Saturday, April 21, 2007

Home again

It's always great to be back, despite the slog it takes to get here.

This trip was particularly mundane, despite the length and the 24 hours of awakedness it required to complete it. On the plane I was lucky enough to have an empty seat between me and the other person in the row. Sadly she was a space-hog who assumed the gap was for her personal use and filled it with computers, blankets, reading glasses, other stuff and a 1/2 full glass of water.

Did have one little traveling oddity though. When I left two Saturdays ago I sat across from a couple on the ABQ to SFO run. They were well-dressed and of an age, the kind of people I might hang out with in real life.

Sitting in the SFO waiting area and munching on a turkey-avocado sandwich on a chewy croissant, I looked up and there they were, sitting across from me. We boarded the plane and once again, they had the row opposite. This being too serendipitous, I excused myself and told the man the situation. He said he recognized me but thought perhaps I was a work acquaintence. Turns out they'd been in Thailand for exactly the same duration as my stay in Shanghai. We had a nice chat for part of the flight.

So if that's not proof that the world is small, I don't know what is. Maybe Ted can offer is erudite opinion.

Please tune back in two weeks from now - it'll once again be back around the world time.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Wode han bao bao, hen hao

Today’s title is derived from a dare. One of my fellow travelers challenged me to name a post as such and I said I would – so here it is. Translated it means “My hamburger is very good.” It's a funny play on words we toss around here and we thought perhaps that might be a great title for a Dr. Seuss book.

Had a day of work today and capped it with a journey down the subway to a part of Shanghai that was beyond our regular horizon. The goals were the Shanghai Botanical Garden and the Longhua Temple complex.

Things began inauspiciously when the subway token machine wouldn’t take a bill and we lacked the change. This meant a trip to the window. This is normally hit or miss. If the teller has a little English you can get away with saying the line and the zone and they’ll deal you a ticket. But this one wasn’t having it. She waved us off. Until I spit out “huo che zahn”, “train station” and she understood that we wanted a ticket for the end of the line.

So off we went.

Exiting at Sonchang Road we did the normal return to daylight blinky eye thing and tried to get our bearings. I figured it was roughly in “that” direction and we headed down the street. For insurance I asked a woman in a roadside food stall if she would look at our map and she did and indicated that we were heading the right way.

The place was loaded with school kids, bussed in for the day to ride the bumper cars and to buy these giant inflatable Paul Bunyan hammers that the boys were busy beating each other over the head with. It was odd to see such a throng of uniform wearing, back pack toting 48 inch tall little people marching and yammering and having a great time. There must have been a thousand.

A line of perhaps second graders walked by us and said “hello”, “goodbye” and added “zai jian” when I responded in Chinese. They were laughing and giggling and having a great time at our expense.

The place was like every other botanical garden that I have ever visited, notwithstanding the Kentucky Fried Chicken vendors. We walked down a long lane of thirty foot tall Magnolia trees and were brought up short by a man yelling for everyone to run away because his friend was spraying the trees with some sort of poison or fertilizer. We made our way around that calamity and came out on the far side, sidestepping the puddles of milky white liquid that had gathered in the depressions in the sidewalk.

There really wasn’t much to see in the garden, I think we were between peaks so we went off in search of the pagoda. It was getting pretty warm, but we had a stiff breeze off the river that made it tolerable.

This part of Shanghai was a bit different than most I have been too – not a westerner in sight for the full 3 hours we trekked on.

Got a bit lost when we came to a real-live geographical rats nest of roads that didn’t match the map. Maps here are often mere suggestions of reality, not factual depictions. We did a little back and forth and finally forged on only to find our way was not a clean crossing of some little canal but a short pedestrian tunnel that did not show up in our reference guide.

Clearing that obstacle we found ourselves closing in on the temple. Longhua is the oldest and largest temple complex in Shanghai, with its original founding in 242 AD. Most of the buildings now date from the mid-19th century, having been rebuilt by the emperors Tongzhi and Guanxu during the closing years of the Qing Dynasty.

We wound our way there and found ourselves in the Longhua Gift and Fashion Market, an outdoor sales extravaganza that purportedly replaced the old Xinyang Knock-off Market. It wasn’t obvious to me that it was truly a replacement in terms of products, but it certainly came close in the number of people crowding the streets.

