Suzhou: Two nights

Day One

The most frustrating part about travelling is trying to capture the trip by carefully writing down highlights, along with the not so pleasant aspects, with everything still fresh in the memory bank. Of course with pictures. Which I may have deleted. Imagine, after using up several hours overnight at an airport finishing a piece to share with anyone interested, discovering that it is not there! Seems I forgot to save my draft about my visit to Suzhou. Which is why I have always take notes! 

I started out with good intentions to take the subway to the train station. Once I carried my pack down the first set of stairs I quickly changed my mind and walked back up to find a taxi. It was here I decided that saving money should never mean sacrificing my back. It also meant less likelihood of falling over and landing on my back like a turtle – sometimes that fine balance between remaining upright and tipping is wobbly.

‘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? The above had me momentarily rethinking my choices for accommodation. I had the number for the hostel, I had my new Chinese number, I was at   the door and it was still relatively early – no real need to panic. Once I connected with the owner I was able to go up to drop off my bags but had to wait a few hours before checking in. That seemed reasonable at the time. Divested of my bags I walked, in a drizzle, to the Suzhou Museum. 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. It is also far too common to be given the wrong directions rather than be told ” buzhidao” – I don’t know. The best way to avoid being incorrect but still helpful is the hand wave in whichever direction is thought to be correct.

Suzhou, China’s Vienna, the city where Marco Polo is said to have spent much of his time. Like where I am from, Victoria Canada, a city of gardens. It is in the setting of gardens that the museum was built. I had wanted to see the Suzou Museum after watching the documentary, “I.M. Pei: Building China Modern” 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, who was well into his seventies during the construction,  this was like a gift from him to Suzhou. He is perhaps best known for designing the Louvre Pyramide. However, the Suzhou Museum was also a work of love.


Pei incorporated elements of light, air, water, and fauna to create spaces that invite visitors to linger. The entrance looks onto Lotus Pond and has two wings for exhibits. Yes, it did seem the standard artifacts were in abundance in addition to local finds, but, the lack of a mish-mash of items thrown in to fill space shows care in what is included – and what was not. I was quite taken by the simplicity of the scholar’s study, it was not just crowded into a corner like so many other displays I have seen. This was s room of its own, just as a scholar would have had – albeit most likely a relatively well to do scholar. The choices of calligraphy and scrolls of art were selected with care, and everything is displayed for visitors to really look at the items as a whole and as individual pieces. The small windows in several rooms draws in the outdoor without causing damage to artifacts. A small courtyard to one side with a single pomegranate tree; another with with a stand of narrow bamboo; the Wisteria Garden and of course the stunningly simple Lotus Pond provide a calm, reflective space.


By the time I made it to the thatched Song Pavilion, that duplicates a scholar’s studio from the Song Dynasty, (960 – 1279) it was raining quite heavily. This made the effect of entering the pavilion magical. I doubt it would have been cozy during chilly days in December of January – it does snow, although rarely – when the only warmth would have been most likely from a brazier. The scholar’s room I mentioned was not displayed here. The quiet, the rain tapping of the thatch and simple garden had me wishing I could either hide out there for a while or have something built at home. Not likely to ever happen, I do not even have a garden.
It was a nice way to spend a rainy late morning to early afternoon despite many others having the same idea. Of course, being free and adjacent to one section of the famous Administrator Garden makes this a popular spot. It was not exactly a walk in the park sort of day so the buildings in this section of garden were appreciated. These were where the owner of the gardens resided. When I visited there was a lovely exhibit of fans by an artist who still uses the methods from hundreds of years ago.  I had no idea that the craft of fans was so intensive. 


I even found sustenance, if a thick slice of sweetened 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 time to head back to the Hostel to officially check in. Except I couldn’t – or certainly not officially. When I had called the owner she had been at the Public Security Bureau where she and other similar owners of hostels in a specific area were being told they could not have foreigners staying for about a month. Was I willing to take a chance, hang out until evening and maybe have to be moved to another hostel. I figured why not? My belongings were put in the room where I hoped I would be staying and I waited. By 9:00pm rolled up I was ready to sleep and the PSB had not come knocking. Or ringing.

