Suzhou

Suzhou, the Vienna of China, a place for scholars, artists and gardens. This is where Marco Polo was said to have spent much of his time in China. I was returning for one reason only – I wanted to visit the relatively new Suzhou Museum. However, I need to backtrack a little to my departure from Shanghai and my arrival in Suzhou. Many visitors can now make this a day trip but I chose to stay in Suzhou for two nights. With good intentions I headed to the subway to catch my train. 

I made it down the first set of stairs (stairs play a major role for anyone travelling in China) before I turned around to take the escalator up and flag down a taxi. That fare, to the nearest train station – there are three stations – was 21.00CNY. My train ticket to Suzhou was 39.50 plus 6.00 processing fee. The cost of  visiting any of the major world cities can eat up a budget just in taxi fare. However, saving my back and knees from injury caused by a heavy backpack made it worth the expense. I made the decision to try to keep taxi travel for when I am heading in or out of a city with my bags. It also helps that food is still very inexpensive if eating like the locals. 

The view outside from within the tearoom.

Being the well prepared individual I like to think I am I had the address and phone number for my next accommodation to give to a taxi driver. I am now fully convinced taxi drivers in China just do not like me. It is as though I have a radar that sends out a message to give me a difficult time. They invariably have to pull over, point with exaggerated gestures at the address (and map if there is one) asking if I know where the place is, sigh out loud with an exclaimed aiya, then head off muttering away about cray foreigners. This driver was not too bad, he did get me to the place in one piece and I kept my thoughts quiet. There it was, a blue door. (Actually a tempered glass door with a blue metal frame)

Then the following happened.

                     Darkened forbidding hallway – Doorbell unanswered – Modern technology call.

I have no idea why I am wanting to think in a simplified haiku form – perhaps a need for less chaos? I had the number for the hostel, I had my new Chinese number – no real need to panic. Finally divested of my bags and unable to check in for 3-4 hrs I walked, in a drizzle, to the Suzhou Museum. There is more to this tale. I had forgotten how grossly people here underestimate distance – plus the fact I thought the man at the hostel was stressing blocks, not km. However, although it felt like 5km a look at my tracker showed it was indeed about 3km. So this time it was not out of range. 

Mainly taken for my scholar daughter – a scholar’s study.
This is an exquisite porcelain dish – either for decorative use only or possibly fruit.

I wanted to see this museum after watching a documentary about the architect and his dream for the museum. It is a simple design, fits into the area and invites the outdoor & indoor environments to be enjoyed. Designed by I.M. Pei, (he designed the Pyramide du Louvre) and opened in 2006, the museum is a simple design that blends in with its ancient neighbours. Although it was drizzling, then pouring, the outdoor elements – small areas with rockery and bamboo, pomegranate and other trees – make viewing the artifacts a pleasant pastime. Adding the Lotus Pond was a stroke of genius. There is a giant wisteria where visitors can sit outside the nearby tearoom. It was too wet the day I was there. I did not make it to the Lotus Pond until the following day, soothes the soul. As did the small thatched scholar’s studio, a Song Dynasty pavilion that had me wondering if I could hide out in such a place for a while. The standard artifacts abound along with ‘local finds’. I even found sustenance at the tea shop – if a thick slice of sweetened, cold, cheese ‘toast’ can be called a good choice. Weird stuff served in China. The coffee was decent. I was also able to recharge my phone battery to 40% – it seems to be sapped far too rapidly. It was a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon despite many others having the same idea. It is also free and accesses the various structures of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Not exactly a walk in the park day so this a perfect way to finish up my visit. 

My idea of a perfect place for reflection.
One of the wisteria winding around the outdoor area. It must be stunning when the flowers are in bloom. The trunks of some of these twine round and up eaves.
Cheese toast Chinese style.

