Sidetrip

“Well, I didn’t want to say anything before, in order to not be rude,” Charlie said, “but if you want to see gardens you’ve really got to go to Suzhou.” Five days later, given the opportunity upon our arrival in Shanghai from Guangzhou (the location of the “lesser” establishments we had explored that formed the butt of Charlie’s comment) I took his word for it. Early in the morning on the second Wednesday of our two-week trip to China I prepared for a day trip to the city of Suzhou. In my bag were: a camera, map of Shanghai (for finding the train station), guidebook, a notebook in which I wrote the beginnings of this story, a Mandarin phrasebook, sunglasses, my iPod, an apple, orange, and granola bar, and some other assorted oddities of travel (pens, aspirin, etc.). After breakfast at the hotel, I was off.

The exceptionally punctual and gleamingly clean Shanghai subway deposited me within 100 meters of the railway station. Buying a ticket proved surprisingly easy, thanks to the presence of an English speaking service window. The next train wasn’t until just after noon, in a little over an hour and a half. I amuse myself by exploring the area around the station. Nothing too interesting, but there’s a post office, so I write and mail the few cards I had been carrying around in my bag for several days.

The train ride itself was splendid. I had some trouble finding my seat, not realizing they were assigned (the writing on the ticket is all in Chinese, so I just guess). I got kicked out of the seat I had claimed, then needed to ask the train attendant to help boot whoever was in my properly assigned seat out when I found it. The train reached speeds in excess of 200 km/h en route so the strikingly modern cars arrived in Suzhou a mere thirty minutes after leaving Shanghai.

An examination of the map in the guidebook revealed that there were two sites of interest within about a mile of the train station. I decided to hoof it rather than dealing with non-English speaking taxi or rickshaw drivers. It was a nice day anyway, so the walk into Suzhou is pleasant. Suzhou is the smallest city I visited (at a measly six million people it’s barely a blip on the map in China) so it’s interesting as a more local version of eastern mainland China, in contrast to the big cities of Shanghai or Beijing or Shanghai.

In a few minutes I arrived at the first of my two stops, the Bao’en temple. It features, among other things, the nine story Beisi pagoda. The pagoda towers above the surrounding temple and city, all of which doesn’t extend much above two stories. Inside the temple there’s a giant, amiable stone Buddha statue, past which is the pagoda and a series of temple buildings. I walked back past the tower and into some of the temple buildings, which are all full of ornate and beautiful altars to various deities (the temple seems devoted to the Chinese folk religion, with a lot of Buddhist and other influences. There are a lot of Buddhas and statues of other gods and goddesses). Tucked into the back corner of the temple complex is a lovely and wholly unexpected garden, just a pound surrounded by a couple buildings and on one side a hill. I walked across a picturesque little bridge and into this area, around the water and then to the small tea house that was set up next to the water. I sat down and had a drink next to a couple from Denmark; it was what was to be the first of several encounters that day. Westerners are rare enough even this far outside the big cities that they’re of interest, both to the locals and to any other Westerners who happen to find themselves there. We spoke for a few minutes, about our travels and ourselves. Then they were on their way to catch a train, and I decided to finally tackle the enormous pagoda. I walked up the nine flights of stairs to the top and looked out over the vast semi-urban expanse that stretched before me in every direction. In the distance there were some larger buildings that must form the downtown. Everywhere else there were just low one to three story buildings disappearing out of sight, although the outer edge of my vision was made closer by the ever-present pollution. The view was nevertheless commanding.

I walked from the temple to the Humble Administrator’s garden. Along the way there were plenty of people heckling tourists, and since there weren’t many other people around they all had plenty of attention to give to me. But they never followed or really bothered me. After gaining admission to the garden I took a relatively quick tour around it. It is, as Charlie had promised, the largest and most beautiful Chinese garden of all those I visited on my trip, although even this one was small. Chinese garden design emphasizes putting a lot of well-choreographed nature into  a small space, so even this magnificent garden was still easy to fully explore in an hour. As I walked through the entrance hall into the gardens proper a couple of girls tried to take a picture of my without me noticing (again, Westerners, especially Westerners who aren’t middle aged and on organized tours, are a rarity). I wandered through the gardens, admiring how well composed it is. There are a lot of small pavilion-like things on top of small hills that look like mountains; I chose one and sat down on it to eat an orange from my bag. While sitting a Chinese couple walked up the minute hill the pavilion was perched upon and sat down. “Where are you from?” the man asks, in what is the typical opener for Chinese trying to make conversation with a Westerner. We talked through some other basic questions for a few minutes (”First time to China?” “Where else are you going?”). I didn’t have quite the energy or desire to find out where they live and what they do, so I just answered their questions and in a few minutes they’re on their way.