The temple was across the road so we crossed, bought a ticket and went in. This is 3rd temple visit on this trip and I’ve been increasingly impressed with each one. This one though was in a very different league.

There were four of five separate buildings, each with its own Buddha and each was more grand that the last. One room held giant mythical characters, one saints painted to look human. Another room contained 300 or more 1 foot tall Buddhas, each unique in their posture, hairstyle and countenance. The best of all was a great golden Buddha surrounded by 100s of angels floating around and above. I stopped and prayed at each, gaining a tremendous amount of satisfaction from joining in with the other supplicants.

This is another of those places where you could stand around for the day and just inhale incense smoke, but alas, time was not permitting. We headed out and took a guess at the direction and found ourselves wandering through a carnival with dozens of food stalls, each offering something different. Here I saw some Chinese that I would guess are from the far west – the looked like Arabs and wore a Muslim skull cap yet they were calling us over in Chinese. We forget that this country extends far out onto the steppes of Asia, beyond the Kingdom of the Han.

Passing through the food, we came to traditional carnival stalls with stuffed penguins and oddly colored Snoopy dogs available to those that could pop the balloons or throw rings over the bottle tops.

The subway beckoned and we caught the train north, another part of the city partially explored.

From here it’s back to the west. My next check-in will be from my desktop at home. Until then – zai jian!


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A golden moment for me

I’ve come a long way in my short time in (and out) of China.

A year ago on my first trip I stepped out of the security of the hotel and across the street to walk in the park. I recall being very worried about taking my camera and every shot I took was with flash off and from the palm of my hand. I didn’t want to attract attention. The exercising people, particularly the “yellers” made me very tense and my greatest fear was that I would somehow offend someone and end up in a situation with them and the local policeman yelling at me in a language that I barely understood.

A few days later after grossly overpaying for a pair of binoculars at the knock-off market, I practiced the words to tell the policeman that I was going to watch birds. I asked the concierge about watching birds over there and he told me it wasn’t a good idea. Ignoring that, I proudly walked up to to the guard in the park and rattled off my plans in Chinese. He waved me off as just another member of the class of the mentally infirm.

From there it was the subway, more morning walks and attempts to communicate in this challenging tongue. My immersion took a big step with my trip last fall to Chongming on a rusty ferry and a day spent in a speeding minivan coursing the rice fields with a man who spoke no English yet was intent on satisfying my desire to see some birds.

More trips and more experiences. This time over, I've taken some treks into the working class and industrial sections away from the sanitized tourist and business districts. That is if you can call anything in Shanghai, “sanitized.”

Most of this will perhaps be judged as trivial by those that have taken deeper dives into foreign cultures. It might even seem quaint when we joke about “going off the grid” but for me, these are big steps in my personal journey. Before this, I was pretty proud of my ability to jump in the car and drive 5 hours into Mexico getting by on my rusty 12th grade Spanish. Getting to that point was accomplished by other baby steps that finally led to a comfort and ease with getting by in an alien land.

People spend time here for many reasons. Some are here as tourists, wanting mostly to absorb the sights and the sounds. Many are here for business and career motives, seeing a way to make a buck and to advance themselves. Some are here to party hard and Shanghai provides ample opportunities to satisfy that desire in myriad ways. Others are attracted by the “colonial” lifestyle, living at a class level far above what they could have and afford in the US.

I come for the moments but I’m not kidding myself that I can ever do anything more than scratch the surface, or that there is any chance I will ever be part of the fabric. But if I can get a few truly genuine experiences, well then all the annoyance of getting here is certainly worth it.

Over the course of my recent entries, I’ve mentioned The Man in Black a couple of times. He’s one of the caged bird keepers in the park and he spends his mornings with his peers drinking tea and visiting. We’ve sort of chatted – he says things, I nod and smile – and I’ve gone on feeling good. But I decided to try and take it to the next step and see if he would consent to posing for a photograph with his birds.

The morning was truly glorious, yesterday’s downpours cleaned the air, the sun was out and I could see my breath as I ambled through the misty bamboo. I approached the bird keepers, found my friend and smiled and nodded. He recognized me and came over when I stopped to look at his bird. In my best broken Chinese I asked permission to take a photo with him and his bird and he just beamed. Stepping off the path and onto the grass, he gently lifted the cage and looking at his friends he said something, I imagine on the order of “check this out, the lao wei is taking my picture.” And then, with him bearing an incredible look of pride for his bird, I counted to three in Chinese and snapped the shot.

