Sunday, April 15, 2007

Suzhou

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.















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