The afternoon was wearing on, so I decided to head back to the railway station. It’s again a little over a mile’s walk, so I think about trying to get one of the rickshaws I saw on the way over to take me back. It could be fun, and I know exactly where I’m going and can ask how much it would be ahead of time, etc. I dug out my phrasebook to figure out how to say the necessaries in Chinese. The rickshaws that were everywhere and constantly asking if I needed a ride before, however, were nowhere to be found now, so I just walked back to the train station. The mess of construction surrounding the area the train station is in made it a little hard to find, but I eventually did. There’s an English sign for the ticket office, so I walked right in.

Buying a ticket back to Shanghai proved much more difficult than getting out to Suzhou. There was no English-speaking service window, so I just picked one at random and walk up armed only with my phrasebook and good intentions. I did manage to get a ticket, but for hours later on a local train. This was the only thing the girl behind the counter seemed able to sell me. I took it and explored the ticket office some more, hoping for some inspiration on how to improve this. I didn’t find any. I looked harder for any sign of someone or something in English, but there was nothing. I went outside to see if there was another ticket office elsewhere, but no luck. I stared at the Chinese timetable for a while, and was beginning to work out that there *were* sooner trains, and faster ones, but still had no idea why I couldn’t buy a sooner ticket when someone (finally! I had been hoping badly) came up and asked in broken English if I needed help. He was young and didn’t really speak much English, but was really willing to try. I eventually explained that I wanted to change my ticket for an earlier one. He took me to the one window that allowed you to change tickets (they were labeled, apparently, but I couldn’t tell). The woman behind the glass changed my local ticket for an express an hour earlier. This was still not for an hour and a half, but it was better than nothing.

I walked to the train waiting rooms. On the way I stopped by a convenience store and bought a can of beer and a bottle of the iced tea that I had learned was easy to drink (and quite tasty!). There were people selling food from carts, and I was hungry, so hankering for some adventure I threw caution to the winds and bought something that looked reasonably safe. It was a kind of think pancake or crepe with scallions, wrapped around some fried dough. It tasted quite all right. I went in to the train waiting room and drew in my notebook and listened to my iPod while waiting for the train. The girl sitting across from me was super cute, also listening to her iPod and looking a little bored, but even though this time I might have welcomed a conversation none came. I contented myself to draw.

When the train was announced and everyone queued up I found myself once again talked at, however, this time by someone who (of all things) recognized my “Urbana, Illinois” shirt. “Illinois!” he said, “that’s where Abraham Lincoln is from?” This was so unexpected I had him repeat it twice before I understood what he was talking about. But indeed, he just really liked Abraham Lincoln. I told him Lincoln once practiced law in my town. This inspired a quiet awe in him that seemed so profound I almost felt bad saying it. We talked for a while. He was 24, a recently graduated English major from a local college. He was going to Shanghai to try to find a job. I told him I was a university student as well, and again about the requisite details of my trip (first time to China, Hong Kong/Guangzhou/Shangha/Beijing itinerary, etc). We went our separate ways when we boarded the train, since we were in different compartments.

On the train I put my headphones back in and drank my can of beer, enjoying the speed of the train and the scenery. Soon I was again interrupted by the man sitting to my right, though. We talked for the rest of the trainride, in a little bit more detail and with a bit more range than others because his English was better and we had nowhere to go. He looked to be about in his mid-thirties and worked for 3M doing some kind of IT services. I think he was out in Suzhou just on business. He had spent some time in the UK working, which explained the English. When the train arrived, he asked if I knew how to get where I was going. I assured him I did, although we were taking the same subway line so we left the station together. I hopped off at my stop and that was that.

I was too late to meet Charlie, my father, and the others for dinner, so I stopped by a small Cantonese place the guidebook recommended in the former French Concession near my hotel. I guessed my way through ordering and got some exceptionally tasty shrimp and dumplings and some rather uninspiring chicken. Washed down with a liter of Tsingdao, it made an excellent end to the day. Back in my hotel room an hour later, I gratefully slept off the day’s exertion 20 stories above ever-bustling, always-lit up Shanghai.

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