ArrivalI packed six shirts, one pair of convertible pants, two pairs of quick dry underwear, two pairs of socks, and a T-shirt and boxers to sleep in. I talked fndragon out of bringing half his wardrobe, promising to include him in the Hotel Sink Laundry Shuffle. All of our checked business squished into one suitcase.
We convened at our stepsister Breanna's place in New Jersey to be driven to JFK. Having easily slept through half of a transatlantic red-eye to Germany six years back, I shrugged off the prospect of a 14-hour flight. Those extra few hours turned out to be the slowest. I was too weary to watch movies, too uncomfortable to fall asleep, and running low on iPod battery - the seat chargers don't work with 2-prong plugs. I tolerated TV dinner fried fish, passed on the mystery salad sandwich that turned out to be turkey, avoided surprise bacon below my rubber omelet, and was grateful for my box of protein bars although they had earned me a backpack search from TSA. Closely packed cylinders must look suspicious on X-ray.
Our guide, Awesome Eric, met us after customs and baggage and shepherded us into a bus to our gleaming oasis of a Shanghai hotel. I took a bath just because it was there and went right off into a lovely sleep.
Shanghai - Whirlwind Through the MuseumFirst surprise of the trip - waking up early and energetically. From the perspective of my original time zone, I had stayed up all night and flipped to a nocturnal schedule, which I have gravitated to during various periods of vacation or unemployment. I can't keep up the vampire act at home because the lack of daylight is demoralizing, but it works when my circadian rhythm coordinates with the sun.
The breakfast buffet was fantastic. Omelets to order! Kimchi! Pastries! Fruit and yogurt! Lightly fried sesame balls with red bean paste! Jellied bean curd, which I cluelessly pondered until an employee came out to help! It's a white pudding that serves as a base for savory condiments: soy sauce, chili oil, sesame oil, scallions, dried shrimp, and so on. I liked it enough to rotate it into my breakfast selection over the rest of the trip.
We got on the big bus with the rest of our group, receiving yellow name tags that felt like freshman year all over again. I decided to grin and bear mine until I started to recognize a critical mass of our folks within other groups of tourists. fndragon is a tall and distinctive individual, but it's good to have a backup.
I had heard that driving in China was a death wish. Instead I saw traffic flowing to flexible rules that I could not describe in specific terms, but are well known by everyone else participating. There's a give and take of nosing in and backing off, a precise knowledge of one's vehicle dimensions. A constant awareness and communication via honking. Pedestrians, cars, buses, e-bikes, and cyclists - sometimes riding double, or hauling loads from package stacks to plywood to goldfish bowls - all squeeze through and share alike. This fits in with a general cooperative use of public space - vehicles and bicycles parked in tight grids on sidewalks and courtyards, communal drying lines for bedsheets and other laundry too large for the rack off an apartment balcony.
The Shanghai Museum was a wonderful first stop with an unfortunately short time limit. I spent a while failing at capturing porcelain and jade carvings through glass - especially the glazes designed to mimic different materials. Next up was a view of the Bund and other popular river scenery - rather hazy, but worth a token photo - and the Monument to the People's Heroes, which had stairs down to a carved wraparound mural below street level.
Our lunch venue had spicy tofu specially ordered for me and some great housemade beer reminiscent of hefeweizen. Beer in China is typically like Yuengling lite - smooth and easy drinking, but too subtle for those preferring stronger flavors or a heavy hop punch. Still, pleasant enough to be my go to beverage with meals.
Suzhou - Gardens and Silk SpamThe road to Suzhou is the G2 expressway - a toll road like most, if not all, of the smooth highways between the eastern coastal cities. We passed clumps of power pylons, assorted industry, small farms of neatly furrowed greenery anywhere they would fit. Dashboard Buddhas and Chinese flags and lucky red tassels hung from rear view mirrors. Residences in various states of construction and demolition, from basic shanties to rows of small houses and massive apartment towers all facing south. Newer houses maintaining classic design elements like the upcurved roof trim traditionally adorned with finials to protect the property - such as fish, symbolic of water to ward fire away from a wooden house.
