Thursday, November 7, 2013

October 11-13, Suzhou

Introduction to the Introduction
Today is November 7 and I am in Hong Kong.  From China I was able to send out this blog, with great difficulty, until I got to Beijing.  Thereafter it became impossible.  I have written every day, though, and will be adding new posts as I catch up to the month I have been here.  The advantage to the disadvantage is that I've been able to add some photos I wasn't able to send earlier.


I am writing this Sunday, October 11, the evening I arrived in China, and today I realized I was thinking that this blog is for you. Of course it is, in part, but something Stephen King (of all people) said about writing is important: “Write with the door closed.” If this blog is for you, then I tailor it to fit my idea of your interest and patience level. If it's for me, then I write everything that seems significant to me. This blog will therefore be for me, and I surely will understand and even sympathize that it's far too much for you. That's fine: just skim it and look at the pictures! Or skim those too.

Some structure for comprehension: I am spending my first five days in China on my own because I wanted to see Suzhou and Hangzhou and they were either not included or only briefly on the tour. The tour starts in Shanghai (they call it a “pre-trip” add-on) and Suzhou and Hangzhou are near Shanghai, which is why I started my trip this way. I will meet the “pre-trip” people on the Overseas Adventure Travel tour in Shanghai on October and the majority of the 16-person group in Beijing on October 18 for the main trip.

Saturday, October 12, Suzhou

The morning after I arrived in Shanghai, I repacked some things in my backpack to take for the next five days and checked my suitcase at the hotel, because I will be coming back to the same hotel on the 16th to meet the other six people who also signed up for the Shanghai “pre-trip.”

Then I went to Suzhou – pronounced, I have learned, SuJO. It is a 2,500-year-old UNESCO World Heritage city, like San Miguel, that is famous for its gardens and silk industry, both of which I wanted to see. The trip was unexpectedly arduous. It was hot and humid, my least favorite weather. Although I did one thing right by not having a schedule and therefore not having the stress of meeting it, I had to do a great deal of walking, a good deal of it back-tracking, with the heavy pack on my back, because I can't speak Chinese and they don't speak English. It turns out that foreigners don't get tickets at the station. This means go into the station – through security, upstairs, try to figure it out -- be perplexed, ask someone, sort of, find out where to go, retrace back downstairs against the crowd of people coming in, and go to another building 300 meters up the street, be perplexed, buy the ticket, come all the way back, find the gate, find the train, discover that I had a reserved seat, find the car, find the seat, and collapse. The train itself, although not air-conditioned, was a marvel, my first bullet train. A digital display showed that our maximum speed was 281 km/hour = 175 miles/hour. At the Suzhou train station, more walking and walking to find a taxi. It turns out that after 70 years, back surgery, and with a heavy backpack, walking is not what it used to be! I was so glad I didn't also have to deal with a suitcase.

I learned that I should have made a printout in Chinese of where I was going because it is hard to find people who speak English, let alone Spanish or French: the taxi driver took me to the wrong hotel, where I found someone to translate for him where I wanted to go. Arriving finally at the hotel and sinking down into a chair, I learned this was not the right reception location. More walking. When I checked in someone led me to my room, a long way down a twisty hall. It is lovely but I was exhausted. Well, rest cures that. Here is what it looks like out my window.

The room is as lovely inside as out. Here is the tea service.

In the late afternoon, rested and cooler, I went out to the Pan Gate Garden adjoining the hotel. This town has many classical Chinese gardens, and I am thinking the Chinese must all have wonderful blood pressure levels if they can see gardens like this all the time. The peacefulness of a Chinese garden is extraordinary.

Now can you imagine seeing a sign like this in an American garden, or even a Mexican one?

I came across parents and their daughter feeding the fish –

and then went into the lobby to do email (no room wireless here). Having had enough for one day of intercultural difficulty, I decided to have dinner in the hotel, which has a western and a Chinese restaurant: you can guess which I chose! It was a thick soup with pumpkin, beans, pigeon eggs (that's what hooked me), shrimp, and lily (I have no idea), and it was delicious. Then I read my novel in my room and went to bed. Such was my first day in China.

Sunday, October 13, Suzhou 

Directed to a nearby Chinese restaurant for breakfast, I entered and stood there. It looked like there were half a dozen staff, a couple of people at a table. Staff members walked past me as if I were invisible. There was nothing in me that took this personally (should I have?) because I have read enough about Chinese history to understand that they might not automatically be thrilled to see a Caucasian face. Perhaps they weren't really open for customers? After a few minutes I turned and left, going across the street to a bakery that also served coffee. A pretty ho-hum breakfast for China!

I spent the morning at the Garden of the Master of the Nets, a famous garden in China about a thousand years old. It could not have been more different from the Pan Gate Garden. There were many small gardens, some tiny, designed to be seen from many rooms containing large wooden uncomfortable-looking lacquered furniture built entirely of wood at right angles. To the contrary, there was not a straight line to be seen in any of the gardens, let alone a vertical or horizontal one.

Chinese gardens are all about the importance of nature in the lives of humans. They reproduce mountains, seas, clouds and islands in miniature. There are circular doorways: moon doors. The rocks are created in fantastical shapes, deeply sculptured like no rocks I've ever seen in nature. Some of them I'm told come from a very few lakes prized for their currents that create such forms; some are created by people who cement pieces together. 

