Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Suzhou! a.k.a Chinese Venice

In an effort to get out of our comfort zone that is Beijing and see more of China, my friends and I went, rather spontaneously, to Suzhou last weekend. Suzhou is a small city northwest of Shanghai that is known for its classical Chinese gardens and is part of the canal system that runs through Jiangsu province. Since planes are expensive and not very culturally immersing, we decided to take the 11 hour overnight train. We got to the Beijing train station in the evening on Friday.

We didn't have time to get dinner before going to the station, so we picked up some KFC there. From left to right: Colleen, Stephanie, Gabrielle, and James, who is stuffing his face with food.
When we bought our tickets, all of the bottom bunks were booked, so I got a top bunk. Each cabin has three bunks on each side. Colleen was on the top across from me. The top was quite cramped; we couldn't even sit up straight.
When we got into Suzhou, it was nearly 7am on Saturday, so we had the whole day to explore the city.
Pretty canals!

So the two guys in the middle of the picture were sparring in this public park.  The guy on the left basically aimed to kick the other guy in the face.  It was fun to watch.

It took us a while to figure out exactly how to get where we wanted to go in Suzhou.  Beijing has spoiled us with a constant supply of taxis and an efficient subway, but they were few and far between in Suzhou.  We wanted to go to The Lingering Garden, but could not figure out the bus system to get there.  We ended up stopping in a foreign language book store to ask the people who worked there which bus we needed to take.  I'm not entirely sure how, but we eventually found the right bus and got off at the stop by the garden, despite the lack of English or even pinyin on the bus maps.  
When we arrived at the garden, we first stopped at the bathroom in the parking lot outside.  This was a bad idea; we soon became a bigger tourist attraction than the gardens for Chinese visitors.  This huge group of Chinese tourists approached us, all wanting pictures with "the foreigners."  We thought, ok one or two pictures would be fine.  No.  They wanted a thousand.  I am only slightly exaggerating.  The same group of guys kept posing with us, then they each wanted a picture by themselves.  Then this kid kept running in.  Then the girls wanted a picture.  It was a vicious cycle.  We were there for at least half an hour before we were able to break free.  In return, they offered us cigarettes, which I guess is considered a bonding thing in China.  None of us smokes, so we all refused.  They let the four of us girls refuse because it's not as acceptable for girls to smoke, but they wouldn't leave James alone.  Poor guy.

These are all pictures of the garden.  It was quite a pretty day when we went.

And now, a segment I would like to call "Amusing Translations of Chinese Environmentalist Signs":

-End segment-

We like to explore random residential alleyways, so we walked around some back streets in Suzhou.  We usually find good restaurants in these areas, but Suzhou was lacking in the good food department.  The holes-in-the-wall usually have the best food, but here that was not true.  
We walked along the big canal for a while and watched boats drive by.  We kept looking for a place that gave boat tours, but couldn't find one for a long time.  We eventually found a place on the other side of the main bridge and ended up getting a private tour on one of these boats right around sunset.

For part of the tour, we had to double back because some of the canals were closed.  So to pass the time, Colleen, James, and Stephanie played cards.  I just looked out the window.

The hostel we stayed at was pretty nice.  This is the entrance/common room/lounge.  They had a pool table, some books, and a few booths to just hang out in.  For 40 kuai (just over $5) a night, it was not bad at all!
The next day we took a while figuring out where to go.  We had heard of some fun museums in a town outside of Suzhou, but it was too much of a hassel to catch the 30 minute tourist bus that travels there.  Our plan B was a place called "The Temple of Mysteries" which also sounded fun.  It's a Daoist temple that has become a big attraction in Suzhou.  We tried to catch taxis, but all the ones that stopped refused to take us there.  We had to carry all of our stuff with us because we had already checked out of the hostel, so we were really not up for walking there.  Our only other option was to take pedicabs.  You know, those bikes with a carriage thing on the back?  There were 5 of us, and the pedicabs really only hold 2 comfortably, but we didn't want to leave one person alone.  So Stephanie and James went into one, and Colleen, Gabrielle, and I squeezed into the other.  Keep in mind, we were also carrying all of our bags with us and they were quite heavy as well.  Our poor cabbie...Here's a video of our experience:

We got to the Temple of Mysteries only to discover that it was crazy tourist central.  There were people EVERYWHERE.  More than we had even seen at sites in Beijing.  There were tons of shops and food stalls around the temple, and people were sitting everywhere there was a place to sit.
We were a little overwhelmed by the touristyness, but then brightened up when we saw...cotton candy!
A woman lighting a candle outside the temple.
These sugar sculptures are really awesome.  They sell them at Houhai lake in Beijing, too.

Even Colonel Sanders made his way into the Temple of Mysteries... Apparently he also endorses incense sticks.
There was this big expensive outdoor shopping mall outside the temple area.  We were looking for a restaurant here; the guidebook said it was the oldest in Suzhou and had lots of the local delicacies.  We looked for it for a long time before discovering it had been turned into a designer shoe store.  It was very sad.
It surprises me how many T.G.I. Friday's there are in China.  They're very expensive here, though.  The literal Chinese translation of the name is Friday Restaurant.

That was our weekend trip!
I'm mostly done with midterms now.  I just have a spoken Chinese exam left.  On Sunday we're leaving for Sichuan for a week!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I heart Beijing

Beijing is such an amazing city; I'm so lucky to live here, even if it is only for a few months. Last weekend on Sunday, my friend Gabrielle and I went to this art district called "798". It's an area of factories-turned-art-galleries. We got really excited when we saw graffiti on the walls outside. Then we realized that it was State-sponsored graffiti. Oh China.

This superman was pretty sweet. It's funny though, instead of the usual "S" on his chest, it's the character "zhong" meaning China.

There was a guy playing the guitar while sitting on his bike. I think he was trying to sell his cd, but he kept playing the same song over and over.
A group of statues in a gallery made to look like a crowd.
The whole district was very industrial and artsy.

Some guy sleeping on the back of his bike. I see so many bikes like this in Beijing. They're usually hauling things like produce, bike parts, or lumber.

There were also a lot of fashion photo shoots going on here. Some were even taking wedding photos.A coal train station in the district. I'm not sure if it's still in use or not.

There was this giant water tank that had a bunch of (non-State-sponsored) graffiti. This one made me smile.

Yesterday, my friends who are taking a film-making class needed to go to the Hutongs to film people (i.e. me) exploring. It's so interesting that if you just bring a video camera into a random area, lots of people will come up and talk to you and even invite you into their homes. This one guy told us to come into his home, but when we walked into the coutyard, he was gone, so we didn't stay.
We walked down this one street where we found this strange building. It says "Kindergarten of Ministry of Finance". I know China's economy is growing fast, but really do we need to start them that young?

Right next to the kindergarten, we saw two men changing the lights outside this building. We asked them if we could go in and they said ok.
It turns out it's a pretty historic restaurant in Beijing. One of the guys who works there spoke English, so he gave us a tour. I like the bunny by the moon gate.
This restaurant serves Peking duck and tea, among other things I suppose. These doors are over 100 years old.
The restaurant used to be the Emperor's brother's house. This is a picture of him.
The guy who worked there said that 50 years ago, Mao gave them a whole bunch of money to redo the place. A lot of people ask to eat in this room because of that, I guess. I'm not sure if the guy giving us the tour owned the restaurant, but he said that if we come back he would give us a discount on the food. He also said that he would give us jobs if we were still here in the summer. Then he took a picture with us to post in their entrance.

As we were walking back to the subway, we came upon this park where a man was drawing calligraphy on the sidewalk with a brush and some water.