We park our bikes at the entrance and walk past the usual line of shops selling incense, souvenirs and drinks. A little girl spots us and says “laowai” (the word means foreigner but it is freighted with a bit of historical baggage that makes it politically incorrect. More on that in another post). Her mother corrects her and says “wai gou ren” (outside country person). We walk the ‘Royal Road’ route through the forest on a roughly cobbled path and soon have a view of Suzhou through the sunlit smog that’s settled on the city. The path takes us further up the hill and rounding a corner we see the giant gold Buddha, smiling transcendent against a pure blue sky. We circle his happiness on the rotunda on which he sits along with a lot of Chinese tourists and spot the seven story pagoda on the ridge to the south of us. We get back on the path and admire the animal and plant motifs set in the stone pathway. As we come to a set of stone steps leading up the hill to the pagoda an old woman is descending with a bamboo pole over her shoulder carrying a load. As she passes we spot a pig’s head and feet in one of the containers. Had the pig been sacrificial or just part of a dinner for forty? These were questions that we never found the answer to as no pig, nor the remains thereof, was in evidence on the rest of our journey. The gate to the pagoda leads us between two long buildings. The one on the right is just a roof over an open area and women at benches work at making decorations while chanting
. The pagoda has seen better days and has a slight cant to the north. For a small donation, a bell off to the side can be rung with a large wooden post and two older ladies are doing this with gusto and singing a chant-like song. Kate and Eric buy a couple of ice cream treats that look a little worse for wear and we descend back to the entrance practising some of our mandarin lessons. We must have sounded a little funny to the locals as we passed, repeating random bits of their language. We hop on our bikes and taking a different route back home, come across a trike-truck tipped on its side. A crowd has gathered and an old couple sits on the curb nearby eating lunch. Wanting to practise my Mandarin, I nod my head towards the truck and say “bu hou” (not good). Predictably, they respond with something completely unintelligible but it’s a start at some limited communication.
Our next mission is to grab some wine to take to a dinner we’ve been invited to by one of Kate’s students named Bella. Her mother is Dutch, her stepfather is American and they have been in China a few years. Also invited for dinner is Bella’s English teacher, Robyn and Flora, the school secretary. We stop at the local E-mart and Kate runs in while Eric, Leslie and I wait at the entrance. Two small boys play in a bicycle truck parked at the entrance. They appear to be twins. The parents would be considered very lucky to have the double happiness of two boys and as a bonus they can dodge the fine for having more than one child
. An older man is near the little boys and we think he set off a firecracker. The little guys don't bat an eye. I assume this is grandfather, and he may be, but he disappears and the boys are left to amuse themselves on their own. As we all know you wouldn't see kids that age left unattended back home. Kate comes back with wine and we go for lunch at a noodle restaurant. A girl of twelve is at the table across from us and she is very sweet. She can speak some English and we have fun practising our Mandarin with her.
Our next stop is the massage parlour. Jen, Leslie, Courtney and myself have all graduated from university this week (It's true. I have. From UVIC.) and Jen thought this would be a way to celebrate. Jen had gifts for all us grads and mine was a rather demented looking panda. The massage starts with about 45 minutes of focus on the feet. They are soaked, stroked, rubbed, rhythmically pounded, and beaten with little hammers. Then it is on to the rest of the body. A minion brings in tea and then later soup that has clear gelatinous sheets in it. We joke that the gelatinous sheets are the stuff that the guy is scraping off Courtney’s feet. The masseuses manage to get the joke and we all laugh.
At one point I look over and Kate’s girl is crouched on Kate’s back using her knees to massage the gluteus maximus as my girl is thumping my head. Somewhat surreal. We emerge from the massage parlour two hours later; all of us completely relaxed and each of us sixteen dollars poorer. We are going to have to do this more often.
Kate and I return to our compound, meet Robyn, get a taxi, pick up Flora at the school and then promptly get stuck in a traffic jam. We notice a stretch limo in the opposite lane and later another car that seems to be part of a wedding party.
Flora explains that this is the eighth day in the lunar calendar and given that eight is a lucky number many people choose to hold events such as weddings on this day. We discuss Victoria for a bit as Flora visited our city a year ago. Robyn asks if we had ever seen Cadborosaurus the sea creature that many claim to have seen in the waters of the bay. We say that we walk our dog there a lot but have never seen such a thing nor do we give much credence to these reports of sightings. Robyn feels we are being overly skeptical and mentions the many sightings of Sasquatchs and feels that there are “many things under heaven and earth that we don’t know about.” True enough but we remain skeptical. After about an hour and a half we finally make it to our dinner appointment in an area full of large condo towers. Robyn’s Mormon church group meets every Sunday in an apartment nearby. The government allows them to meet but they are forbidden from doing any proselytizing with the locals. We, however, are fair game given that we are foreigners. Not too much chance of us drinking that particular kool-aid though***. Bella and her nine year old brother, Peter, come out to meet us and escort us up five flights of stairs to their apartment. We enter a very nice condo and meet Jim and Elizabeth. He teaches English at a school nearby and Elizabeth travels to Nanjing through the week to study traditional Chinese medicine. It sounds quite interesting and she may go on to do even more study in the field. She is an artist and her paintings decorate the walls of the apartment. The family spent time in Thailand before coming to China and they have had quite a varied cultural experience. Bella speaks Dutch and English and is learning Mandarin. Peter speaks Dutch and English and is fluent in Mandarin. It is fascinating to watch him converse effortlessly with Flora in Mandarin. Peter attends a Chinese school and is the only foreign child there so I think you would call that the immersion program
. We envy his command of the language. Continuing the theme of varied cultural experiences, we enjoy a very tasty Mexican meal of tacos, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, salsa and cheese. After dinner we tour the apartment and while we are on the rooftop garden, fireworks are bursting above the towers in the night sky to the east of us. We are tired after a full day and take our leave fairly early. On the way home we spot the ’Tetris’ building and Kate gets a great video of it. This will give all of you an idea of the way in which so many buildings and freeway interchanges in China are lit up at night.
All in all it was a great day over here on the Yangtze Delta.
Take care everyone.
John and Kate
***I'm aware of how sensitive this whole area can be so I will say that I am merely being irreverent. The usage of the phrase 'drinking that particular kool-aid' indicates not being a true believer and nothing else.
On Saturday Kate and I, along with Eric and Leslie, rode our bikes to Shihu Lake; about 45 minutes away to the southeast. As we wait to meet with Leslie and Eric a man walks by us dressed in his pajamas. The morning is sunny and warm and we are in t-shirts. Our ride takes us past an industrial area and we struggle with the amount of dust in the air. Near our destination we come upon a group of Chinese posing with a flag emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. They spot us and a large group comes over to take our pictures and we take pictures of them taking pictures of us. One lady who speaks English says that the group is from a university and are promoting a particular program from their university. She then asks if we would care to give blood. Cognizant of the long bike ride ahead, among other things, such as the state of health care in China, we politely decline and carry on. On the hill to the south of us that borders the lake we can see what looks to be a large Buddha on the ridge.