Travel: 16th Century China Comes Alive In Portland’s Magical Lan Su Garden

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Travel is one of the things in life which has brought me a lot of joy. To visit historical and cultural sites can make vivid times and places we’ve only read about–Kyoto’s temples or the old city of Venice, to cite two places I’ve been fortunate to experience. I was reminded of this last week when I visited my friend and fellow foodie, Adele, in Portland, Oregon. As a relatively new city, Portland can’t compete with the glories of  Kyoto or Venice, but as I strolled through its remarkable Chinese Garden, I did feel transported to a far-away world.

Located downtown on the edge of Portland’s small Chinatown, the Lan Su Chinese Garden dates only from 2000, but is a recreation of a wealthy family’s walled garden compound in 16th Century China. Most of the materials, including 500 tons of rock, came from China, and sixty-five artisans from Suzhou spent ten months in Portland completing the project (Suzhou is one of China’s great historic cities, and eight of its gardens are UNESCO world heritage sites). Designed by Kuang Zhen Yan, Lan Su is conceived as a spiritual utopia, a place to leave behind the cares of the harried world, and is laid out as a series of views framed by windows, doors and pavilions. Underlying its design is the Chinese concept of yin and yang, the idea that the world can be seen as a weaving of opposite, but complementary forces, such as light and dark or earthy and ethereal. As calming and relaxing as this garden is,  it is also stimulating because all the senses must be alert to fully observe the layers of intricate detail.

Portland is probably one of America’s under-appreciated cities, and well worth a visit even in winter, and it’s Chinese Garden is a must-visit if you do go. In a future post, I’ll blog about what I was able to observe of Portland’s food culture during my brief visit.

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Photos: Top–a view across the pond to the Tower of Cosmic Reflections which is used as a teahouse. Above–the Moon Locking Pavilion from which “on a clear night you can see the reflection of the moon as a shimmering spotlight in the center of the lake, locked in by the pavilions’s shadow.”–Lan Su Chinese Garden guide book. See more photos after the jump (and click on any photo to see an enlarged version).

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One of many views framed by windows.

"...plum, bamboo and pine are collectively known as the Three Friends of Winter and serve to remind us to persevere. The plum braves the cold of winter to blossom; the pine stays green throughout winter; and the bamboo bends in winter storms, but does not break." (from the Garden's guidebook)

The Tower of Cosmic Reflections, which serves as the teahouse.

Interior of the Scholar's Study which served as a place to study for civil service examinations, for writing poetry, practicing calligraphy and reading.

Interior of the teahouse. On warm days, folding doors are opened to offer an expansive view of the garden.

To me, the bare-leafed trees of winter can be as beautiful as the green-leafed trees of summer. An elegant wall encloses the entire square block of the garden.

Every garden must have a waterfall--the stones, too, were brought from China.

Intricately carved windows and doors frame views from inside onto the garden.

While inside the garden's walls you feel transported to a far-away world, this view reveals just how closely the modern city looms.

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