Suzhou 1: Tourist Trapped and Nearly Snapped

This post has been updated, mainly with photos. It is part one of two.

We went to see Suzhou, a small (only about six million humans) city in China’s Jiangsu province, a historic centre that bustles and builds ambitiously in the shadow of nearby Shanghai. I’m half a world away from my mother’s grave, so there was no visiting her on her birthday. At a certain point in the day, though, I took a moment to talk to her. It was much better than the dark muttering I’d been doing.

With a break in a busy schedule, we had come to the Venice of China — or, as one chamber of commerce-type banner had it, the “Fragrant Venus” — which has a reputation as, among other things, a city that helps ex-pats feel they’re getting away from China, just a little, you know what I’m saying, not that we always need this, but the place can wear on you, especially if, like me, a person’s prone to mentoring Chinese drivers from the side of the road, or thinking that over a decade of educational habit can be magically transformed by a semester of unconventional instruction from an idealistic white guy, so yes, “getaway” sounded good. (I get tired sometimes.) Travel Girl had made the plans, and Son the Fourth and I were relatively willing to be led to new pastures, or at least along different-coloured pavements. First impressions of Suzhou were pleasant, we arrived to the homely hospitality of a (young) old friend from Canada and his wife and even newer toddler, and what could go wrong?

A quick bus ride from Shanghai got us to Suzhou.

A quick bus ride from Shanghai got us to Suzhou.

Another young buddy was coming, too, a former student who’d become a collaborator in basketball and other more constructive adventures. Mr. G was zipping over from Nanjing with his possible Intended in tow. “In tow” – this was the (possibly sexist) way I might have been thinking about it, but I was soon to find out who was really driving. On Sunday the 27th, my departed mother’s birthday, our hosts were busy, but the Nanjing delegation had decided this was our appointed Day To See Suzhou Together; I protested mildly that what I really wanted to do was to maybe wander about a little, eat a bit but mainly talk to my friend and get to know the new young woman in his life. However, that feeble idea went nowhere, and we went everywhere I didn’t want to go – and, to be fair, some interesting spots, too.

The pretty Ms. Z was driving her bright red car, so I knew my G-man had found a woman of some means, though one with surprisingly little English. (G’s is great – he reads Peter Hessler in English, and lots besides, pretty amazing for a country boy who earned a Master’s degree in engineering. Heck, he subscribes to this blog, too. Sorry, Mr. G. This is what it felt like, but no hard feelings. It was only one day.) Ms. Z’s sister was with them, and so adding our three made for instant back-seat intimacy on our way from the gleaming towers and comfy middle-class condos to the older part of Suzhou, where the tour buses, taxis, scooters, cars and even rickshaws crowded the narrow streets. It was silly to go by car, as it turned out, but that’s what we all do (don’t we?) when we have one. We’d have been as fast on foot, likely, as we spent nearly an hour just getting to Stop One, the Suzhou Museum. Once we were finally parked — a micro-adventure in itself — the brick streets, centuries-old buildings and abundant trees made it easier to tolerate the crowds, the kitschy tourist shops and the beggars.

Suzhou brims with history, art and commerce, and so we learned lots about Qing and

Not everybody's cup, but a fine museum -- and designed by I.M. Pei, the great Chinese-born architect.

Not everybody’s cup, but a fine museum — and designed by I.M. Pei, the great Chinese-born architect.

Ming era pottery, silk, carving in jade and bamboo, the lives of the traditional literati and of more contemporary artisans, and more. Well, some did; I lingered too long, as usual, while the Sisters Z roared through it in near-record time, apparently. They had selected a restaurant, and hustled us there for a pleasant, though relatively unenlightening meal. Conversation was limited, understandably, though I began to be struck by the less-than-curious demeanour of these newly made friends, and in hindsight, maybe that lack of interest wasn’t the exclusive property of the sister duo. Ms. Z did manage a friendly conversation with a couple at an adjoining table, though, which turned out to be a little network marketing for the restaurant she runs in Nanjing.

They wanted to take us on a boat ride. I was beginning to watch G, who was his usual friendly self but seemed to be acting mainly as ex-pat wrangler and itinerary translator for the expedition. At that point, I was relatively content to be a passenger, and while the streets we were strolling were heavily smeared with the lipstick of consumer tourism, there was history and charm behind the makeup, and some tasty confections here and there. We paid 50 yuan (really?), had round blue stickers slapped on our arms, and we were herded off to a bus. Um. Excuse me? Why are we getting on a bus? It was just a short ride to get us to the canal boat, I was told, and I figured that the boat would then return us to nearly the same spot. That seemed okay, if pricey. Mei you wenti. No problem.

The sight of our little tour ship made me pause. It rode low in the water, and thoughts of the Korean ferry disaster were on both my bride’s and my minds. We sat on wooden, dining-room style chairs, under the worn seats of which life jackets had been tied. We scoped out the narrow windows through which we would no doubt fail to fit. I invented heroic, selfless scenarios and renewed my dread of drowning, while our guide looked everywhere but at his listeners as he began an oft-repeated spiel at head-banging volume and distortion. I began to realize where I was. Oh, my lord. We’re on a Chinese tourist junket. Well, of course we are, idiot! How did I let this happen? And pardon my Canadian sense of privilege, but does anybody care about our experience here? We’re a 14-year-old boy with fine Chinese and zero interest, plus two linguistically oblivious parental units. What are we doing here?

I’d heard there were magnificent, UNESCO World Heritage site-level gardens, and apparently our guide waved at them once, though they weren’t visible from the water. We were on an opaque-watered canal. There were views, far from spectacular but occasionally showing a little hint of what life might have been in Suzhous past. Our faded silver-jacketed guide suddenly broke into song, which I later learned to be a hymn to the city; while his voice was pretty good, the tinnily blaring speakers were right over my head. I foolishly grinned in tired, where am I wonder, and then began another long spiel. Fourth had his ear-buds in, less for music than for aural protection. I remembered I had road-trip earplugs in my knapsack, and once they were in, the voice was only loud. I hummed “Galveston” and tried to think of famous old songs of Toronto or Hamilton, but only came up with “Rollin’ Home to Caledonia“, which would’ve been fine by me. It turned out he’d started, or continued, the silk factory spiel. My wife told me about it as we got off the boat.

“There’s a silk museum? We’re going there now? I thought –“

We disembarked and climbed up the banks, and there again were the street vendors, and buses lined up to enter through the same narrow gates that we were…

Don’t worry, friends. This curmudgeonly travelogue can be continued here. It gets even grumblier, but there was light and relief at tunnel’s end, and it wasn’t even a bullet train. That was the next day. (I love trains.)

Comment (1)

  1. Heather

    Due to an amazing coincidence, we are in Suzhou right now, on a tour of the high spots of China. We had a great English tour of the canal and spent an hour and a half in the lingering gardens. Today I think we are going to a silk factory/store. I know that isn’t the point of your post – but it is a neat place (both meanings of the word).

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