I thanked him and went on my way with a feeling of satisfaction that can only come with one of life’s special minutes.

I’ve often said here that you have to be open to things to have them happen - we go through our lives never seeing what’s going on around us. Getting juxtaposed into a place where the daily routine is disrupted has one of two effects – you put on the blinders and try to regain control through embracing your routines or you open up and see what every day brings. I hope I will always try to do the latter.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Some thoughts and some wanderings

Pretty regular day today. Had a walk in the park that was uneventful aside from Strauss’ Viennese Waltz that was broadcasting from the speakers along the path and a woman that was doing a combination of a sea shanty jig and a clog dance. The park is always a great source of oddities, even on a regular day.

I made it a point to walk past the caged birds and saw The Man in Black with whom I had had a brief conversation last week. He recognized me and I said, “zao shang hao” and he walked over to his Bulbul cage with me. We stopped and listened and I once again tried to tell him the bird’s song was beautiful (having expanded my vocabulary) and he smiled and said who knows what and thus we parted ways. At least he was smiling.

An uneventful day at work punctuated by a hot bowl of barbequed pork Ramen and a Mango tea from Starbucks.

After work, Matt and I decided to head down town to the Big Bamboo Bar (having visited the Little Bamboo Bar last December) and so off we went. Nothing novel came from that experience except for the fact that for once in last two weeks we were in the majority among the people in the place, it being stocked with expats. All of them being male, chain-smoking expats. So there we sat watching NBA basketball and women’s tennis drinking an Irish beer amongst a bunch of westerners with 60s AM radio hits playing loudly in the background. And I think the park is weird.

As we headed out I observed a Chinese man with his nose pressed up against the window, peering in.

Dinner was to be at another American hangout, Malone’s – just up the street and around the corner. Taking advantage of a break in the traffic we crossed the street and thus missed the opportunity to see what a squatting man was cooking in a gallon can with flames shooting out of the top.

The bar was stocked about the same as the previous one – chain-smoking white guys. The local Heineken social rep – a tiny Chinese woman dressed in the green and white Heineken colors flitted from table to table. We were drinking Tiger, so she dismissed us as “natives.” Matt had a burger and I had a chicken, cheese and mushroom sandwich with fries, the latter of which presented a semantic challenge to our waitress who was very cute.

Now it was beer, sandwiches, fries, smoke and soccer on the big screen.

A guy from another table joined us, having been shooed along in favor of a larger party of chain-smoking white guys. He told us he’d been in Shanghai for 15 years, didn’t speak a lick of Mandarin and stayed because, “I like the girlies.” His friend, a slick Texan joined us a bit later – black tee, slacks, silk sport coat and immaculate comb-over told us he’d been selling petroleum equipment locally for more than 25 years. He was fluent.

Dinner was over so we headed out for a walk and were almost instantly accosted by a local entrepreneur. With no interest in watches or bags, he offered us pretty ladies and told us he’d take us to the second floor where the ladies would give us a “choose.” Matt corrected his English and sent him on his way.

We were at the far, non-neon end of Nanjing Lu and wandered past some seriously luxe shopping. A watch store that sold only Chopard was next to a hotel featuring an outside BMW display, supporting some kind of sporting event that is going on locally. We went into a multi-storey mall called Plaza 66 that was loaded with very fancy stores – Kate Spade, Burberry, Fendi, Dior, Lagerfeld – continuing the contrast to life outside that keeps getting pounded home.

Back out on the streets, vendors were selling lychees and mangosteens, an interesting fruit that I’d not seen before. It looked like a big horse chestnut, the kind you buy roasted in Central Park. He sliced one open and inside was a white fruit that looked like a combination of garlic (big white cloves) and an orange (segments.) He pulled out a couple of toothpicks and speared a segment for each of us. It was a very sweet, tasty fruit and unlike anything I’d tried before. Grabbing a plastic bag, he was disappointed when we elected not to purchase one.

Finally deciding to head back we grabbed a cab and his driving style got me thinking about the nature of Chinese drivers.

