opera was being performed in this pavilion

All in all, the day provided a fascinating glimpse of ancient China with a full in-the-face introduction to the teeming masses of the modern Middle Kingdom.

We avoided the Starbucks coffee outlet

But ended up going to the Beast Master coffee shop instead!