I’ve had an epiphany about traveling in China (and get ready, because this is epic): It is really freaking hard.
Worth it? Of course. But it’s hard. Taking the train to Shanghai was possibly the one exception, but getting a cab back home from the train station that night was impossible- literally, it was not possible. Trisha and I ended up walking a few blocks until we found a random bus that got us sort of near our apartment. And speaking of walking, that’s another hard method of transportation. Hard on my legs, that is. I think I’m a pretty active person, but even though I bike, run, and practice both yoga and Pilates here, I am sore all the time from walking. I literally stumble on bowed legs for a few steps after I’ve been sitting for too long, and I constantly stretch my left IT band. Like, even when I’m teaching. And I’ve mentioned this before, but I actually lost track of how many times and different ways I tried to book tickets to Beijing for later this month. Point being, if you want to go somewhere in China, you better really want to go.
Such was the case with getting to Suzhou. Mad props to Sabrina for booking what turned out to be a clean and very comfortable hotel room; after a rainy morning of terrifying bus travel, we needed first a stiff drink and second a soft bed. And Suzhou- thankfully- delivered on both accounts.
Back to the afore-mentioned terrifying bus travel. Because Qing Ming is a national holiday, most people have vacation time. The bus station was packed, but Sabrina was fearless with her Chinese and Trisha and I braved the crowds to push our way up in line and buy tickets. Sabrina and I sat in the front row, immediately behind our driver and towering over the fantastic panoramic view of the road rushing under us; Trisha was in the second row. As we pulled out of the station and into Hangzhou traffic, I cut the driver a little slack. The highways were packed with holiday travelers and it was raining, so I could excuse his heavy brake and jerky lane changes. Once we got out of town though, it was clear we were dealing with an amateur.
I say this because I’m fairly certain he had never driven the route to Suzhou before. Suspicions were aroused when, maybe 40 minutes into our trip, he pulled over to the side of the highway, and without a word (in Chinese or otherwise) to anyone, he just jumped out of the bus. He glanced quickly to make sure no other vehicles were bearing down on him, and then he sprinted across a few lanes of traffic to flag down a driver in another bus, going the other direction. They chatted for a few minutes (our driver leaning over the concrete median, standing on his tiptoes) while the rest of us just ogled in disbelief. Even the Chinese people on the bus had that “what the hell is this” expression. But eventually he came back and we seemed to be on the right track.
Until maybe 30 minutes later, when we approached a fork in the highway and while we were moving, he shouted to a driver in the other lane, who must have told us to follow him because suddenly we were lurching over to get behind his bus. Coupled with the few wrong turns we took once we were actually in Suzhou and this driver’s tendency to speed up behind smaller cars in the left lane, berate them with his horn until he realized that because of the truck full of pigs in the next lane, that car could not possibly go anywhere, and then take his chances in that not-quite-a-lane space between Little Car and Pig Truck, I’m surprised I didn’t throw up at least once out of fear on this trip.
But we did make it. On shaky legs, I disembarked the death trap bus and we proceeded to fight with cab drivers until we could convince one that we were not ignorant foreigners without a discernible/aurally understandable destination. This was harder than I’m making it sound, so you can imagine our relief when we finally made it to our hotel’s neighborhood and found…a T.G.I.Friday’s. I am 100% not ashamed to say that walking into that kitschy Western abomination and sinking into the red pleather booth was one of the highlights of my Qing Ming. An all-English menu, a bathroom with a Western toilet, and songs from the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack in the background were enough to erase the white-knuckled-certain-death anxiety I’d felt on the bus.
It was dark by the time we were ready to explore Suzhou. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the city is still quite limited. Before we went, I knew what Chinese people have told me- “It’s got beautiful gardens!”- and I knew what Lonely Planet’s take on it is- “Marco Polo loved it almost as much as Hangzhou!”- but as far as history or neighborhoods to visit, I was pretty clueless. Because people kept telling me that it was “quite a bit smaller” than Hangzhou, I was expecting something sort of…rustic? I think that’s why I was surprised to see so many neon lights. (Yes, that last place is called “Dating Bar.”)
