First Full Day in Suzhou

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 24, 2007

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Monday, June 18, 2007

After Ben and I get back to the hotel around 4:30 a.m. on Sunday I could not sleep - a combination of jet lag and the excitement of getting to explore more of Suzhou are the reasons why. So I just stay up. We get an early start on the day with exchanging money at the local bank. Two good things about banks in China, they are open on Sundays, and they pretty much give a uniform exchange rate across the country. After a quick breakfast of baozi (steamed dumplings) and soup, we attended the orientation meeting for the Howard Community College students.
Their classes start on Monday. For their three-week course they will spend mornings immersed in language training and the afternoons either touring Suzhou sites or participating in cultural activities like tai chi. Some have taken Chinese before while others will be taking their first classes. The news ones are understandably a little nervous. Learning a new language as an adult is difficult and especially one with tones in pronunciation (the word "ma" depending on the voice inflection can mean mother or horse) and characters instead of an alphabet.
After the orientation we head to downtown Suzhou on the No. 501 bus. Like most Chinese city buses, it is beyond crowded. All the clichés apply. Half of the city seems to be standing on the bus and we bend our bodies in ways not supposed to be possible as more and more people get on with each stop. (Rides at Disney are nothing like this and this ride only costs 13 cents.) But we are the fourth stop so the ride is short. We get out at Guangji Lu, the main drag in Suzhou and adjacent to this busy street is a new shopping district that is filled with fancy boutiques selling everything imaginable. (Ten years ago a shopping district like this only existed in Beijing, Shanghai and of course Hong Kong.) This district is a well designed extremely large walkway that has no vehicles or bicycles because they are not permitted. The only moving vehicles are small monorail-type shuttles (you would see at a large outlet mall back in the states) that take people from one end of the walkway to the other. So I am not sure how long the walkway is and assume that it is a trek from one end to the other.
While the majority of the people in China are peasant farmers or poor migrant city workers, the middle class is growing fast. And the middle class has created a consumer culture that has diversified the Chinese economy. Interestingly the walkway is anchored by the Temple of Mystery. This Daoist temple (major tourist attraction) dates back in one form another - 1,800 years. Much of it though was built around 1200 during the Song Dynasty (a high point for Suzhou). The compound contained four main buildings and we only had time to tour two of them. Influences of Buddhism are seen with the art work and some of the statues. One facet of Daoism is to try to live in harmony with your surroundings. You do not try to change things, you take them as they are. It's a challenge for even the most hardcore Daoist at this temple because it's a tourist site that is mobbed and the surrounding shopping area with people milling about only adds to the chaos. Amongst the hordes you see people making offers of burning incense and praying before some of the statues. Ben and Carolyn were excellent tour guides explaining the significance of the temple. They also provide us with a reprieve from the hordes by taking us to a traditional tea house where we sip exotic blends and get to watch people below us shop. There are more than 20 different blends of tea on the menu. A traditional way of drinking tea is putting the loose leafs in your cup so there are no Lipton bags here. Some blends cost as much as seven dollars a cup making this teahouse for China's nouveau rich and foreign tourists only. But hot water is provided free so you may refill your cup numerous times. With my distinctive blend of green tea, each refill changes the taste as more and more of those healthy anti-oxidants are released. No food is on the menu ... only tea.
After getting back to the hotel, our hopes of having the AC turned on have been dashed. It is hotter today, but I guess still not hot enough. We part ways with the students as they go to dinner at the hotel (which is part of their language programs' package.) Ben, Carolyn and I get to explore more of our area. We chose a restaurant that brags on their sign "Recommended by Lonely Planet". Ten years ago, Lonely Planet's China book was the Bible for back-packers and other adventurous tourists. You don't leave the hotel without it. I'm guessing that is still true today. The food is very good at the restaurant, which seems to have more locals than tourists. We eat vegetables and jiaozi (boiled dumplings filled with either crab or pork) that bring back a flood of memories for me. Some of the dishes are a bit oily which is a characteristic of Shanghainese food. Toward the end of the meal, we find out that after today the restaurant will be closed for 20 days due to renovations. So it looks like no return trips.
With some of the Howard students, I make an attempt to hear live traditional Chinese music at one of the more famous gardens. But we arrive too late (around 9:30 p.m.) and the garden is about to close. It is probably for the best as I am exhausted and ready for bed.
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