Although I could have walked back it was still raining quite heavily so I flagged down a taxi to head back to the hostel. I had been given a key card for access – I certainly would not have left all my bags otherwise – so I headed up the stairs to meet the owner who had said she would be three hours or so. Claire, her English name, is a very nice person, her English is very good, her rapport with guests is great. So what was the problem? It seemed that when I called her she was st the Public Securoty Bureau where she was informed she could not have foreign guests for probably a month. (Every five years the PRC holds a National Congress during which delegates gather, posts are made, as are various decisions. I have no idea how this affects a small hostel in Suzhou, particularly when the most important date is not until October 18.) Was I willing to let her find another place for me or wait until late evening in the hope I could just remain. I found out the next day that other guests had to be moved. I stayed. I stayed two nights, nothing like inadvertently thwarting the government – certainly not my intention! 

The hostel is not great, it actually has some pretty significant problems, but I really did not want to be dragging my stuff about. When we heard the next day that some other places were completely shut down for the duration it is just as well I did not. So I stayed. I had a tour arranged for the following day and eventually headed to bed. Day two was very full, very noisy, completely out of my sphere of language skills, and fabulous most of the time. When the Chinese go on a tour they make sure they get their money’s worth. 

Aesthetics?
Uh oh, look what is opening up near the museum and gardens.

We first visited one of the gardens close to the museum, all I can recall is that it was not the Humble Administrator’s Garden. We spent about 1 1/2 hours there. For such a relatively small space it had pools, pagodas, grottoes, a small version of the stone boat in the Summer Palace of Beijing, many varieties of plants, small structures serving as places of reflection, a library, and similar uses. I spent the whole time scrambling over rockery, viewing plants, enjoying the care taken to preserve the garden and just being in the moment.

After this everyone in my group visited the Humble Administor’s Garden while I headed back to the museum to view the Lotus Pond from outside. I was not aware there were extras to the tour package if anyone wanted them; this was fine by me because I had wanted to go back to the museum. (I also knew there were Western style toilets in the washroom) I revisited the pavilion – seems many others had decided to go that day also. The Lotus Pond is wonderful, calming, aesthetically pleasing. 

Noodles, a boiled egg, some sort of mushroom, vegetables and little spongy cakes – green tea, Lotus, and two others I did not like. They were not meant as a dessert.

And then we were off to have lunch. Another package extra I was not aware of until I was asked to pay 30CNY. Considering I had nothing else to eat I paid up. After lunch, a bit of a walk outside then to the bus I was suddenly dragged off by the tour guide who insisted I go with her. No explanation. I was rather worried until she brought me into a store that sells wearable and bedding silk. I said I really did not want to go shopping. This time I was not expected to – there was a gift of a silk scarf for each lady. No idea what I will do with it, it is not raw silk so I cannot even wear it when on the motorcycle.

When I was a teenager we lived in a house painted these colours!
Once renovations are complete visitors will be allowed inside again although most likely not to upper floors.
Capturing a good image was difficult with no easy access.

A quick trip to the nearby , under major renovations, Beisi Temple, a confection of a pink and chocolate brown pagoda, this Buddhist temple was first built 1700 years ago. We could not see much with so much construction. Then we were then off to catch a canal ride because why go to Suzhou if you do not intend to get on the canal? It is at times like these that I see where planning anything in China is not easy – even for tour companies. We all dutifully lined up like lemmings heading to the precipice, single file with very little opportunity to turn back unless climbing over. It would be expected that a tour travels together – not when catching a boat up to Tiger Hill. Three of us, plus the guide, had to wait while everyone else piled on a canal boat to be gently lead upstream. Fortunately our extra, hot 15+ minutes wait was washed by a light rain, this after probably 20-30 minutes with everyone else.


While not exactly Star quality it was a chance to sit and enjoy the views while gently meandering up to our destination. We had one very close call when another boat did not give the right of way to our pilot which resulted in some angry shouting, shoving against the wall with a long pole against the wall of the canal and commiseration between passengers, poleman and pilot. I was expecting we would be caught in the low swells – we felt nothing, these boats are widebodied enough for waves to roll under without causing any rocking.

