Sunday, November 10, 2013

October 19, Shanghai / /Suzhou

I have been thinking a lot about my mother, who died 10 years ago today. She and my father were on a trip to China and were in Beijing in 1989 when the Tianmen Square uprising occurred. All tourists were immediately removed from the country. Tomorrow I will fly to Beijing and will see places they doubtless saw. Not that they told us kids anything about their trip, but then they didn't have email or the Internet.

This morning we took the bullet train to Suzhou for the day – I felt like a veteran – and were met at the train station by a van that shuttled us all over town all day. The goal of the day seemed to do as many things as possible, an approach that is antithetical to my own preference which is to meander and dawdle and watch to my heart's content. But the only time I slipped off by myself was when it would not hold the group up – that wouldn't be very fair.

When I was there on my own earlier this week I carefully stayed away from anything on the tour itinerary, so today I did and saw new things. First was a boat ride through the canals of the old part of the town: beautiful and peaceful and old. As you can see in the photo, the weather is still overcast.

It turns out that despite my effort not to repeat anything, the area was familiar: when we disembarked to walk through it, I realized I've been here before. It was the Pingjiang Historical District, which I went to last Sunday. 

 Today however was Saturday and brides and grooms were out in great number for their pre-wedding photos. These photos are taken a month or more before the ceremony and the bride wears the traditional red dress. For the ceremony itself, they wear western white dresses. The poses were so stylized I had to smile, but the women were gorgeous in their fantastic dresses.

Otherwise it was walk-and-quick-look-and-walk. No ducking into interesting shops. No sitting down to watch the world pass by. I fell behind to take these photos: there's only so much lockstep I can stand.

Our next stop was a Buddhist temple. I am no expert Buddhism and am going to have to get Mike, who has told me he is a Buddhist, to explain. In my limited understanding, one of the real advantages of Buddhism is that it's not a religion like others that require unworthy humans to worship a deity. I think of it more as a philosophy, as a way to live as deeply and happily as possible. And yet here were all these people prostrating themselves (three times – not two, not four) in front of the huge gilded Buddha statue. Were they asking for enlightenment? Asking of whom? I will find out more for sure – the two men who have been on twenty Overseas Adventure Travel trips say that an alternate meaning of OAT is “Oh, Another Temple.” My favorite thing. (Can you hear the sarcasm?)  The rose candles were set out already lit, and inside the walls there was a lovely moon gate.

Then lunch – lots of dishes ready for us on the glass lazy susan when we arrived.  The mechanism , by the way, is really admirable.  The glass surface  rests on a polished steel circle perhaps six inches in diameter, under which are ball bearings, but the glass diameter itself must about three feet in the five-foot-diameter table. It was so solid that there was not a hint of a wobble if you pushed down on the edge of the glass. How do they make it so well? I learned today that the tables are made to seat ten, a “lucky” number. Mike and the local tour guide did not eat with us, which I notice is routine. Of course we are work and they need a break, and speaking English all day must be onerous as well.

Speaking of lucky numbers, my room in this hotel is on the 13th floor -- in the US many (all?) large hotels have floor 14 follow floor 12. Then tonight for the first time I noticed that the display of floors the elevator is passing said 4 ... 5 ... 7 ... 8 ... So is 6 an unlucky number here equivalent to 13 in the US? All silly superstition but still I will find out.

After lunch we went to a silk factory, not a real one because the silk factories have all been mechanized and moved out of the center of town, but a factory/museum at which silk is made the old way to demonstrate the process. It was fascinating – I love knowing how things work. First, my image of mulberry trees comes from the mulberry tree my family had when I was a kid. It was a weeping tree, and when the berries were ripe you could eat yourself sick from the inside without anyone seeing you. Even though the leaves were small, they were thick. Not the mulberry trees in China!

These leaves are about four or five inches long. The farmers cut the trees way back at the end of the fall (like roses!) to keep the trees from growing too high which would make the leaves hard to reach.

Inside I was able to touch the silkworms nibbling on the leaves. It turns out silkworms feel silky! These were maybe 2” long.

When they've eaten their fill of mulberry leaves and have gotten big enough, the worms start to spin their cocoons on a structure created out of straw or plastic. They spin about a mile's worth of a single thread. The cocoons look like small fuzzy eggs:

When the cocoons are ready, most of them are steamed to kill the chrysalis inside because the silk can't be obtained if there's a live chrysalis; some however are left alone to provide the next generation of silkworms. Then the cocoons are boiled to soften them and the pupa are removed, leaving only the silk. To find the end of the strand they're put in water and vigorously sloshed around with a brush, a process which in fact picks up single strands from the cocoons. The strands are then spun on a wheel. Making silk fabric from these nearly invisible single strands means using three or four strands at a time for diaphanous fabric such as a scarf, eight or nine for normal-weight clothing fabric, and thirteen or fourteen for heavy silk such as is used in brocade.

An important part of the dowry of Chinese brides is one or more – even eight – silk comforters. Silk is used not only as the duvet cover but as the filling as well, replacing goose down in our quilts. The end of the tour obviously was a series of shops selling silk things, and those quilts were stunning. I was very tempted but they were really expensive, and dammit, I don't need a quilt.

The last stop of the day was a Chinese garden, the fourth I have seen in Suzhou. Nine gardens there have received UNESCO World Heritage Site designations, and this was another beautiful one, the Ou Garden. At my very first opportunity I went off on my own. If I had a lot more time here I would have loved to stay and listen to the explanation of various elements, but I had little time and preferred to spend it alone, just looking.

This stone looked like Henry Moore must have studied it when he was young, doesn't it?

I found these craggy rocks and bonsai plants visually powerful.


Of course, every Chinese garden must have a central lake.

The rest of the group was content to follow the guide and make conversation among themselves. I struggle with feeling superior at times like this, something I dislike about myself. I know in theory my preferences aren't superior, but in reality the negative judgments come roaring in. I must be quite an odd duck to them, partly because I am the only person in the group not with someone else, either spouse or friend. Arriving at the train on the way back to Shanghai, I mentioned to another member of the group that it would be much easier finding our seats if Mike would just give us our train tickets, on which the seat number is printed. He said, “You don't like being taken care of, do you?” I was amazed, because of course it doesn't feel like being taken care of. It feels like being treated like a child. It is so interesting how the very same thing can be so different to two different people – the essence of reframing.

Tonight after we got back to our Shanghai hotel dinner was blessedly was on our own: I am astonished at my need for solitude, despite the fact that these folks are truly very nice. Planning to have dinner by myself in the hotel, I discovered that was impossible because every restaurant in the hotel was booked with a wedding. I went out and discovered a little hole-in-the-wall place that serves cheap food, and I am sure very rarely to foreigners. The diners seemed nonplussed to see me. I politely said “Ni hao” (hello) to them and a man grinned and replied, “Hello!” There was one dog-eared copy of the menu in English, and to my surprise nearly all the dishes were various kinds of porridge. What could this be? So I ordered preserved duck porridge with a side of bamboo shoots, and what arrived was a large bowl of rice in thickened liquid – porridge! – with bits of vegetables and duck. It tasted good, I'm not hungry any more, and it cost about $2.50. Afterwards I passed a vegetable stand and bought an apple-pear (pear-apple?), the kind you see in the US encased in protective mesh. That will be my dessert after I finish writing this.

Tomorrow afternoon we fly to Beijing and meet the nine new members of the group. After being seven, sixteen will feel like a huge crowd. I'm a little concerned it will make me feel even more like a sheep, but perhaps not.

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