These guys certainly subscribe to the notion of “just keep moving.” We might see lane swappers in the US, but they simply don’t compare to how it’s done here. Every empty space is always filled, sometimes by a couple of cars. They float in and out and take every opportunity that presents itself the moment traffic slows. Sometimes the choices are not so good, like taking an exit in order to bypass a jam on the elevated road and in turn ending up behind a garbage truck. When we drove to Suzhou on Saturday, Mr. Wu would angle across 10 lanes at the toll booth to avoid going through behind a single car. It’s just a style that must stem from the crowding and the busyness of life here. You see it in every crosswalk where you have a fluid dynamic of cars, scooters, bicycles and people moving across and intermingling, regardless of the color of the light. It even extends to elevators, where every rider gets in and immediately jams the “close door” button in order to keep the car moving. Perhaps in a place where everything takes longer, these little things grab a bit of free time back, time that would otherwise be forever lost.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Trek Around Town

Yesterday was a day for me to get out in the streets and do a marathon walk. I took a look at the map and aligned on three targets that formed a big triangle with the base at the far end, away from the hotel. At the bottom was a garden, located down in the French Concession. At the top, Jing'an Temple, a medium sized complex in the heart of the shopping district (ironically.) Between the two – Zhongshan Park, a city green space that I have had on my list for some time.

The map suggested about 10 miles total, and I figured it was a reasonable amount with an ambling gait. So I packed my camera, GPS, an orange and a piece of chocolate and headed out the door at 8:30 following a breakfast in the penthouse. The rest of the traveling team was heading out for pearls and knock-offs so I was on my own.

My route took me along Ya’an Xilu Elevated Road and since I was under it, it quickly became obvious that the GPS was going to be partially useless. “Weak Satellite Signal” was the first message I received after a half hour of walking. After some confusion about my turn, I made it and headed south towards the first destination. The streets were moderately empty, at least by Shanghai standards. I still had to pay attention when crossing the street and it made me wonder where all these people were going on Sunday morning.

Moving along, I missed my left turn and realized this after a block or two. The map confirmed the miss and so I plotted a course back to my original plan. I passed a fancy Radisson Hotel that was lined with tall red brick walls. The combination of the walls, the Sycamores and the colorful sidewalk made for an interesting view as I proceeded down the sidewalk.

I took a brief sojourn into a small corner park to see the caged birds that I could hear singing as I approached. As always, a small knot of men stood around singing while the birds tried to drive off rivals with their vocalizations. Back on the street, I found a shortcut through a neighborhood that led to my destination.

Looking up the street, I saw a group of young men jostling and joking on the sidewalk. I grew up urban, and a sight like this always suggests caution. So after a brief stop in the public toilet (.80 RMB for use of the facility) I crossed the street. As I approached, one of them broke off and started to cross the street towards me. I just watched and walked on. As our paths were about to intersect, a black BMW pulled in between us and he stopped to talk the driver. He was making a joke about pulling all the tree blossoms (hen duo hua) off the car. I felt like an idiot, falling prey once again to my western conditioning and the sense of insecurity that has become part of my everyday life, back home.
I arrived at the gardens and found out that they were less a park and more of a neighborhood. Reading the occasional plaque on the pillars of the compound wall, it seems that the ground and the gardens constitute sort of a “heritage district” of villas built in the 1920s the first time that Shanghai was a world expat capital. The homes were beautiful and the greenery was splendid but it wasn’t obvious to me that walkers were welcome, so I ambled on.

Passing an interesting block of buildings done in the Tudor style bu with red timbers and yellow stucco, I found my way back at Ya’an Xilu. I crossed the thoroughfare on a cool pedestrian overpass with escalators going up and narrow, slippery stairs going down. Above the street it formed a giant circle that allowed one to reach any of the four corners of the intersection. From the railing I could see Jing’an Temple, the next stop on my journey.

This temple is the oldest in the city, originally constructed in 247 AD. It moved to its present site in 1216, during the Song Dynasty. During the Cultural Revolution it was converted into a plastics factory. In 1983 it returned to its present use and has been undergoing various improvements since that time. It’s now located at the west of Nanjing Lu (formerly called Jing’an Temple Road) and sits hard on the flank for the City Center Mall. Dunhill, Burberry and Tiffany are its neighbors.

