Tuesday, January 20, 2004

China Trip: Touring Suzhou

Wow! What a day! This was our first day after the first week of teaching camps, and we had a blast touring around!! We went to the city of Suzhou and toured around. We had the greatest time!! At 7:00 in the morning we climbed aboard the large, luxurious charter bus, and made the two hour drive to Suzhou

We drove through some of the countryside, which was nothing like ours. My picture of farmland is one of what you might see driving on 80/90 through Ohio. Big farms on flat land, broken up here and there with a large farmhouse and three or four silos. Here it wasn’t like that at all. There were some larger plots of land, but these looked like something communally owned. The pieces of land that looked more or less “private” were very small, perhaps ¼ the size of our ½ acre lot at home. Some of these were just dirt or held trash heaps, but others were carefully tilled and something was growing in neat little rows in that tiny area.

When we got to Suzhou (which was a larger city than Pinghu), everyone was looking out the windows at American restaurants! McDonalds! Pizza Hut! KFC! People started drooling all over the place and feeling suddenly very hungry at the sight of this familiar food!

Then we pulled up to a parking lot and saw a large pagoda rising from the ground. It was the oldest thing I had ever seen – 2000 years old! It was in amazingly good condition for its age, and I took a lot of pictures. There were beautiful gardens built around it, and we walked around inside the place for an hour and a half, taking pictures and enjoying ourselves. There was one little building that housed an enormous bell! For 6 Yuan, you could ring the bell three times. I was in the little building when Rachel and Jennifer rang the bell, and it was SO loud! Minutes after the bell was rung, the 5-inch-thick sides were still vibrating from the noise. The bell had a different shape and a different sound from the bells I’m used to hearing. The ding-dong of bells in America, (church bells, or the liberty bell, or bells in a tower) have a clear, more musical sound. This bell had more of a gong-type roar. I had heard something like it in a movie one time.

Our tour guide was leading us to a “land and water gate” within the park when I saw this intriguing little path that dissapeared into the side of a hill. I decided to just take a quick peek down it to see what it was. I approached the rocky opening, wondering what I would find, but thinking that it would just go in a little way and then come to a dead end. It did not! It led in to the hill, branching off into different passageways, with bare electric bulbs hanging from the ceiling, providing a dim light. I made my way along, and came out right behind a waterfall! It was a beautiful sight! By this time, the rest of the group had followed me on my little detour, and we explored the passageways, took pictures by the waterfall, and had a fun time.

Then it was on to the “land and water gate.” You had to walk up a stone ramp to get up to it, and our tour guide informed us that we were walking over 2,000 year old stones. It was hard to imagine how many feet had walked that way before. The land and water gate was a very elaborate, built-up system of keeping the enemy out, or else tricking them to come in a way that was a trap. 

In one part there was an archery range, where you could pay to shoot arrows at a target. The bows and arrows were not very accurate, though. Nobody got a very good shot.

The top part of the land and water gate was very high, affording a view of the area just outside the park. I took a picture of the sight. There seemed to be nothing but broken down and burned out buildings and trash all over the ground. But people lived there. There were little areas for fires, and laundry was hanging out of windows. It was sad to think of people living in such conditions.

After seeing the pagoda, we went in the bus to “The Humble Administrator’s Garden.” This is one of the four most famous gardens in China, but at first I didn’t see anything so special about it. It was definitely a cultural experience to be able to appreciate their idea of beauty. Everything seemed to be done without rhyme or reason. Plants were seemingly thrown together without any apparent organization. However, I read some of the signs that explained the garden, with the reasons behind how it was done and the goal of what they wanted to accomplish, and once I understood this, I could appreciate the garden much more. 

They have a saying something like, “Open enough for a horse to pass; dense enough to keep the breeze out.” This is the kind of feeling they were trying to create in the garden, and they did this very successfully. If you looked out at places distant from you, it looked “dense enough to keep the breeze out.” It looked like nothing but a jumble of dense plant coverage. Then, when you actually got to that place, you would find out that it was not dense at all, but there was a spacious feel, with lots of room on the path on either side of you. No matter where you were, it felt very open and airy, yet if you looked away at anything else, you would be sure that when you got there, you would find it to be very dense and closed-in. 

Another thing they tried to do was to capitalize on “borrowed views,” as they called them. They would create a path or put a window in a building strategically to give you the best view of a distant pagoda, or a pretty sight, or something. This way, the view from most places you looked not only included the immediate open feel and the farther-off dense look, but also the distant interesting sights. It definitely took a lot of creativity and planning to create this!

In this garden was also the first place I noticed the interesting patterns in the pebbled walkways. They didn’t have sidewalks.. oh, no! That’s much too boring! They had little cobbled paths with geometric designs made of different types, colors, shapes, and sizes of stones set in cement.

From the Humble Administrator’s garden, we went to another famous site called Tiger Hill. This was one of my favorite places of all the locations we toured. Unfortunately, my camera battery died right after we got there, because I hadn’t remembered to fully charge it before. I was very sad about this, because it was beautiful!! We could actually go into the ground level of the pagoda, which was a lot of fun, and the gardens around it were very, very inviting. They just seemed to compel you to visit them. The paths were designed in such a way as to make you really want to explore them, with just the right amount of curve to intrigue you as to what was behind the bend, just the right amount of interesting things to look at on each side, and just the right colors to create a peaceful atmosphere. I got separated from the group and had a wonderful time exploring by myself while I looked for them to rejoin them. I found them just as they were leaving, and we got in the bus to go to the shopping district!

Shopping was loads of fun! It was the first opportunity for most of us to bargain with shopkeepers, though Rachel Winsted had lots of experience from doing in in the Middle East and different places she had traveled around the world. I got ripped off a few times until I watched her techniques! Suzhou was a city famous for silk and bamboo fans, and it was a lot of fun to shop. There were also a lot of trinkets and little cheap things that seemed very Chinese and were just waiting for gullible tourists like us to buy them up. We went from store to store, enjoying the variety of things for sale, and having fun. Oh, the things I would do differently… I would have bought a lot more there, because the prices were cheaper, the sellers spoke better English, and I liked the goods better than in some of the other cities. Oh, well! Too late J

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