Monday, August 18, 2014

Sweet Suzhou

I'm really at a loss how to start this entry because, although Suzhou (pronounced Soo Joe) is indeed  quite lovely, I experienced it in the company of friends. Doesn't that sound bad! I refer to the manic habit of Chinese people making the most of a friend's visit. In itself, that is not a bad thing: I too would want to show my friends a great time. But not to the point where it becomes an ordeal that one must grimly push through. I'll talk more about this subject in my next post. For now, I give you Suzhou.

What a great place!

Lovely, charming... this waterbound city is a traveler's treat. Wide, well paved, shaded roads. Not crowded. Good, fresh air, even though there is quite a bit of industry. Plenty of public transportation, to include 2 subway lines. There is not a lot of construction. The people,to the extent I was able to interact with them, were very friendly and helpful.  

I didn't get to ride any buses because we were chauffeured everywhere... not that I'm complaining. Martin's relatives set up shop in Suzhou: a furniture factory with an outlet store (more on that later). Several of the family members work there, including Martin's grandfather: a jolly, erudite man of 70-some odd years. I had the privilege of meeting them all. It was Martin's cousin who drove us everywhere.

The first day there we went to their furniture outlet store, where I learned the family concern is dining room furniture. And then to the factory, where my mind was effectively blown. It was not a glitzy production wonder with conveyor belts, heavy machinery and ISO standards, but a series of workshops where each table and chair was hand-crafted. 

Raw wood was stacked under tarps outside the workshop. In the first area the wood was sized, trimmed, and then cut to each model's specifications. One woman fed a bandsaw prepped slabs: a series of 2x4's glued together at their width, making 5 feet lengths. Her job was to cut them into sections along a curved line, producing arcs of about 18 inches wide. She did it 'freehand': without a guide on her saw. The slabs were about as long as she was tall and she handled them as though they weighed nothing. I was in awe of her skill.

In fact, I was in awe of the whole operation. Martin's uncle, only minimally educated but determined to rise above his status as a poor farmer in his remote village, left his son in care of the  family and took his wife to the city. For 5 years they worked as migrant laborers, earning next to nothing and living under the lowest social status one can have in China. During that time they somehow saved enough money to start their small business: making chairs. In just 3 years his factory has grown to include tables and cabinets, and he has a staff of 30. He is now a millionaire.

His type is not someone you would meet every day.

The next morning, at the insanely early hour of 7AM, we took off for China's  first water village: Zhou Zhuang (pronounced Joe Juah-ng). I thought it might be something like a water park, with rides and carnival food. Boy, did I have the wrong impression!

It is China's answer to Venice. There were no streets. Gondoliers paddled around the canals.  It was lovely! I kept saying that, even as we walked through – there were sidewalks. Although this town is touted as a relic and tourist attraction, and indeed it is a UNESCO heritage site, it is a living village. Each dwelling had a set of steps to access the water, making it easier for the women to wash clothes, and rinse mops and pails in the canal. However, almost all of the gondolas I saw were ferrying tourists. Did people have their own gondola? It seemed most natives got around on the walkways, leaving the water to the tourists. 

Unfortunately, Zhou Zhuang's trade is tourism. It is such a shame that nearly all of the old buildings had been converted to restaurants, coffee houses and shops selling kitsch. Shiny wooden gondolas ferried tourists all around. Some of the gondoliers, mostly women, treated their passengers to ancient, traditional songs as they paddled along. It was  a lovely scene, but undeniably a tourist experience.

Have you ever seen a concrete, flat-bottomed boat? I hadn't either, till this jaunt. These sturdier – indestructible? - craft made grunt work possible: collecting trash and conveying building materials for those structures under renovation, activities that might have damaged or even sunk a wooden craft. I didn't know concrete could float, let alone loaded concrete. Did you?     

After lunch we left this attraction, heading for another, less well known but much more authentic water village. Parking was scarce, so we pulled up in front of a gate leading to a construction area. Just as we were about to leave the car a man told us we could not park there,  and then proceeded to hatch a plan for free entry. He drove us to a remote parking lot which abutted the attraction. A bridge spanning a narrow canal would give us access to the rear of the park. Me, being a foreigner, would look like I belong. The others would join me in a few minutes. All I had to do was tarry in  front of a tea shop till they strolled along, one by one. Once reunited, we could go explore.

And so we got away with visiting this park without paying an entrance fee. I am firmly against this practice. Admission is not terribly expensive and that small amount of money goes toward maintaining the facilities. However, being as I was not allowed to pay for anything – I would have volunteered to do so, so strong was my objection; and I didn't want to shame or incur bad feelings in my hosts, I kept my mouth shut... but secretly dropped 100Yuan in a donations box when my companions weren't looking. That assuaged my guilt somewhat.  

We had been on the road and walking for about 7 hours straight. Martin had been nursing a headache all day and my feet were killing me. We opted to rest up for the night's activities: going out on the town.

At 6PM we reunited. Meeting Cousin's girlfriend and another pal, we rode the subway to city center. The plan was to have dinner and walk around a bit. I was ready for dinner but not so eager to walk. My shoes gave me no support, leaving my lower half in agony in spite of the Tylenol I took. I knew they were about used up when I set out on this trip but reasoned that, with support hose and ample rest I should be OK. I was missing the 'rest'.

I can't tell you how many restaurants we passed on the way to the specific one our host wanted us to dine at. Martin still had his headache and I was less than thrilled to prowl narrow, winding lanes that seemed to go on forever, but it was worth it in the end. While the restaurant and the food were only OK, it was situated on a riverwalk. Plenty of people out, enjoying the cool evening breeze. Again it struck me how lovely what I had seen of Suzhou was.  

I'm going to have to come back to explore it properly. While I am grateful to have been hosted, the downside to it is that I only got to see and experience what was offered. Much as I hate to admit it, I have bad feelings about the experience. I'll go into it in the next post.  

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