I thought a brief rest might be nice before going into the temple. Jing’an Park is right next door and so I went in. Walking up the lane I passed a group tap dance lesson, the instructor stridently imploring her students to do the heal and toe tap with gusto. Moving on I found a little enclosed garden and went in for a visit. It was hard to believe that this little oasis sat upon one of the busiest intersections in the city. A small pond was graced by a tiny pagoda and a bigger building where visitors could purchase big pink thermoses of tea. Many couples and singles were sitting at tables with said thermoses gracing the center of the table. A feral calico cat sized me up and kept its distance, not really running away but not coming close either. A path composed of polished pebbles would through traditional Chinese garden architecture. A stone tablet stood behind a circular doorway and a plaque nearby told the story of the original temple and the stone, which now lies submerged at the bottom of the nearby river. I spent a half-hour or so in there before leaving and luckily I checked my photos just before leaving because the camera was reporting “corrupt data”. I swapped memory cards and went back around, taking the shots a second time. One walk through a meditative place leaves you serene. Two walks, less so.

I found a bench and stopped for a rest. A group of elderly people off to my left were singing a ponderous, traditional Chinese anthem. The tap dancers were still at it and the instructor was still chiding them. It appears tap is the angriest of all dances.

The park was very busy but not overly crowded. It was nice to see all these families doing things together and it made me think of the west in simpler times.

After a bit I got up and went off to the temple which was across the street. I paid my 20 RMB entrance fee and went in. All the noise and traffic and bustle were left behind the moment I passed through the gated arch. I’d like to say I was transported back 1000 years, but I wasn’t – too many modern construction materials lying around. But it was a calming experience despite the concrete mixers and plywood boards covering gaps in the plaza.

Three large iron charcoal burners were cooking the sticks of incense that one could buy for 2 RMB at a little red cart. Once ignited, those wishing to pray stopped and faced each of the cardinal directions, raising their hands and the incense to their foreheads. I went over to the larger temple and waited in line for a place at the prayer bench to pay my respects to the large, golden Buddha. I deposited a few bills in the prayer box to wing my wishes on their way. A small altar was off to the left with two smaller Buddha and so I walked over and paid my respects there two.

Leaving the Buddha, I went out in the plaza and just stood there taking it in. Although there was a limited amount of things to see, it was hard to leave the place. And so when I felt it was time, I headed out the gate, stopping to buy an incense bundle on the way.

With two of my three goals met, I decided that hoofing it to the third might be a bit more of a challenge than I needed so I decided to take the subway.

Heading down the escalator, I first tried to automated ticket machine and stymied by that bought my ticket from the man behind the window. Found my way to the train and waited for it to come along. This time of the day, the subway was great – no crushing mobs and room to move around. The train came and I boarded, securing a spot in the back corner of the car next to a young woman with that same techno-pop-punk thing going on that the Japanese girl in “Babel” was working. At the next stop, a 20 something young woman got on who had to be very close to 6 feet tall judging her height from a steel handrail. She made me stand up straight and all I kept thinking was that this little girl could make a fortune on the runways in Paris. She also provided an interesting contrast to Techno-girl, the engaged versus the disaffected.

My stop came up and I disembarked, heading towards the exit. In the time I have been coming here, the subway stations have changed. Before the entrance corridors were empty, now they are full of little businesses selling everything from food to iPods. They serve to make it difficult to find your way out, and the solution is to just start riding escalators.

The first ride up brought me to a food court where something didn’t smell quite right. Kentucky Fried Chicken was mobbed and by far the most popular of the various stations. I kept on moving, finding myself at another bank of escalators, and so I went up, arriving at the upscale cosmetics department of a big store. By now it was clear that I had somehow managed to leave the station and arrive in a giant store. Looking around, I thought I saw daylight so I moved off to my right. Sure enough, it appeared that an exit was looming. I passed out of the store and into a grand atrium with criss-crossing escalators and 5 or more balconies lined in chrome. A cosmetics company had set up a stand for demonstration and was playing techno at an ear-splitting level, the only word in the refrain being in Spanish, “cuando, cuando, cuando”. The bass beat was almost disabling.

I stumbled out the door and back into the cacophony of the streets. Sure enough, I had been lost in the Carrefour, the local French department store.

Now it’s generally pretty hard to figure out which way to go when you have only one intersection to use as a guide. The placement of the sun gave me a rough idea of direction, but my GPS was still sputtering from being underground for so long.

I started walking up the road, thinking that some trees I could see would probably be Zhongshan Park. Wrong, the presence of an elevated road up the street suggested I was not heading the correct way. Retracing my steps, I tried the street to the right and walked on a bit, passing another public bathroom for hire that I clearly did not care to visit. Still wrong, I stopped, got my bearings and headed back the way I had come. MY infallible sense of direction kicked in and I was on my way.

