Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

May 03 2014

Hangzhou 3

The Family Mart in front of our hotel in Suzhou was like a little piece of Taiwan, an oasis of civilization, with pleasant clerks, a clean environment and a good selection of goods. We sat at the little bar by the window and ate breakfast while watching Chinese people watching us back in a wary fashion. One group of men kept yelling at one of their number who dared enter the store, though they stayed outside with their cigarettes, as if by coming inside they would be violating some kind of code.

We took the subway to Mudu. Most people in Suzhou would wait patiently on either side of the doors, but as the train entered, a young woman munching on a piece of chicken strode up to the middle, blocking all of the people trying to get off, forcing her way in and promptly blocking an old man from taking the disabled seat. Chenbl made a marked comment about people being fined for such behavior, while I reminded him that we were no longer in Taipei, and the woman put her chicken away.

We took the bus from the station to the old part of Mudu. There were so many people on the bus that I was basically sitting in the windshield next to the driver. I therefore had a great view of all the people rushing across the road against the lights. We walked past many photography salons where people dress up in garish facsimiles of traditional garb so that someone can take their picture with a Canon 350D and sell a print to them. On the way I stopped at a public toilet, which I noticed lacked partitions of any kind.

Mudu was packed with people, vacationers from other parts of the country as no self-respecting Suzhou person would visit. When we got tired we walked inside a Buddhist temple that Chenbl claimed had been abandoned by the gods because the monks were lazy. Past the enormous statues was a quiet, if messy courtyard, where a monk knocked a piece of wood to declare lunchtime. Then he fished out his iPhone, no doubt to post lunchtime announcement texts for those who had missed the knocking.

Tired of the crowds, after a lunch of tasteless cold noodles, we walked to the outskirts of the old town, where we found great swaths of devastation where entire neighborhoods were being torn down. Chenbl got a back massage, and then when we went back to the touristy part of town, we both got foot massages by two Chinese women who seemed very interested in my love life.

Dusk was falling as we got some rice and noodles from a roadside vendor, to eat as we watched, alongside most of the neighborhood, the replacement of a lightpole which seemed sure to cause disaster. It didn’t, and we walked along a nearby road that turned out to be Mudu’s red light district. The area was emptying of tourists, and we chatted with a barber in his shop alongside one of the canals about his ancient barber chairs, which were around 80 years old and looked every bit of it. He said he made about 200 yuan a day.

We took the bus back to the station, and then the subway to Suzhou’s ritzy district, full of malls and fountains and the like. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is the prevalence of the word “civilized” in public signs: “Be civilized! Don’t (fill in the blank)!” Right next to one of these proclamations, a man was filling his buckets with water from the fountains.

We walked to the riverside and through the old gate, along the road past a series of Halal restaurants and a fruit drink shop where a cat was evading capture by a pack of small dogs, and back down to our hotel. Chenbl praised the construction site’s setup, and he knows what he’s talking about.

The next morning we had more breakfast at the Family Mart after checking out of the hotel. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason Chinese people don’t patronize the chain is that they don’t like the inconvenience of having to follow the store’s rules, like not being able to smoke in the store, not being able to demand instant service from the clerk despite being the last in line, etc.

We took the subway to the other end of the line from Mudu and found a surreal, empty expanse of fields and distant apartments, where we took a bus to Luzi, another “water town” in the area. The carefully manicured landscape gradually broke down into construction and environmental issues galore as we approached our destination, whereupon we were beset by tricycle drivers who claimed they could get us inside “for free”. Turning them down, we instead followed them to a side alley and found our own way in without paying, and walked around the alleys, munching on green bean/red bean snacks and getting name poems written. I saw the first Western faces for many days, a European family, and I wondered what they were eating for lunch. Photographers were everywhere. Everyone in China seems to have been issued a 350D.

Out past the touristy bits, we found another strange phenomenon: The old buildings, I mean the really ancient, centuries-old buildings that would be designated historical landmarks anywhere else, were being torn down and replaced, Stephen Wright-style, which exact replicas.

After a surprisingly delicious lunch with genuine sweet-and-sour chicken made with fried pork dipped in vinegar, we took a tricycle out to a remote bus stop, where we hopped on the bus headed for Zhouzhuang. This bus, which was apparently equipped with GPS, stopped and opened its doors at every. single. stop along the way, regardless of whether anyone was getting on or off. I assumed that if the driver did not do so, the station named would be off, or something.

At Zhouzhuang, we found to our pleasant surprise that the hotel we’d booked was actually inside the old part of town, and on a canal no less. The people rowing the tourist-filled boats sing as they ply the canals, which is fun. There’s a trendy disco-filled canal a ways away, which we are thankfully not staying near. The place isn’t nearly as full as we’d expected, given the fact that it’s one of the most well-known touristy bits in the area. We wandered around town a bit, had some dinner, and plan to get up early tomorrow to see what’s going on. That is, if the owner of the place ever stops chatting outside our window.

posted by Poagao at 10:54 pm  

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