Suzhou: Day Two – Chinese tour

The tour booked was going to be in terestng was all I could think. However, it was also s lot less expensive than anything I would find for foreigners with a translator. I was the first to be picked up. I also had little idea of where we would visiting after not really paying attention, it sounded like I would enjoy it. I believe one garden, a canal cruise , Tiger Hill. The cruise goes to Shanghai Taxi to train station 21; Breakfast 25; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10;Water 2; Lunch 30; random tour fee 20; Taxi 22 (I was irritated to discover the tour bus would not be dropping me off where I was picked up)the hill from what I understood. For the equivalent of about 20CAD. However, I do know the pace of Chinese tours and can only hope I can keep up!
So where did we go, one garden in the morning before we parted ways to do our own thing according to what we had paid for. I opted for a return to the museum. That took up about two hours, visiting gardens in Suzhou, and many parts of China is serious business and are not simply a plot of land planted with flowers and shrubbery. They are carefully planned, often over many years, places for reflection, creativity and meditation. Rockery, water, plants and walkways play an important part in making the gardens accessible at all times of the year. Dwellings were always considered when the gardens were built, and I use built because they certainly needed some manipulation of materials to fit into the space available. There were many sections to each garden, all with lovely names to suit the space. If only I had thought to take photos of some of them!

Bats bring good luck in China and stepping on the stone plus the centre where there was a coin means lucky in wealth.

We also visited the Beisi Pagoda, also known as the Bao’en Temple, which was wonderful to see for its pink and brown colouring alone! Unfortunately for us it is undergoing massive restoration so we could only manage to walk some of the grounds and attempt to get some pictures. What I found fascinating is the colours are exactly the same as a house I lived in for a couple of years as a teenager! I could not find any reason for the colour scheme.


Lunch was a matter of pay or starve unless, as some did, smart enough to prepare a picnic. However, I thought it friendlier to join everyone even if few of them spoke English. Wo bao.le! (I’m full) Noodles in broth, cabbage/mushroom/tofu mix (like a small salad or soup garnish), one boiled egg (should have saved it) & glutinous steamed rice something – ate two, sampled the other two. This after four xiao bao. Thank goodness we would have plenty more walking to do! And my first squat toilet this trip.


Funny story: on the bus waiting. Tour guide tells me to follow her. No idea why. We go into a store so my immediate thought is that I am expected to buy something. Silk. No, I was given a gift of a scarf – as were the other ladies. Incentive to spend money. I did not. Not even 1:00 and I was exhausted – the humidity remained high throughout the morning and part way through our afternoon activities.

Thank goodness for some cooling rain by the time we headed to our canal boat ride. Our group ended up being split up, leaving four of us, including the guide, behind. As often happens in China it was s matter of hurry up and go nowhere. By the time we were aboard I think we were all wondering if maybe there had been a jam upriver. Nice respite though. We were headed to Tiger Hill where there is an ancient Pagoda. Well worth the trip. There were a few precious seconds of awed silence as we rounded the corner, we were on open air carts, to have our first close up view of the pagoda. The Pagoda leans, has done so for several years. 


I was tired but happy by the time I was dropped off and caught a taxi to my hostel. Still no PSB. I packed everything – bed around 10:00, and slept relatively well.


Shanghai Taxi to train station 21; Breakfast 25; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10;Water 2; Lunch 30; random tour fee 20; Taxi 22 (I was irritated to discover the tour bus would not be dropping me off where I was picked up)

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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! 

Roadblock

I have been streaming Amazing Race Canada for this season after watching the first three with my daughter in Kingston and now it seems some of their challenges are seeping into my psyche – which is why I titled this roadblock. Sometimes you never know what might stall your advancement until you nearly smash into it. Stopping shy of a roadblock can actually provide a moment to assess direction or reflect on choices.  I see my roadblock as a little of both. 

I leapt into a temporary job less than a week ago, a very simple retail position that I would mainly be working on cash plus some floor shifts. What I was not ready for was the severe pain in my knees after each shift. In addition, considering I strongly beleive honesty is important when writing my blog, I really did not like the job. Even less so when I realized that minimum wage is even lower than the dreadful amount I thought I was earning. However, I was willing to persevere as the earnings were to help support any veterinary costs that might need covering for my cat while I was away. I had calculated I would take home about $1700.00 before I leave on Sep 17. That is not an amount to sneeze at, and – as I am always saying to my daughters – anything is better than zero. Which meant I was ready to just plow through each shift, bite my tongue when necessary, and tick off each completed night. Most of my shifts were slated for midnight. Which brings me to my knees. 

The pillow self inflates – an early birthday present from my daughter. Might have come in handy for midnight shifts.

