Savoring Suzhou

“Suzhou” might rhyme with “Cujo” but there is nothing sinister about it. Saturday was spent in this nice water town, famous for its canals and its silk. It was a tour organized through the Summer China program for several faculty members, led by our charming informative guide Emma.

It was a fun trip, both because of what we saw and who we were with. We’re lucky to have a great group of people teaching in the program, who also happen to be good (and entertaining) travel companions.

Together, we took a bus to Suzhou, which is west of Shanghai. Our first stop was Tiger Hill. It has the leaning tower of China set amid beautiful grounds.

There was a well that people were pulling water out of and using to fill their water bottles. We didn’t do that. We did not want to test the water quality.

Brett (blue baseball cap on the left) and Loren (colorful shirt on the right) promised that they would tell us the meaning of these giant red Chinese characters, but they never did.

The pagoda at the top of the hill is the star attraction. It started leaning awhile back and it had to be shored up. People are no longer allowed to climb to the top.

Didier Drogba formerly of Chelsea, is the newest player for Shanghai Shenhua. He showed up to see one of the temples on the grounds…

Actually, that’s Andrew. He’s a big soccer fan and he somehow managed to get a hold of Drogba jersey. Considering only just joined the team, Drogba jerseys are still very rare.

Here’s Loren taking a picture of Christina so that Christina can prove to her family that she really was in the places she was photographing for herself.

Just before we left Tiger Hill, my wife showed off her bamboo kicking skills.

Then the kids found a slide.

We had an uneventful lunch at a restaurant in-town. Our table was set with about a dozen different dishes. All very good. The prawns were served whole. So I ate only one. I don’t care about my food looking at me. That doesn’t bother me in the least. It’s just that it’s a lot of work getting the meat out of one little prawn. And then your fingers are all greasy and the only napkins available are these tiny cocktail napkins. You want to wipe your hands before you pick up the chopsticks otherwise the chopsticks get slippery. A few prawns later and you’ve gone through several napkins and the servers don’t put too many napkins on the table to begin with. Pretty soon you’re out of napkins and then what?

Once I realized how much work it was going to be to eat the prawns, no matter how good they tasted, I stuck with everything else. Call me lazy. Call me fussy. It’s okay. I can deal with it. I’ve been called much worse.

Once our tummies were full, we got back on the bus and headed to the Lion Forest Garden.

This garden was very crowded. We literally had to push and shove our way through groups of tourists being led by those annoying head-set wearing guides who bark information at decibel levels normally reserved for Iron Maiden concerts. (I should know; I have been to several Iron Maiden concerts.) Henry covered his ears.

So we got the ear-crunching effect of a concert but none of the fun. Not even a “Running Free” sing-along. After being jostled in the confined spaces of Ming Dynasty era buildings by hordes of tourists, I felt like running free of the place. Had I done that though, I would have missed one of the coolest things I’ve seen here.

This garden had a rock garden. But unlike any rock garden I’ve ever heard of. The rock garden had a maze of paths that the kids loved. I followed them down and around and up and back down and around and under and over. We soon lost our sense of direction but eventually found our way back to our group.

Our kids weren’t the only ones being asked to pose for pictures. Tony was asked to pose with someone, and he gracefully obliged.

We ended the day with a tour of the Silk Factory. We got to see the whole fascinating process for making silk from larvae to pupa stage.

They take those cocoons, wash them and stretch them out, and turn them into spools of silk thread. It takes 8 silk strands wrapped around each other to form one thread.

They showed us some looms where silk rugs and carpets were being made. The program for the looms is done using a punch-card system. Archaic, but it works.

Once the tour was ended, we were led into a store that sold silk sheets, duvets, pillow cases, and decorative pillows. None of it was cheap but it was 100% silk. Then there was a shop with silk-screen paintings. I can’t think of a worse thing to buy and put in your house when you have kids.

This was followed by a fashion show. Yes. You read that right. A fashion show of many silk creations worn by bored-looking models. Complete with a pulsing soundtrack of Lady Gaga and some other dance music. In my shorts, T-shirt, and sandals, I felt under-dressed.

If you look closely in some of the photos, you can see that some of the women wear open-toed sandals in which their toes hang out. My wife and I have seen this all over Shanghai; well-dressed women wearing high-heeled, open-toed sandals that look about a size or two too small, so that their toes hang out. It’s like some form of foot-binding that’s making a comeback.

I looked at a lot of the men’s clothing but nothing excited me too much. On the other hand, my wife indulged and bought a gorgeous black dress. 100% silk of course. Stephanie’s purchase was the last thing we all did in Suzhou.

One thing we would have liked to do in Suzhou was go on a boat cruise on the canals. But we didn’t have enough time. We can’t do everything, but we’re still doing a lot.

Chinese Paparazzi Count: Slightly more than 9 (we think).

We finally put our foot down and told people “no” anytime my wife or I saw people taking pictures of our kids or whenever they asked. The kids have become so gun-shy that they refuse to answer back when someone waves and says “hi” to them. They completely shut down. The other night when we were out and about, Henry said to my wife, “Can we keep walking so we don’t attract a crowd?”

Andrew commented to me that he couldn’t believe how we attracted attention. Andrew, Tony, and Brett attract a different kind of attention whenever they’re out and about by themselves or together. As Western males unaccompanied by females, they get propositioned for “massages.”


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