Street vendors were selling all manner of things. A large barrow full of strawberries and lychees. Several carts of journals, bound in a spectrum of covers. DVDs and little hand-held sewing machines. One man had a large barrel of charcoal attached to his three-wheeled bicycle and was selling grilled ears of corn and yams, in their brazed skins.

I found the park and took the turn to go in. Several women had bicycles with racks on the back from which they were selling ducklings, chicks, rabbits and mice. The ducks were 50 in a Tupperware tub. The next level held a few dozen chicks in a similar bin. The bunnies were two to a little cage as were the mice. I’m not sure what the Chinese tradition is with respect to these pets, but given the urban environment I can’t imagine many end well.

Zhongshan is a large park and was full of people going about their parkly things, just like Jing’an. There is a small amusement park at the corner I entered and children were riding on a small, wild roller coaster. A traditional carousal with painted horses was turning merrily. Overhead, an odd contraption comprised of a rail and a sphere-shaped pedal powered car, made me stop and wonder. I went on.

Feeling it was time for a rest, I found a shady area with some benches and plopped down on one. As I was rifling through my stuff a young disabled man slowly pedaled up on a tricycle begging for change. I gave him one of the RMB coins I had collected somewhere during the day and he thanked me. I responded in Chinese and his face lit up, thanking me again and again. He rode on.

Sitting there I had a nice view of the little motor boats that renters could drive around on a series of canals. The reminded me of the powered boats at the old amusement parks I would ride as a child. Out of nowhere, a 30 second rain shower splotched the pavement.

Taking that as a sign to move on I wandered off down the paths. I came up short coming around a corner due to a bride and groom having their portraits taken. I snapped one surreptitiously and did a u-turn. Walking instead along one of the canals, I came to the world’s largest wisteria – towering 30 or more feet in the air. The trunk was a tangle of individual vines.

A pavilion off to my right was filled with people listening to a concert of Chinese music. Flyers were controlling their kites from the center of a field. Their seriousness measured by the incredibly technical string management system they each had. A big circle with a handhold in the center that was spinning like mad. The kites were remarkably high.

I went on, deciding now to begin to call it a day. Young lovers sat on benches enjoying their private afternoon moments. A man and a woman sat in a small pagoda with music stands resting between practice pieces. A couple children came up to me and said, “Hello, how are you” to which I replied, “Fine, ni hao ma” which spun them off into a fit of giggles, the little girl saying “He’s Chinese!” I find it’s quite common for children to greet me in English on the street, apparently it’s a form of practice for them. And for me too.

I now had decent bearings so I went back and made the turn on the path home. The last two miles were uneventful, my interest being more in putting an end to the journey and finding my way to a cold drink. Two miles later I rolled into the lobby, with 13.6 miles on the odometer. A day well spent with tons of news things seen.



The saying goes - "In heaven there is paradise. On earth there are Suzhou and Hangzhou." I think it's true, now that I have made it to both. Recall our trip to Huxi and Hangzhou last fall, this trip to Suzhou closes the chapter.

Suzhou is one of the many "water towns" that exist here on the Yangtze flood plain. These little cities are criss-crossed with many canals and are often called the Venice of China for the obvious reason. For some reason, they just appeal to me - I like the architecture and I get a peaceful feeling staring down the waterways.

We arranged for a van to collect us at 8AM and the driver, Mr. Wu was there promptly. I introduced myself in Mandarin, as he spoke no English. That was the start of a wonderful day me exercising my linguistic prowess and probably making a complete fool of myself in turn. Mr. Wu though turned out to be one of those wonderful characters we chance upon in life and come away richer for the experience.

The drive to Suzhou is on the order of 85 kilometers and takes an hour or two depending on the traffic. Ours was light, meaning it was bumper to bumper at the toll gates and rolling along the rest of the time. The lay of the land was similar to that on the road to Hangzhou - agricultural fields surrounding blocks of two and three storey stone houses in the traditional country-side style. None of fancy lightning arrestors here though - apparently that style does not extend this far north.

It was a good ride and the weather was cooperative. Cool, hazy but not close to raining. We made it to town and into the morass of tour busses, vans and private cars. Mr. Wu interesting didn't really know his way around too well which meant he spent a lot of time asking questions of people driving by or standing on corners. The humor of it made the trip even better.