Looking back, I should’ve expected a city of 6 million to have a few neon lights (although you never quite know what to expect with China). We walked and walked and found a small garden by the river and had a beer and eventually fell soundly asleep in our hotel room with Western-ly soft beds.
We were up and ready for action the next morning earlier than the coffee shops (not saying much, since most open around 9ish), and excited to hit the gardens. Now, I already love Hangzhou a lot, but one thing I’ve come to really appreciate about it is that several years ago, the city government petitioned the federal government to open up the gardens and historic sites surrounding West Lake to the public for free. They thought it would increase tourism- they were correct. Suzhou has yet to follow suit. The gardens are beautiful, but since they all charge admission, the city has this sort of bizarre walled-off quality to it. I’d say the actual multi-meter walls surrounding the gardens are at least partially to blame.
Of course, not all of the neighborhoods are so secluded. Before checking out the gardens, we meandered down a bright white little street and ended up in this quiet residential area. It was one of my favorite parts of the weekend (on par with eating at T.G.I.Friday’s).
I know, I know: I’m immature. But I totally admire anyone who has the guts to hang their underwear up outside of their front door!
Sabrina’s the Bird Whisperer.
Just a cage of chillaxin pigeons.
Once we’d taken care of our bird fix, our garden touring later that morning took on a certain pedagogical tone. The first garden we visited was The Humble Administrator’s Garden. Aside from being built to honor administrators, important and princely business took place in this garden’s many pagodas a few dynasties ago. Or at least that’s what I read.
Seinfeld fans: This woman was doing The Twirl. I thought about telling her I invented that move, but then I remembered that I don’t know how to say that in Chinese.
Lots of caves in this garden. You can see I’m perfecting my new go-to pose.
I believe this is a shrine to the CD. Oh, iTunes. You’re killing an entire culture.
The next garden we traveled to was that of the Twin Pagodas. This one was a fraction of the size of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, it cost less than 1/4 of the price to get in, and instead of 5 bajillion tourists milling about, we only found 8 other people here. You guessed it: this was built to honor teachers. But I loved it! Students: take note. If you start building now, you’ll have made good progress on your efforts to honor me by the time I get home.
Yeah, I’m going to need one of these.
Next, we combed the streets of Suzhou in search of lunch and a taxi to our next destination.
Suzhou is known for its gardens, its silk, and apparently its pearls. Tons and tons of jewelry stores with tanks of oysters out front.
It’s a little bit torturous to know you’re not supposed to eat raw, unwashed food in China when you see displays of fruit and veggies like this.
All of the mannequins in this store looked like Tim Burton designed them. Becca, you would have loved it!
Tiny bit of backstory: There were quite a few big dogs hanging out in front of their owners’ shops in Suzhou. Tons of dogs live in Hangzhou too, but because of their size (teeny tiny) and their 3-piece outfits (often more color-coordinated than my own), they don’t really tug on my heartstrings. But when I bent down to say hi to this pretty pup, I realized that I hadn’t pet a dog since I left Vilas back in January, and the reason I’m not looking at the camera is because I have just burst into tears.
Our last stop in Suzhou was the garden the city is most famous for: Tiger Hill. According to legend, the founder of Suzhou is buried underneath the leaning pagoda with 3,000 swords and is guarded by a white tiger. Note: the pagoda really does lean. The tip has been displaced 2 meters since its original construction. The grounds also included tea fields, a small temple, a pretty great view of the city, tons of people, and even more flowers.
As we were leaving, I asked this couple if I could take their picture. I felt kind of guilty because not 3 hours before this, I’d refused the same request from a stranger in another garden (sometimes you do get sick of being stared at like a zoo animal), but how could I not take their picture? Check out those great sweatshirts!
The bus ride home was so peaceful and uneventful that I felt hopeful enough to consider the suggestion. 🙂