Like the history of China, time may have clawed at the pagoda yet it remains.
Trying to capture the beauty in a photo.
A final look back from the bottom of the steps.

A pleasant half hour later and we were docking near the base of Tiger Hill. Tickets collected, numbers counted, we climbed into open, safari style vehicles to drive to the top of the hill. An amazing leaning, ancient pagoda greeted us. Rarely do I experience silence in China, a spare 2-3 seconds of collective breath of appreciation). Built during the Northern Song Dynasty (959-961) the pagoda has stood the test of time. All of my photos appear as though my camera was slightly tilted; however, the pagoda leans 3.59 degrees. A famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet, Su Shi said, ‘It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill.’ Which I never had until now. We spent enough time admiring the pagoda – I will just share photos here although they do not do justice – before heading down the stairs to catch our bus back to the city.

Pomegranate tree at the Suzhou Museum – until that day I had never seen them growing.

I was displeased when asked to take a taxi from the main stop rather than being dropped off where I had been picked up. So goes travel in China. Thank goodness I still had a bed despite there still being a ban on foreigners. I packed my bags, had a taxi ordered and turned in early for my 7:00am train to Nanjing.

Expenses: Brkfst 25; Day one lunch 40; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10 (I will never grow tired of these); Water 2; Lunch 30; Random fee 20; Taxi 22; no recollection of dinner the second night. Some expenses seem to have disappeared – too bad it did not show up in what I had left! 

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Wedding Wednesdays: Dreams & Dresses

My daughter shared a funny dream with me before I left on my trip to China – except it was probably more of a nightmare for her. She is a nurse, and she will be having a surgical procedure soon, (nothing to worry about) so her dream of course took place at the hospital she works at. 

Without going into detail of her particular job (nearly impossible for me to explain) it seems her fellow RNs were doing work up for the day’s patients and my daughter was expected to do her work. Except it was her wedding day so she was trying to change into her wedding dress. While patients were arriving she was stripping down and asking for help. Everyone kept telling her she had to do her job and she kept saying she could see the boat at the dock getting ready to sail – without her! I am quite sure she cannot actually see that far but the hospital does overlook the lake and she is getting married onboard a paddle boat. 

As I live in a different province in Canada,  and am now travelling in China and Vietnam, we are trying to keep caught up with things via email. Just prior to leaving my daughter said she needed an RSVP by date – I was way off with what I thought appropriate and it seems that even the date she chose may be too soon for people to make a commitment. I had no idea planning a wedding was so complicated. Her one omarried sister ended up changing her plans so we had barely three weeks to plan.

Dress shopping has sort of started. I have seen four photos of ones my daughter likes and she is planning to go to a Bridal Fair in her city. I said if she finds exactly what she wants at a trunk sale she should buy it! She can always send me a picture with her in it. If she does not then it is off to Toronto in January with her sister, two of her friends and me for a show and dress hunting! That will be as close to Kleinfeld’s as we’ll ever get. New York is pricey. Soon she will be saying yes to the dress.

If I could figure out how to buy a dress for her while in China or Vietnam I would. Always beautiful and sometimes not priced out of the stratosphere.

 

Juxtapositions

Although I may have used this title in a blog on a previous trip to China, and perhaps I need to take a closer look at the definition, but it just seems to fit. For instance, Jing’An Temple in Shanghai underwent major renovations at various times since it was, according to various written information, built in 247AD, with the most recent construction finally finished in 2010. I thought I would never see what is behind the walls. When I lived in Shanghai the gates were closed and the ever present ugly green shroud common on every construction site in China was the only view. When I visited the temple seemed to have s pending opening date. Last year I managed a glimpse before the gates  closed at 5:00PM. I thought I was fated to never see inside.

