Sunday, October 10, 2010

China - a View from the back of the bus - Day Five

Bus #3, Passenger #68
By Missy Schmidt (Chinese name: “Sweet Lioness” Mandarin naming 蜜狮 Pronounced mee-shee)

Traveling to China is a lot like “Amazing Race” with a little “Survivor” thrown in for good measure. The following is a recount of our adventures, a once in a lifetime experience with the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

Day Five (I think?)
Waking early again for a VERY full day in Suzhou (, the view of the city from our hotel was breath-taking.

We first stopped to climb through the lovely gardens up Tiger Hill (,_Suzhou) to see the leaning seven-story Buddhist pagoda which predates the Leaning Tower of Pisa by at least 100 years. Not a World Heritage site, but worth the climb. Jack, a native and resident of Suzhou, was very good at sharing interesting historical tidbits as we wandered the grounds.

As the day heated up, Jack steered us to an “indoor activity” and we visited the DongLing Silk Shopping Center in the Suzhou Jiangsu Province ( where we learned about the process, from the removal of the silkworm pupae from cocoons to the unwinding of cocoons to create spools of thread. We also learned the government requires local 4- and 5-star hotels in Suzhou to use silk comforters from the center to promote the industry. The interesting marketing pitch for the silk comforters entertained me as well. Messages approved by the Chinese FDA?

The day would not have been complete without another shopping opportunity, so off we went to the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute where a few artisans displayed their very tedious – and beautiful – techniques. ( The artistry was amazing, especially the double-sided pieces. Based on the prices, though, these very large works of art are for the serious collector only.

Lingering Garden (, one of the “Classical Chinese Gardens” of Suzhou and the 6th World Heritage site of our trip, was next on our tour. Our guide, Jack, told us the peace and tranquility one gathers from walking the gardens and pausing in places of contemplation truly makes one want to “linger” there. Despite the unyielding heat, many locals were lingering outside in the gardens.

Chinese teenagers chatting among themselves under a pavilion could have just as easily been from America. A group of older women and men played cards under an open pagoda. Tea service was available for us in one of the few air-conditioned, enclosed pagodas which just happened to also house another shopping experience full of drawings with Chinese characters. Outside we walked the paths through bonsai of every type and magically-shaped rocks which we learned were obtained from a nearby lake and placed very specifically according to feng shui. A special cobbled path of tiny river-smoothed stones was said to provide an invigorating foot massage. I kicked off my sneakers to test the premise and wholeheartedly agreed.

A Close Tie for Best single event of the trip
Our second optional side trip was a canal boat ride. While the 1,300-year old, man-made Grand Canal ( was beautiful as we viewed it from the back of the bus, our boat ride took us along the smaller side canals to really see how those in Suzhou live.

Street vendors – and our first encounter with severely disabled and bedraggled beggars – are here, too, as the small, air-conditioned boats are another popular tourist attraction. As our guide, Wei, did in Beijing, Jack cautioned us to avoid them, saying their business was lucrative, and they were not as poor as they appeared.

The abject poverty was as oppressive as the heat. From the boat, we could see quite easily inside small apartment-like houses that looked as if they would crumble into the water. People were on stone stairs –formerly used for shopping from the now-banned (for "environmental" reasons) floating markets – leading into the water washing dishes and clothes. And, amid the squalor, we watched professional photography shoots along the canal, including what appeared to be a wedding party.

The smells and sounds of the market were even more oppressive than the view of the sad structures lining the canals. A small beagle-mix pup licked my sweaty leg and then followed me through the market until a kindly peddler pinched off a piece of meat from the unrefrigerated, open-air display, letting him gobble it from her fingertips. Small children played on tiny amusement rides. Panting ducks and chickens huddled in cages next to large boiling cauldrons and mounds of boiled feathers and skin. Prepared foods for dinner-to-go under light bulbs for heat. Pig snouts and snakes. Chinese Lottery outlet, too.

One thought after my encounter with the puppy: we rarely saw dogs of any kind, only a handful of small pet dogs on leashes, unusual in comparison to urban America. Cats? Never saw a one. I know friends tell me I’m thinking of Korean-based dishes, but I wasn’t so sure.

After returning to the boat, we met the boat captain, an endearing haggle-toothed old gentleman, who offered yet another shopping opportunity. Among all the trinkets he offered us before we left the boat, we couldn’t resist buying playing cards from him with pictures from the canals and the gardens of Suzhou. $1 USD, of course.

Anyone who missed this side trip, missed seeing the real China, despite being immediately before dinner. Our guide, Jack, brought us back to the Embroidery Institute for dinner, and then we bid Suzhou farewell and embarked on the three hour bus-ride to Hangzhou (, another “country” town of close to seven million, where we checked into the Holiday Inn Xiaoshan Hangzhou.

Slideshow on Flickr

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