Suzhou, China

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
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Trip End Aug 10, 2007


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Flag of China  , Jiangsu,
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I took a very slick and comfortable high-speed train from Nanjing to Suzhou past the boomtowns of Zhenjiang, Chengzhou, and Wuxi.  This is a relatively advanced part of China where the villages between the rice paddies appear neater and more prosperous than in other parts of the country.  However, even among the rice paddies there aren't many scenes of Old China here and where they exist it's usually as a tourist attraction rather than the real thing.  And there are few spots along the route where modern factories, highrise apartment buildings, suspension bridges, and expressways are not somewhere in view since the region around Shanghai, the city and its administrative area along with the two relatively small provinces to its north and south (Jiangsu and Zhejiang), has a population half the size of the entire United States and constitutes one of the wealthiest and most industrialized parts of China.

Suzhou is a historic canal city and center of silk production that Marco Polo compared to his native Venice on his visit 700 years ago.  Suzhou's center is surrounded by walls and moats and remains quite well preserved while new modern highrise districts have been built on the city's outer fringes.  Suzhou is most renowned nowadays for its classical Chinese gardens, refined and contrived combinations of architecture, water, rock, and greenery.  Such gardens exist throughout China, but the art form of garden design supposedly reached its apogee in Suzhou's numerous gardens, especially in the Garden of the Humble Administrator where every feature and view is filled with great symbolism as well as aesthetic value.  I have to admit, though, that I find some aspects of the gardens like the fake rock formations and ponds of giant goldfish to be a bit artificial for my taste and felt the four classical gardens I visited were plenty for my day in Suzhou.

With its extremely humid heat and overcrowded tourist attractions, eastern China in summer can sometimes feel almost as unpleasant as Florida, and the similarities don't end there.  Chinese tourist sights are mostly very sanitized and prettified in a Disneyesque sort of way that sometimes goes a bit too far in catering to "shopping convenience", but at least China's cultural heritage is well preserved, in some cases recreated, and meticulously cared for, quite unlike that in many other developing countries.

I'm still making lots of friends as I go along through China, mostly college students eager to practice speaking English.  Having just turned 40 I'm digging all this attention I'm getting from young people who initiate conversations with me on the train or in the park, or join me for a drink at the hostel or dinner at a cafe, very intrigued to be chatting with a foreigner.  And I'm eating up those complimentary comments like, "You look like you very strong man" and "How you get such big muscles?"  I won't want to go home.

After touring all those temples and gardens in the heat, I decided it was time to cool down with an iced mango smoothy, which I was slurping while sitting on a bench outside the Xunmiao Guan taoist temple along Suzhou's central shopping street when a young man sat down beside me and began chatting.  Michael was 17 years old, from Anhui Province, and in Suzhou for the summer enrolled in an intensive English language program.  He had chosen his English name after his idol Michael Jackson, the allegations against whom he believed to all be lies and fabrications.  Michael told me he hoped to attend university in Australia or America and wanted pointers from me when I told him one of the jobs I do involves teaching SAT prep classes.  I eventually started getting hungry as the afternoon became evening and figured I'd take advantage of Michael's ability to order things in a restaurant by inviting him to dinner.  We picked a crowded noisy place where the menus were only in Chinese and involved checking off all the dishes you wanted to order on a piece of paper.  I suggested he pick dishes typical of Suzhou, which included bok choy with peanut sauce, Yangzhou style fried rice, soup with fish balls/dumplings, a pork knuckle with sweet wine sauce, and a sardinelike fish in brown sauce.  These were all very tasty, but the strategy backfired with one dish Michael thought would be a real treat for me - sliced pork tripe in spicy chili sauce - yuck!  I can't complain, though, since the whole meal for two came to less than $12.
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