Subject: A day in Suzhou
I’ve been a little out of touch, but have had the most amazing day and feel like I need to share it with someone.
I’ve started running in the mornings (I’ve been enjoying the food a bit too much, and can’t quite afford new clothes…!) so jumped up this morning and ran up a little alley, down beside the river for a while and back up the city streets. I’m staying in Suzhou, which is a very old city between Shanghai and Nanjing. It’s an old water town, so the city centre is bounded on 4 sides by rivers, and has canals running all through it. It’s an incredible city, an absolute tapestry of restored old buildings, decrepit run-down alleys, the most beautiful tree lined canals, utter chaos and dirt and grime, modern buildings, ugly apartments and glammer.
But to my day, I came back to my hostel for breakfast, which has this fairly large courtyard in the middle, where I sat and ate my porridge – it’s only just coming out of winter here and so I haven’t really seen the sun for 6 weeks, except for the last two days, which have just been heaven.
Coming to Suzhou I met a lovely girl at the train station. I had to get a bus, but i didn’t know which one, and there were buses EVERYWHERE, but no maps, English, or information centre. Ester walked me all over the place to find my mystery bus. It turns out today was her 21st birthday – she studies in Shanghai, and came to Suzhou by herself as a statement of independence and adulthood. But she was all alone, so after breakfast I called her, and we went out for coffee and cake to celebrate! and then went our separate ways, but with a promise to meet in Shanghai before I fly to Xian on Wednesday.
But my bike got a flat tire. And I was on my own, probably four km away from my hostel. I found a bike shop, but they wanted to charge me 28 yuan to fix it ($4, but more than the cost of dinner with beer!!!!). An older man in a uniform send me up to a laneway, and I found another man on the side of the road, complete with an assortment of tools/hardware. And he fixed it for 3 yuan, or about 50cents!! Which isn’t much of a story, except the entire event happened in Mandarin, in the midst of utter chaos, and I was a little excited to figure out how to get my bike fixed on my own.
I spent the better part of a few hours riding around the city. It’s a city of 5 million, including the outlying areas and is full of so many contrasts I can’t begin to get my head around it. There’s streets lined by hardware shops – for kilometres – swarming in an obscene number of people, bicycles, cars, and buses. Then right behind these there’s tiny little alleyways, with pockets of sunshine always lined by elderly people and their young grandchildren. And then bounding the city centre is your standard modern concrete Chinese city.
Although up in the north-eastern corner there’s a meticulously restored street of old buildings, but it’s full of so many tourists (Chinese) and shops my patience lasted all of about 5 minutes. My favourite places are the market streets, and small alleyways. They’re utter chaos, but because of the river and canal system, I can never get to lost. And there aren’t so many western tourists in Suzhou, so many people walk past and say “Hallo!!” which is quite lovely. And brings me to my final story, and absolute favourite place.
There’s a canal in the west of the city where the buildings have also been restored, and is the art centre of Suzhou. For some reason it is not as popular with tourists (relatively speaking…..). I also sat here yesterday to draw, just on the wall that is the side of the canal – and the moment I sit to draw I become THE tourist attraction. Everyone takes photos, stops to talk, watch, encourage, and pop in their two cents. It’s normally in Mandarin, but we all smile and chat through some sort of body language.
One of the guys from my hostel walked past, we had a broken conversation, he left, and very soon came back and presented me with a rice pudding. I then became the focus of a photographer (I think I should be getting the photos!) and an older man from across the canal. In broken English, he convinced me to come across for tea, and I VERY warily wandered across the bridge and into a tea house. It crossed my mind he could be dangerous, a disastrous rip-off con man, or a very kind man wanting to share a little of China with me. In the end I figured there was always a canal to jump into – which would make a fairly decent scene and someone would have to come to my rescue.
Instead I sat and was given tea and sweets on the side of the canal, while we watched people walking up the other side. One of the men was in the Peking Opera in his youth, was eventually convinced to sing, and together they sang Chinese songs for me. As I left, they gave me a photo of the teahouse in the winter with the snow, and said I should come back tomorrow. And no, they didn’t charge me.
This doesn’t quite cover the day (we still have the girl throwing herself into the canal, and chucking a tantrum. Me finally getting my head around numbers, how to buy fruit, and riding a bike on Chinese roads. Dinner! with a Dutch girl, and a 13 yr old translator sent in after a call from mum. And then all the different streets, which I couldn’t describe if I wrote for two hours.) Along with new emails from people from the Australian China Youth Association – young people in Xian and Beijing with an interest in Australia/China relationships – saying they will meet me in both places and show me some architectural gems!
And finally a call from my Australian friend in Xian, saying her university holidays are when I planned on visiting her. They’re thinking about going travelling somewhere – maybe Inner Mongolia, maybe near the Tibetan border, they don’t really know. But does that sound ok to me? They’ll do all the planning and they’re all on budgets so it will be cheap. So I also have a mystery Chinese holiday being planned for me!
So this was most of my day. Absolutely brilliant and amazing don’t even begin to cover it. And I have until Tuesday left in this city! (the plan is to stop and relax for a while – I’ve been doing a lot of moving about, and craving a little bit of stability). I’ll write up some more of the last month over the next week or so to let you know a bit more what I’ve been up to.
Thankyou all for making this happen.