Therefore, this trip had a few specific places I planned to visit. Jing’An Temple was at the top of my list. To keep my thoughts I recorded on my phone – now to remember how to record so that it writes at the same time. On problem with staying in hostels is lack of quiet and privacy. My thoughts at the time were mixed. It was quite busy for a weekday morning. Entrance fee, the wicket was tucked away near the gates – just a 12’x12′ opening where visitors basically only hear a disembodied voice, hand over their 50CNY and get a ticket. There was a more elaborate ticket booth, I believe for anyone wanting to make offerings to the fires burning. No photos are allowed from inside the actual temples where the various gods are seated (or standing). Which meant I forgot to take photos of what each place was! In the first shrine, holding eight standing Demi-gods, piled boxes of incense shared the space. I found this a sad state of affairs when a shrine is also used as a warehouse of sorts. I do get it though, the two places for burning incense and making offerings are also there. 

Secular and sacred spaces can form a bond.

 If anyone thinks temples are for quiet reflection they have not been to a Chinese Buddhist Temple! To paraphrase my daughter from one of her papers, Buddhism is a living, and lived, religion. Adherents were praying,monks were chanting while striking gongs and wooden clappers, gawkers trying to take photos from outside. It was a very active environment. I wish I could include the recording I have of me attempting to describe the scene, my voice is nearly drowned out. Twenty years ago, when I first came to China, was still a time when young people scoffed at ritual, choosing instead to mimic and laugh when visiting once holy sites, especially when they saw their elders bowing in deference to the various gods represented. What I see now is young people, in their twenties, joining in ritual and prayer with reverence. Having faith, or an outlet, is important. 

A little blurry but I love the look on this dragon’s face and the feet!
I like the humour in this; there is likely a deeper meaning behind the image.

Offerings were being made for, I assumed, the recently departed, at both of the burning altars. Red bags of gold or silver ingots  – rapidly being folded in various corners – were dropped into the fire, one family seemed to want to ensure their ancestors would never go without in the next world. At one point one family was made to move to the less busy altar (sorry everyone, I really do not know the correct term) rather than have any crowding. I could not see a difference, perhaps the winds were friendlier at oneover the other. However, that slight change meant so much to the family when the assistant/security? somewhat roughly took the bags and dropped them unceremoniously into the fire. When he made to take a very small offering an elderly lady was holding cupped in her hands she snatched her hands away. She did appear visibly upset – either with him or the event I could not tell.


I did feel rather like a voyeur. At another shrine – these are usually massive structures that house a specific god related to Buddhism – also highly decorated, a couple was making offerings, following the direction of a monk who was chanting in harmony with others who played cymbals and bells, all in view of onlookers. When the woman left I could see she was trying very hard to hold back her emotions. Knowing a little about Chinese cultures I did wonder if these two had recently lost a child or were so far unable to have children. The culture of the past and now has not changed so significantly. The difference is that even with a loosened restriction on the one child only policy couples, and their families, still prefer boys. 

However, life goes on, and it certainly was at the temple. I discovered that, like many Buddhist Temples, a vegetarian lunch was being served. After some hemming, walking around a couple of times and some complaints from my travel companions I de died to partake of the meal. For 10CNY I was given a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup. It was quite tasty, with mushrooms, cabbage, and cauliflower in a light broth. Just what I needed to continue on with my day. I was quite impressed. 


For dinner though I was less than satisfied. One of my favourite street food places does lamb kebabs – only that and flat bread – which I did not buy because it came out of a bag rather than their circular clay oven – more expensive, less tasty, too much gristle. Add in the lowering of already lackadaisical service at my go to hostel and I think Shanghai has lost its lustre for me. I was ready to leave.

A note about posts: although I had intended to post twice a week about this trip I am finding that access to Internet is so spotty it does not make any sense to wait. Besides, I rather like letting readers know what is happening in the moment. 

Expenses (CNY) taxi 253; hostel 180; 120 transit card (20 deposit); 100 Chinese phone number + internet (not enough GB so very poor service; 50 Temple; 10 lunch; 11.50 breakfast; 28 dinner and leftovers for breakfast, water. I think my expenses in Shanghai was a staggering 700CNY (at the time of writing I the hostel I was st had no power so can only estimate that is about 120CAD) for the two nights. At that rate I will rapidly run out of funds for China.  Must watch the wanton spending.

