Saturday, November 14, 2009

China Notes Part III

Day 7 - Suzhou

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We left the next morning for Suzhou, taking the bullet train again. It was a short half hour ride to the city. Suzhou was Marco Polo's second favorite city because of the beautiful canals, losing out only to Hangzhou. I hadn't really intended to go to Suzhou, but it was one of the tour's pre-selected destinations. It actually turned out to be a really nice break from the rush and pressures of Shanghai, with its relaxed atmosphere and pleasant gardens.

Once we arrived, we struggled to find a taxi, so we split up into smaller groups. Otherwise, the taxi drivers would have come up with a myriad of excuses on why they couldn't take us - the distance is too short, you weigh too much and will waste too much petrol (errr...that is, our bags weighed too much). We did arrive at the hotel eventually, and checked into our rooms. Our guide took us to a little restaurant that had been featured on Japanese television, if any of you happen to watch. They were well known for their dumpling variation. It was all quite nice and well deserved after the morning of doing little.

Afterward we wandered through the narrow corridors of the old part of town. Many of the residents still live along the canals, sharing one communal public bathroom between several families. These families have 70 year leases from the government, but many of the next generation has already moved to apartments in the newer part of town. When the older generation moves on, these old parts will be demolished and replaced by some sort of hyper-real version of what was already there filled with designer shops and yoga studios. Some parts had already received this treatment. After our short walk, we took a tour on the canals and got an eye-level view of people's front doors.

Hope that guard dog can swim...
For the afternoon, some of the group went to the silk worm museum, but having seen the process in Cambodia, I skipped it and went for a walk instead. The newer CBD is everything the quiet narrow older streets are not. Clean, less fragrant, and modern with wide pedestrian paths and tall high-rises. In the outdoor shopping mall area, they had set up a large inflatable pool filled with water and kid-size paddle boats. All the little tykes trapped in this man made lake wore the same expression - "Why did my parent's stick me in this pool on this boat?" Some things are truly international.

What's left of the old city wall.
These were just sitting against a building

That night our guide took us back to the canals. It was really beautiful with the lanterns and lights reflecting in the water. For a place I never intended to go, Suzhou was one of my favorite parts of China.

Day 8

The next day was a free day. Dan and I headed to the largest of Suzhou's many gardens as recommended by the guide - The Humble Administrator Garden. With a name like that, how could I resist.

The garden was really nice with a variety of pools and pagodas. It too was several hundred years old, and quite famous. A number of dignitaries had visited it as shown in a series of photographs along one of the pathway's wall, including Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter although not at the same time.

The garden also included a separate section of just Bonsai trees, introduced to the garden in the 1950s. There must have been several hundred of the trees in this section. They are deceptive in their size and presence. As I reviewed the photographs I was taking in the garden, it was really difficult to tell that these trees were only a metre high.

After the garden, Dan and I walked around the corner to Suzhou's new modern museum. The museum is grandiose in its ambition, but small in its collection. Nearly every major town or province along the east coast of China acted as the capital at least once during China's long history. This was because nearly each province was in power during one dynasty or another. Suzhou was no exception, and the museum held most of their collection from that period. The few pieces they did have were extremely beautiful, especially their painted scrolls section.

I left Dan at the gardens and headed back. Our guide had given us instructions to purchase our food for the train ride, giving a variety of suggestions including instant cup of noodle soup. So I wanted to do my shopping, and cool off a bit in the hotel lobby.

Our guide cooling off in the hotel lobby.

We boarded our night train for Xian that evening. I was very excited for this, because I was looking forward to the next town where we would get to see the Terracotta warriors. We crammed into our sleeper carriage in "hard sleeper" class. There are two sleeping classes, hard and soft. It just means second and first class respectively. Third class have seats instead of beds. The carriage was divided into separate compartments with 6 beds to each. Three beds on each of the walls. There was no wall along the corridor of the carriage so it was pretty much completely open. There were two folding chairs next to each section along the corridor.

As we settled in and the carriage filled up, our guide gave us last minute instructions. "Take care of your personal belongings. You can hide your wallet under your pillow." To which I jokingly replied, "Why don't you just tell everyone where our wallets will be?" He laughed, but I'm not sure if he knew I was joking. Not one to back down from a joke that was amusing to at least me, I continued, "Why don't you just announce it on the PA and let everyone know?" Apparently he caught on and said "Don't worry they already know where your wallets are." Touche.

The group was all in the same carriage, but we were spread out in different compartments. Eventually we all congregated on the compartment that had the two lowest berths so we could sit and eat. We all discovered we had religiously followed our guide's instruction as we one by one pulled out our instant noodle soups.

Well before the 10pm mandatory lights out, I headed back to my middle bed, happy not to be at the very top. I laid there taking notes, watching the people below me in the corridor play games on their laptop. The man that was on the opposite side below me, played songs on his mobile phone, from rap to traditional Chinese, softly singing along to a select few
("My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard My Milkshake is better than yars"...just kidding).

Food carts passed through the corridor every 30 minutes or so, selling warm beer and instant soup, plus the occasional piece of fruit. The young woman across from me was so close I could have tapped her on the back while barely stretching my arm. Like me, she had lined the wall of her bed with her possessions. This was no small feat, given the bed was barely designed to fit one person. The lights went out at 10pm on the dot, and for the first time that entire evening everyone in my compartment decided to have a conversation. After about an hour, I finally got to sleep.

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