I had an unrelated appointment with my doctor, booked before I even applied for the job, and asked if there was time to discuss how my knees have been after he made a cursory mention of a June letter from my physiatrist. The uptake was that if I keep punishing my knees from standing for eight hour shifts with no chance to sit – even breaks were iffy, as well as there being a preference staff take only the paid 15 minutes – the likelihood of causing injury was quite high. Therefore, my GP wrote a letter for me stating that starting immediately I would no longer be able to work. This was only a minor financial roadblock. (I would go on about some of the lack of basic employer/employee standards if I had not left; although if I had stayed I guess I could have been perpetuating things)


So, less money for Mozzy. Which is fine because that roadblock seems to be being cleared away. As previously mentioned, I have been wringing my paws regarding his health. A second dose of the chemo was administered at the vet’s – it generally takes 2-3 technicians to do anything with him – and this time he kept it down! It was also suggested I give him the equivalent of kitty McDonald’s if he will eat it. Anything to entice him to ingest his other medicine I mix in his food. As of the following evening he is EATING!!! His weight was down to 2.80 kg, perhaps when he goes back for his third chemo dose it will have gone up. Paws crossed. I am happy I can spend more time to coax him back towards health before I leave. Even if it is temporary at least I am here instead of working to pay for him. Mozzy will always be my priority and I can adjust my budget accordingly. The four shifts I worked will go far enough to see Mozzy through his remaining doses. Sometimes roadblocks seem ridiculously placed, others do not. Discovering I should not be working reset my priorities on a straight path.

Ten day triangle

That path lead me to start looking at my itinerary again. I had been stuck in a rut for a couple of weeks. I will still do my first ten days loop of Shanghai, Suzhou. Nanning and Huangshan. I am glad I am only doing those as Huangshan can be gruelling if attempting to walk up the mountain all at once. Having my knees give me a severe jolt is a reminder I have always intended on going to fewer places so as to further enjoy where I do stop. I will still do the motorcycle tour; I asked my doctor about that, we both agreed that if I am paying then I have some control – if I need a break we will take a break. I also plan to add another week for Vietnam rather than rush to Hanoi to hop on a train. I will see and experience more. The tour is from Ho Chih Min to Hoi An – about midway. There will still be so much more to see.
First half of my tour – riding pillion on a motorcycle!

I am looking forward to mapping out the rest of my trip in Vietnam and the second section of China I am planning. All I needed was to get around that roadblock.

Getting From Here to There/Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

After about a week or so of spending several hours daily I finally hashed out my itinerary for roughly the first 25 days of my trip to China and Vietnam. I struggled with how to fit in what I want to see and do within the time constraints of avoiding the National Day holiday. My initial itinerary was adding up as too difficult to really enjoy anything; it had me rushing off for the far reaches of Gansu and Northern Shanxi provinces, in Northwest China, before flying to Saigon. Just not practical, even if taking in only one of the provinces. The cost of airfare to Saigon alone was prohibitive.

I decided to break my trip into four sections. I will do a much smaller loop for the first ten days, Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Huangshan, Shanghai. Although I have been to Suzhou and Nanjing there are still places I want to visit. In Suzhou my main goal will be the New Suzhou Museum, known for its simplicity of design. I saw a documentary about the architect, I.M. Pei, and how much this particular project meant to him.


In Nanjing I hope to visit the city wall there, maybe rent a bike and ride on it, we only drove past it when there years ago. One can do so much solo; whereas with children, or even other adults, so much has to be considered. There are so many layers of history in that city to be studied and one visit found me wanting to know more.
Huangshan, Anhui will be a stepping stone to the Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) National Park, where I will spend one night somewhere in the the park – not sure if at the base or partially up a mountain – this is what makes travelling an adventure. In addition, a stop of two days to visit the ancient villages of Xidi and Hongcun. I am fully aware these might be more along the line of rebuilt villages to bring in the tourists, domestic and foreign, so I can only hope there may be some authenticity.

                      Guess who is afraid of heights.

To ensure I make it to the airport in Shanghai to leave on Sep 28th for Saigon I was meticulous when choosing trains for each stretch of this leg of my trip. The only piece of information I have been waiting for is will I make it to the train station from Hongcun to Huangshan. Lots of time still. What I had not considered was that cancelling my first tentative itinerary, to Gansu, would mean my new itinerary would also be wiped out! I am hoping all my effort can be easily rectified and I will once again have my requested trains put in the queue again. I immediately fired off an email to have this done. A similar situation occurred last year – I do wish people would read things! Yet another one of the pesky issues when booking everything on one’s own. Check, cross check and check again. So, waiting with my fingers ready to send my payment for seats and berths.
Thank goodness I do not have to plan my time Vietnam beyond the first three nights in Saigon. I will ask my daughter what I can do there other than have a phone stolen. (That is her story – not mine)