Suzhou's old town is the Gusu district, kept separate from its urbanized regions. The Lingering Garden - 400 years old, beautifully preserved - gave me my first sense of time travel, hustle and bustle of our group and others notwithstanding. I sneaked ahead, lagged behind, and took detours to capture an uncrowded sense of its serenity, keeping Eric within earshot to catch some context about the original uses of various rooms and symbolism of the stone mosaics on the garden paths.
We embarked on a canal cruise, which didn't offer much in the way of informative commentary or views I couldn't have seen from the bridges. The cloudy late afternoon cast a gray pall which preemptively ruined any photos I might have been interested in taking. Those who opted out got to leave the bus and walk around. Having known that ahead of time, I would have saved the $25 and gone exploring as well.
A traditional market street gave a much more interesting view of local life, but left no chance for photography. A dense tide of shoppers carried us past an array of stalls and curbside sellers: produce, housewares, live caged fowl, traditional herbal medicine, precooked dishes beneath whirling streamers to catch the eye and scatter flies. Bikes, some motorized, honked through the crowds.
Back at the hotel, we shared some wine and amusement at the gift shop offering a 72-disc Disney movie set including Batman and assorted celebrities who weren't exactly known as pirates of the Caribbean. We took a brief hike to Family Mart, a local convenience store chain and a great resource for Coke Zero, snacks, and cheap phone chargers for those who forgot theirs at the last hotel. D'oh.
The next morning, a freestyle aerobicizer was in full swing outside the tour bus. We had already seen tai chi groups in parks and courtyards, but this was the first solo act. A particularly outgoing tour bus mate, who I will call Adventure Time Eric to distinguish him from our guide, went out to chat. She invited him to dance, and said that she loves life and is looking for a husband.
The Master of Nets Garden was a smaller but similar experience of peaceful time warp try to listen to Eric and avoid random heads in my photos. In this style of garden, the white walls are a backdrop to rocks and greenery, giving an effect of brush paintings come to life.
I spotted some amusing restaurant chains. I also found better photos because mine were blurry crap out the bus window.
My Hero Chicken
Mr. Stupid Ox
And we were off to the first excursion subsidizing tourist trap - a silk factory, where we passed around tube-enshrined silkworms preserved in various stages of development and observed a small demonstration of silk manufacture. It seems Suzhou has another similar place with some actual displays of silk art in addition to the shopping mall aspect. It would be nice to have gone there instead, but I did take advantage of the dressing room and size variety to buy my obligatory I Went On Vacation nelsonhaha.jpg shirt for returning to work. A silver lining - or silk lining, if you prefer.
Tongli Town and the Sex MuseumTongli Town is a tourist area, but a relaxing one with a well-preserved impression of its history amid the glitz and gewgaws. At dusk, the trees light up with sparkly white cascades simulating fireworks. There is also rooftop squash.
Our ticket allowed us into a few small gardens, which we skipped after having seen the more prominent ones in Suzhou. The only attraction with separate admission fee was a sex museum. Of course that announcement had me raring to go, and not just due to the cackles of my inner Beavis. I was fast learning to trawl for unique sources of interest, from choice guide banter to sights off the typical highlights and shopping track. Historical and cultural context! Active disinterest from others on the bus! Heh heh heh. It's carved out of wood.
A sign pointed us down a quiet alley with no further hint of direction. I was looking for such when I spotted an enormously endowed gremlin statue through a gate. The grounds were surreally still in the gathering dusk, exhibit buildings among a grass and stone courtyard lined with erotic statuary from prior millennia. Inside, there was plenty of context about the historic sculptures and illustrations on display, and the researchers responsible for curation. One placard stated that China did not historically persecute people over homosexuality - which agrees with the gist of research on the subject - and that alternative preferences should be tolerated if they harm no one. Above it was a 19th century illustration of two women enjoying some Sapphic bonding. Also noted was the difference between a marriage ideal of one man and one woman and the practice of one man and multiple concubines - another subtle nod against legalistic clinging to idealism.
No one checked our tickets, and I'm not sure they would have enforced the rule against photography. I still thought it best to keep the camera off and myself from being escorted from the park. There are plenty of pictures to be found elsewhere. Sexy time ahoy! View with obvious discretion.
China's Ancient Sex Museum in Tongli
A Visit to the Chinese Sex Museum