Our first stop was the Humble Administrator's Garden. For the sake of ease, I am breaking out the detailed blogs about our visits to separate sections - much easier to read that way. So when you're done here, visit the next three entries and see the pictures.

We spent about 1 hour there and came out and found Mr. Wu who had parked the van in a large lot filled with all kinds of tourist conveyances. We couldn't quite get clear of our spot, so he jumped out to negotiate with a couple of drivers waiting for their busloads. The negotiation pretty much took the form of lots of yelling and gesturing and pleading to get one guy to pull 2 meters forward and for the other to close his door. Everyone finally complied and we were on our way.

Lunch was on our itinerary, but I thought a day of fasting was a better idea given that I was the only bilingual person in the crowd. And I'm not that bilingual. But I was voted down and when Mr. Wu suggested we eat in a combination of pantomime and Chinese, I instructed him to take us to the eating establishment.

Since it appeared Mr. Wu had not been to Suzhou very many times, we drove until we found a restaurant he liked the looks of and motioned towards it for my approval. What was I going to say besides "yes"? He parked and we went in.

Many restaurants in China have menus with pictures so you have a slight chance of getting something to eat that you might actually want to eat. Not here. It was hand-typed, and in characters to boot. I struggled with some suggestions before Mr. Wu took me over to a window that enclosed the food preparation area. There, on glass shelves were a few dozen dishes to choose from so I pointed and said, "yige, yige, yige" indicating one of this and one of that. But these were the cold dishes, and recall from my previous stories that the cold dishes are only 1/2 of the equation.

We returned to the table and the cold plates came accompanied by hot green tea. The manager came over and apparently told Mr. Wu that we had not ordered enough. At which point Mr. Wu began to talk to me about what I assumed were the hot dishes. My responses of "ting bu deng" "I don't understand" merely served to bring the manager into the conversation, the two of them figuring if they just kept talking to me it finally sink in. I just shrugged and went back to my cold lima beens. I won't tell you about the 4 Americans eating the seed casings on the soy beans and trying to choke their hairy, spiny carapaces down with hot tea. Reminded me dearly of former President Carter shoving the tamale in his mouth, corn skin and all. We finally figured out that you squeeze the bean out and discard the skin, a deft maneuver with chop sticks.

It seems Mr. Wu had solved out language conundrum on his own, as hot plates began to appear. The ubiquitous Yangtze river fish, breaded and deep fried appeared, swimming its last swim in sweet and sour sauce. A school of the tiniest shrimp I've ever seen swam atop a bed of sprouts and scallions. An unknown bowl of glutinous lumps was next and despite my attempt to fathom its name, I couldn't get it. I'm guessing crab. Finally a bowl of sizzling beef which when I correctly identified it in Mandarin made Mr. Wu very, happy and excited. We paid the bill and moved on. As we walked down the street I stuck up another weak conversation and Mr. Wu patted me on the arm as if to say, "Don't worry, your Chinese is passable and it only matters that you're making an effort." It was a touching moment for me.
The next destination was the Hanshan Temple, a Buddhist monastery across town. The drive over took us through a retail district dedicated to hardware and building supplies. It appears that retail stores are often arrayed by type, which I suppose makes shopping incredibly more efficient.

We crawled by the stores (due to traffic, what else) and had time to take stock of the inventory. Each store being a small stall, one of many side by side, essentially spilling out of the front of a long building. The chop saw store was next to the electronic hoist store which was next to the air compressor store. The faucet store lined up side by side with the extruded aluminum window section store. Next came the plastic pipe store and the buckets of either paint or drywall compound store. Soon they began recycling their products and we passed more versions of each, plus many others. I called it Home Depot Lu, and Mr. Wu quickly corrected me with the right name, whatever it was.

Our Lowe’s of the East reverie came to a screeching halt in front of a large military barracks guarded by teenagers in crisp uniforms toting AK47s. Behind the wall, young soldiers were engaged in a heated game of basketball.

The traffic mess was due to some unexplained thing happening up ahead. Some cars were doing u-turns and driving back on the sidewalk. A small van got jammed up against a stone wall trying to do such an escape. Mr. Wu got out of the car and began negotiating with the large bus blocking our way along with some people in a car off to our right. More the same negotiating. He returned to the vehicle, and the bus moved forward. The car snuck in the gap, much to Mr. Wu’s displeasure. But it was a momentary gambit and the deal Mr. Wu had brokered came to fruition when remarkably we all got moving again. Back on our way.