Each individual element and groups of elements have their own aesthetic and symbolic character, as if every part of every garden had been created with visual frames, the way artists do with their thumbs and forefingers to get a sense of what a small part of what they are seeing would look like on a canvas. It was a delight to pay attention so carefully.

I once took a course in college that included lectures and pictures of British vs. French gardens, to illustrate the difference in the national characters and their literatures. The British garden is lush, with many plants growing together as if artlessly and as if no human had had any part: think of Virginia Woolf's Sissinghurst. The French garden is the essence of nature organized by humans: think of the garden at Versailles with its rigorously trimmed plants and pathways in perfect geometrical shapes. The Chinese garden is totally different from them both, more wild than the British with the slashing horizontal lines of sculpted pine trees and craggy rocks, and more tamed than the French with its fierce attention to every tiny visual detail.

One of the gardens, of course, contained a lake, a must-have for a Chinese garden. I loved watching so many people sit and paint what they were seeing. They come with a lot of paraphernalia: special small folding stools, a specially designed large canvas bag to hold the hard flat surface they paint on, zippered compartments of different shapes and sizes to hold the ink, brushes, a container for water scooped from the lake, a couple of small dishes for the ink and to remove excess water from the brush.
I sat and watched the artists for a long time. There must have been 25 people painting around that lake, all of whom seemed to be in their 20s or 30s, both men and women.  Next, I had tea at this garden. A small bonsai plant was a centerpiece on the table.

A weekend treat at the hotel where I am staying is dim sum, so of course I came back for that. Imagine, dim sum in China! I had some strange things – stewed chicken FEET with peanuts, which tasted sort of fatty but not greasy, interesting – and several things in steamed rice noodles with various stuffings inside.

I am learning, the hard way naturally, how to use chopsticks. It's easier to eat small pieces of meat or vegetable with chopsticks, but ball-shaped things of an inch and a half in diameter is pretty different. Instead of trying to get the chopsticks on both sides of a steamed thing, which is slippery and makes a mess, it turns out it's easier to spear the steamed thing with one chopstick and using the other to steady it. Having achieved that, it's not so easy to get the entire thing into my mouth, a mouth so small that the dentist has to use child-sized X-ray films, but I was determined. It must not have been pretty. For dessert I had several balls of chopped mango mixed with cream inside a rice noodle outside, which in turn was rolled in sugar and chopped coconut.

At the end of the meal the waitress asked me if this was my first trip to China (I thought that would have been obvious to anyone watching me struggle with the chopsticks) and if I was traveling alone. When I replied that I was, she had a fleeting expression of pity that she quickly brought under control. And yet I am loving traveling alone. I cannot imagine trying to see a Chinese garden with anyone else: it is the ultimate solitary experience, since what you look at and how long you spend looking at it are necessarily an individual choice. I recall in the early 90s that after a conference in Paris I rented a car for five days and traveled by myself. It was a miserable failure: I was lonely and stressed and vulnerable and full of self-pity. Now, however, I am tranquil and confident and positive. What a difference twenty years and a lot of learning make …

This afternoon I went to Pingjiang Historical District. This is an old, old neighborhood of alley-streets built along a canal. It was an exercise in visual dissonance. The old buildings are still there, hundreds and hundreds of years old, but the area has become repurposed into a tourist attraction with tourist-oriented shops: clothing, especially silk; food, objets d'art, food, cheap souvenirs, food …

The people-watching was superb: there were thousands of people strolling along, nearly all of them Chinese. In all the thousands I saw exactly four pregnant women, of whom two surprisingly had another child already. How I wished I could ask them about it! Up to now the only families I've seen with more than one child have been those with twins. I just recently read a book on sex selection for males, especially in China and India, countries that are now paying the price with millions of wifeless men. Although it seems I am seeing more boys than girls, the only way to know for sure is to make a proper count. One day this month I hope to do this: I am very curious about it.

Walking along the path next to the canal, I passed homes hidden behind walls, like in San Miguel. Obviously this family had a vegetable garden growing on the other side of the wall.

It was a real mixture of women dressed to the nines, some with Mexican-style suicide shoes (my term for the super-high platform heels) and elegant dresses with matching shoes, others in jeans and t-shirts. All, however, had shoes that looked new and perfect, which instantly made me feel shabby. Some of them had dogs on leashes, mostly small dogs but all perfectly groomed fluffy things. There is definitely an air of prosperity about these folks.

In addition to the people strolling along the alley next to the canal, with maybe eight feet of side-to-side walking space, there were many people on bikes and motorbikes and scooters. I have noticed in taxis that the part of the car used most, next to the gas pedal, is the horn, often for reasons that are mysterious to me. It was the same in the alley: beep, beep, beep! Picture an airport full of people and the electric cars trying to get through from behind.

Electric cars! Like Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark in the night, I suddenly realized that I was NOT hearing any sounds from the all these vehicles: they are all electric! No motor roar, no exhaust smell. No wonder the sky here seems so clear – at least half the people travel on two-wheeled vehicles of various kinds in their own lanes on the streets, and making them all electric must help the air quality a lot. I did see a few people riding along with face masks, though. This picture was taken that evening back in Suzhou.

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