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Lan Su Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon


Portland likes to think of itself as an unusual city, even boasting that it wants to "Keep Portland Weird," but in my few days wandering the city, the most impressive and unusual place I found was the Lan Su Chinese Garden.


It's not the most widely-advertised attraction in town, and I might not have gone there except for an invitation to lunch at the Tea House in the Garden, a pleasant idea given the rain that was beginning.


After paying admission, I asked a staff member for directions to the Tea House. "You can start this, way," she said, "or you can go to your left, or across there...all ways lead to the Tea House." And they did. By the end of my visit, I had seen the Tea House and other buildings and courtyards from so many angles, it was nearly impossible to believe that the entire Garden occupies a single square block in the city grid.


Even views like this one that plainly reveal the city behind, were few, and somehow managed to not disturb the overall feel of the garden; perhaps I just lowered my gaze as I walked, because the city views were almost a surprise as I sorted through my images.


The garden is not an old resident in Portland, although the Chinatown area adjacent to it has long historic roots in Portland's role as a port for trade with Asia. The idea for the garden began in the early 1980s, and picked up steam when Portland became a sister city to Suzhou, China, a city known for its gardens, 8 of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.


Once the site was agreed on and an organization formed, work began. ZThe garden was designed by a Kuang Zhen, a garden designer from Suzhou, and mostly built by 65 artisans from Suzhou who spent months in Portland building the garden using traditional methods and materials.

P1030251P1030314P1030275What wasn't traditional, though, was gathering the plants for the garden. There are more than 400 species represented, and thousands of plants. All are indigenous to China for authenticity, but none of them were brought from there because of restrictions on bringing plants across borders.

However, since many plants from China were already in the U.S., descended from imports that arrived before restrictions, searchers were able to stock the garden fully. Some of the plants are over 100 years old, and may have been original imports.


The garden is organized in a series of courtyards and spaces, linked by walkways across and around a lake that appears in different vistas as you walk. Among the named vistas you encounter the Scholar's Courtyard, Knowing the Fish Pavilion, Reflections in Clear Ripples, Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain, and more. 


The panels above are part of Flowers Bathing in Spring Rain, and are carved with scenes from existing gardens in Suzhou. On the back of one panel is a qutation from Wen Zhengming, a 15th-century painter/scholar/garden lover, who said "Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest." Yes.


Lan Su has a range of exhibitions, lectures and classes throughout the year. Above, in the Scholar's Study, a calligrapher works. 


The Garden's name tells a story of its own. Originally, when it opened in 2000, it was called the Portland Classical Chinese Garden. It got its new name in 2010 by taking 'Lan' from the middle of Portland and 'Su' from its Chinese twin. But as simple as that sounds, it isn't: Nothing in the garden is as simple as it may look. 'Lan' is also a Chinese word for orchid, and 'Su' means 'arise' or 'awaken.' So, the name is interpreted poetically as Garden of Awakening Orchids.


Even the intricate stone pavings of the different areas have meanings of their own, representing different aspects of Daoist philosophy as well as moods and seasons.


Over 500 tons of rocks and other material were imported from China to build the garden, including these Taihu stones, or stones from Lake Tai. The lake is very acidic, and wears away the softest materials in boulders that are placed in it; these are the work of about 50-60 years in the water. The characters translate to "Ten Thousand Ravines Engulfed in Deep Clouds."


Transitions between areas of Lan Su are sometimes subtle; you can be surprised to find yourself looking back at areas you weren't quite sure you'd left. Some, however, like the arched entrance to the Scholar's Courtyard, are distinct, and seem both inviting and defining.


While the general intent is for visitors to see entire vistas, there is also wonderful detail work to draw, and hold, the eye. 


Lan Su Chinese Garden is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. Admission is $10, with discounts for children and seniors. There's also a Garden Shop with books and gifts.


There's a wheelchair-accessible route through the paths that includes almost every corner of the garden; a map is available. And for those of us who like to take breaks, there are benches throughout the garden.


The Tea House serves a small menu of light meals and snacks, including noodle bowls, steamed buns and soups. And an amazing assortment of traditional teas brewed using traditional methods. Each of the four teas we ordered came with a different shaped cup and brewer!


For more information, from Lan Su's website, click HERE


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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