It seems Mr. Wu did not know his way to Hanshan Temple so he asked a fellow on a motorbike who told us to turn right. Which we did and we stuck with that plan until it was clear we were not heading in the correct direction. Mr. Wu waited until he found a family in a black car trying to turn left across traffic. Needing their help, he simply pulled in and blocked them, rendering them unto us as direction providers whether they wanted to or not. Kindly they helped out and it made me think if you pulled such a stunt in American, you’d probably get shot.

Back on the road with the correct instructions and we arrived a few minutes later. Like the Humble Administrator’s Garden, I will summarize Hanshan in its own entry below.

After another missed turn, more creative direction gathering and a classy u-turn, out next stop was Hu Qiu – Tiger Hill – which according to the tourist signs on the road is Suzhou’s #1 tourism stop. And judging by the busses, it certainly might be. We were waved off from the official parking lot at Mr. Wu creatively found us a private lot across the street.

See below for the story of Hu Qiu.

We’d had enough day by that point so we headed back. The drive home was easy and quiet and we hit the hotel before 5 having achieved our goals. Mr. Wu totaled up our expenses – $159 for the four of us for the whole day. Money well spent. He gave me a stack of receipts; we said our goodbyes and climbed out of the van.

I had not made it 10 feet before he chased me down to give a few more receipts, a nice gesture considering that they are completely meaningless to me. We again thanked him and sent him home.

It’s a wonderful thing when stuff just works out. We saw many great things, made a new relationship and came away richer. Can’t think of a better way of spending a day and $40 than that.


Humble Administrator's Garden

Our first stop of the day was at the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Suzhou’s largest and purportedly most elegant.

The garden is so named as it belonged to one Wang Xianchen who acquired it for use following his retirement from his official duties as a government bureaucrat. He designed the garden and began its construction in 1509. Not much of the original remains, it having changed many times during its long life. But today it remains a very beautiful place.

Unfortunately for us, it was wildly crowded and times we were reduced to taking shuffling steps while encase in an unyielding cocoon of people. Many, many tour groups were there, each with their own unique baseball caps and flag waving handlers. I won’t say that it detracted from the beauty, but it makes it difficult to stop and ponder the beauty. And the place was quite beautiful.

The buildings were arrayed around a lake with small streams running between them. One lake and its associated pavilion formed a foreground for the great Northern Pagoda off in the distance. In a hall, a woman was performing classical Chinese opera, her voice provided by a high-pitched string instrument. Her make-up was astounding, so thick and precisely applied that it seemed more like a ceramic mask. Birds sang from cages and petals from the trees drifted down to the surface of the lake.

It would be nice to return to this and the other gardens in Suzhou at a time when they were not overflowing with people. A grand thing would be to just sit in the various nooks and watch the little things happen. I suppose this was precisely what Wang Xianchen had in mind.


Hanshan Temple

I love Buddhist temples. I love the ochre paint, the smell of the incense, the chanting of the monks and the ringing of the bells. The architecture and the Buddhas are simply wonderful to look at. But best of all, I love wandering around and feeling the unearthly sense they impart. On a horrible day you could sit in the temple and let the world wash away.

Hanshan Temple was first built on the spot in 502 AD during the Liang Dynasty. None of those building survive and what is there today harkens from the Qing. This temple is not like the small one I visited last year in Chongming. This one caters to throngs of tourists and does not impart the same sense of reverence as its rural cousin. This is not to say that it isn’t a wonderful place – it was. It was different.

There were many buildings and many Buddhas. Like the Chinese I elected to stop and do the prayer ritual in front of each one, an act that inspired some surprise and affiliation among the other supplicants. It’s simply a nice thing to do. Guests rubbed the heads of two bronze lions outside the main temple, leaving bright, shiny patches on body otherwise covered with verdigris. Many stood around throwing coins in the air hoping that they would land on the roofs of the buildings, ensuring that their prayers would be answered.

Red candles were burning in the main square and red banners festooned each and every tree. These I assume are prayers. One room contained 100 identical Buddhas sitting peacefully on their thrones. One large Buddha was painted to appear human. The others were gold clad.

Not much more to say other than I feel enriched for having been there.