Steps: over 17,000

Pretty F***ing Useless

Perhaps it is important to stress at the outset that I had a rotten week and was ready to throw in the gloves. If it had not been for my eldest calling me after I sent out a stressed message, then her sister and I going over an edit, I might have turned tail in Vancouver to head home. So, the title is due to World Nomad travel insurance – or lack thereof.

It seems their site is down and the Canadian office (head office is in Australia) has not been given any information other than to say keep on trying. All very well except I had been trying since 24 hours earlier – prior to departure! I sent two emails, no response. To be told that once out of the country any insurance purchased has a two day hold before it is valid! Absolutely unacceptable in my opinion. I will be making a major stink about this once I can figure out how to do so on Twitter etc.

Other than that significant issue seems were smooth. The drive to the ferry was quick. I was so early the ticket booth was not even open. The ferry was fine until announcement there would be a “man overboard drill” that would possibly delay our arrival by 15 minutes. I was beginning to see this as a sign. We were on time. The bus was waiting for passengers – no use leaving empty. I nearly left on the wrong Sky Train – a security person called me (lady in green works when wearing a lime green rainshield on my pack) to say I had to wait for the next train, about 3 minutes. Then off to the airport. I still had not turned heel to run home.

I may have to rethink future packing – these are heavy!

Check-in was a breeze, as was security other than my leg brace that I had not even considered. So, day 1, still sad, not quite as stressed, and hanging out with my travel companions.

This is what I am leaving – sunrise. Going home is always easy.
Yes, taking pandas and a fan to China- sort of like coal to Newcastle.

Saying Farewell 

By the time this post is published I will be in Shanghai. By the time this post is published I will have had long enough to stop crying. By the time this post is published Mozzy, my 15+ year old kitty, born in Nanning, China will have had his last bits of candied salmon before meeting his ancestors. This is a safe enough place to write what I am going through emotionally before we say goodbye to Mozzy. The decision was not easy to make – even with the support of our veterinarian. The practical side of me – a word I think was voiced far too often because what else can be said – knows the decision to stop treatment and let Mozzy be pain free is for the best. We know the decision has not nothing to do with my looming departure. And loom it does. Like a monster of guilt. 

My favourite photo of Mozzy, from about three years ago when he was still healthy.
This is Mozzy’s, “You’re what?” look.

Guilt with wondering if I did enough. We did. Guilt with wondering if Mozzy could have lived longer. Yes, but in a deteriorating condition. Guilt wondering if he is happy on this, his last, day. I think so, he ate a little salmon. Guilt also, wondering if I waited too long. That thought alone is what will get me through the day. During a long talk with the vet we both voiced our amazement that Mozzy made it beyond the end of August. Did I prolong his life for him or for me? Perhaps a little of both. Until last night Mozzy was making every attempt to appear well despite the severe weight loss and pain. By morning he was not. I can only hope he understands and will still love me until the end. 

A screened, open window, a Tibetan pillow – life of a Mandarin cat.
My youngest daughter called Mozzy, ‘My Prince’. The chair became his favourite place to sit.

 My daughter threw a birthday party for my that Mozzy took control of. I think he thought it was for him – typical kitty. However, I needed to let loose some of my sadness before it swallows me up. I could not post anything to friends, not yet. So, by the time this is posted time and distance may have helped with the healing. Mozzy is just as much a family member as my children. They know.

Wasn’t that a party! (After everyone had left and Mozzy’s chair was in the wrong place)
Post Script: I did eventually write something on FB, there are people who would want to know. It dawned on me that some friends even knew Mozzy when my youngest daughter first brought him home at seven weeks old from the hole in the wall store outside the school I worked at in Nanning after seeing a child kick him. Mozzy had been promised to us but I was not ready for him at such a young age. He immediately squirmed his way into our hearts. Either my sister or the vet said perhaps Mozzy will be with me in spirit when I am in China. I like that. I miss him.