April 8, 2007 Sunday Train to Suzhou. Ever the cautious ones, we got up at 5:30 a.m. (the hotel wake up call malfunctioned, calling me 6 times! Beginning at 5:15), left in a taxi at 6:30 and was at the gate by 6:56 for an 8:05 departure. Thousands of people mobbed the Shanghai trainstation, but it was quite orderly, everyone filed through the checkpoint to make sure we had tickets, and then found our gate. The train number is flashed on the screen above directing you to the correct gate with the time of departure. Simple. So many people had flowers in hand, and Linda told me it was the festival for visiting one's ancestor's graves (including one's mother and father), sort of like our Memorial Day. As Shanghai originally didn't have graveyards in it, many Shanghaiese must visit graves in Suzhou on this day, which explains some of the congestion. Linda and Dawei opted to sit in the seats (they had the first two, and saved me one), but I wandered around at the various shops buying little snacks for the trip: a sesame cookie filled with bean paste (great! And only 1 yuan each), two big cookies I thought were peanut butter ones (another 1 yuan each, they looked like peanut butter cookies do at home—but more like the "almond" cookies you get in Chinese restaurants at home, Dawei ended up with them because I didn't like them), peanuts of course (from the supermarket—only 5 yuan), green tea in a plastic bottle (my new favorite drink, 5 yuan), and a package of chocolate wafer cookies, 4 yuan. 13 yuan total, about $1.90. By the end of the day, we were glad to have the wafer cookies, which we fed ourselves and the koi (or are they just huge goldfish?) at Panmen Park. But I'm getting ahead of myself. We had assigned seats, a bit small for those of us who should lose weight, but comfortable enough for the 45-minute ride. Linda and I snapped pictures the whole way, I sat in the window seat, she in the middle. Dawei dozed, his eyes have been bothering him. After such a peaceful and orderly trip so far, the chaos at Suzhou train station burst upon us like a bombshell. Linda was quickly freaked out by it, and we parked her at a spot amidst the mass of people while Dawei and I went to buy tickets for the return trip (they didn't let us buy those in Shanghai—you have to buy in the city of departure, we were told). We followed the signs, but couldn't figure out where it was until Dawei noticed a van parked on the sidewalk, with people lined up at its windows (although the river of people also flowed past it). How could this be the official ticket office? Yet a sign completely in Chinese proclaimed that to be the case. Turned out the cab driver on the way back told us they're tearing down the old station and building an entirely new one, probably the ticket office was the first section to go (but again I jump ahead). English-speaking people are still a rare commodity here, unless you count "take a look", "cheap" or "you say" (meaning your counter offer on negotiation of a price). Triumphant hunters return to Linda, and the next crisis is that we've been waylaid by numerous people offering tours, including one Dawei wants to accept, 100 yuan for a car service "take you where you want all day". Linda asks me, I say, let's just ask a cab driver (actually, not a practical plan, since they're all on meters), we debate for awhile, but Linda couldn't decide even though I said, if you really want it, ok. Miscommunication—she did want it, and it I had realized how much she would regret that decision, I would have easily agreed. I hate to be herded about by "guides" all day, but overestimate her physical stamina, also. How easy it is to miscommunicate when you travel together—it started the day on a sour note, and colored the day with regret she was still expressing the next morning. First destination was the Master of the Nets Garden, one of a network of gardens Suzhou is famous for, World Heritage sites. Marred a bit by hordes of foreigners, the garden's tranquility tried to seep through nonetheless. Beautifully landscaped with peaked buildings (which had traditional furniture roped off inside and lovely paintings), the Wuxi-sourced rocks (the water-sculpted huge rocks of fantastic shapes), willows swaying in the breeze, azaleas and other flowers blooming in beautiful pots, cherry and magnolia and other blossomed trees, birds chittering and trilling. Of course, a tea house (with outrageously priced coffee and tea, which I treated us to in order to pick up spirits), high priced paintings, china cups and plates, silk scarves and other trinkets. I've learned not to buy in these stores—the price is usually 2-5 times as much as the small kiosks operated by independents, and the merchandise usually isn't better. We exited through small lane of these kiosks, but didn't buy much. One vendor gave Linda (no charge! But she felt obligated to buy something else) a big wooden duck which she had to lug around the rest of the day. Then lunch, asking directions, finding a Sichuan restaurant which tortured us (but deliciously) with its Sichuan peppers and peppercorn-flavored chicken, tofu and green beans. We sat next to an American business person (probably from the mid-west) who ate a huge lunch with two Chinese guys (not in suits, although Chinese businessmen usually are) and left enough on the table to feed two or three families. We didn't finish ours, either, we can't seem to order what we actually eat—but this being an earlier issue of strife on our little tour group, I let it go now. Perhaps there is a system of recycling this "waste" (foreigners who order more than they can eat), as recycling seems to be one of the things China does so much better than we do (EVERYTHING is recycled). In Suzhou we came across a family group (complete with split-pants baby circling them) breaking down boxes and other cardboard and plastic, and every city has its recycling carts and bicyclers traversing every neighborhood, hawking for trash. We came across one public container of overflowing, rotting trash that was notable for its rarity—not sure what the story behind that is. After lunch began the trek for finding the "supposedly" next-door garden Canglangting, which we followed directions for instead of figuring out on the map (people don't say they don't know, they may sound knowledgeable, but send you in very round-about ways). Serendipitously, we stumbled on the computer hardware and software main drag, where no one hounded us to buy something. Despite being a Sunday, all the shops were open, and unlike most shops in China, all manned by men rather than women. Actually, in Beijing, women salespeople predominated even in the software sections of the large multi-story computer center we visited. But in Suzhou it's man's work, apparently. Finally hitting paydirt with finding Canglangting garden, we wander down a street of that name alongside one of Suzhou's famous canals, a delightful find. Across a small bridge into the entrance, paying another entrance fee (only 20 yuan compared to 30 yuan at the last—no foreigners because no water, Dawei proclaims). Actually, it does contain a small lovely pond, along with lots of swaying willows, peaked roofed and lattice windowed stand-alone rooms, small "mountains" built of rocks with feet-smoothed surfaces, the standard fantastic shaped water sculpted rocks, gorgeous vistas. Without the foreigners (except us), peace did prevail, despite the handful of romancing couples, frolicking Chinese boys and girls with their parents in tow (photographing each other), and occasional solitary Chinese man or woman traveler, backpack signalling his/her tourist status. Friendly greetings gave way in the tallest pavilion to a friendly conversation with three women, each with their solitary child, including one boy's "pengyou" (friend). Housewives who stay home while their husbands work (child care is an option if one has higher income, either an ahmah—au pair, but no one mentions child care centers. Are the old communist-era ones gone?). Their interest is in politics—what do we think about Bush's policies, expressing disapproval themselves. How can we disclaim responsibility when we elected him? Linda explains that he lied in order to get elected, and that many people were very worried after 9-11. Engrossed in the discussion, she didn't translate all of it, but it didn't heat up much. Brief as it was, the real contact was exhilarating, and we left energized. Hunting for a taxi was a challenge, since they didn't come down the small lane, and the large street was set up with four lanes on each side—two for fast-moving cars and trucks, one for buses, and the outside one for bicycles, motorbikes and the pedicabs (including motorized ones). Taxis didn't seem to be able to stop in any of them, so we walked a ways, past a temple, and finally got one at the cross street, busy as it was. Once in, however, the driver claimed not to know where the Art Museum was (the next destination Linda wanted), and anyway, it would take him two hours to get there with congestion in that district as it was (a lie as we concluded later), so he dumped us at the Panmen park, claiming Beijing had its Tienanmen, Suzhou has Panmen. So we decided to rest for a moment under the peaked-roof archway entrance and consider. A Chinese woman and her husband were arguing loudly about the 25-yuan per person entrance fee. One of China's army of maintenance people (they're everywhere—sweeping, watering, cleaning) watered the flowers in pots by our feet. We decided to investigate—we're here, after all. What transpired was the most delightful of the three parks—this one renovated courtesy of Philips (yes, the Dutch company!) sported waterfalls, sweeping vistas, a red wooden-and-brick pagoda from 247 A.D. (which cost extra to climb—we all declined), and the land-and-water gates to the original city, partially renovated but looking quite authentically old nonetheless. In the actual courtyard where the ancients lured enemies and then annihilated them (plaques in English explained everything), a concession offered a target game at which you shot arrows with bows ancient design. Looked like fun but we didn't go down. We had tea and water and my cookies from the morning atop the water gate (which is next to the land gate—same structure, refers to the method of stopping invaders from coming by land or sea into the walled city). Then we descended, sat by the lake in the pavilion and fed the koi. If any of you get to go to China, you should include include Suzhou. A lovely city, friendly people, full of gardens. On the train coming back, the fourth in our seats-round-the-table was a 45-year-old security guard, Shanghaiese native returning with his 17-year-old daughter and his wife (who sat across the aisle) and chatted the whole way. Linda was kind enough to translate some of it: they live in Shanghai proper, NE area, were visiting his mother's grave. His daughter, in high school, doesn't know what she wants to do, (only, "make money", he laughs) but will take the exam for university next year. Her score will determine how much choice she has. Shanghai residents are given priority to university (like state residents to state colleges in the US). His job dangerous? No, few people rob anything in Shanghai, because the traffic is so bad they wouldn't get away! Even if they do it elsewhere, they come here and see how bad it is, they don't do it. We all laugh, you can't be here for a day and not be appalled by the traffic. Dawei and he discuss the high cost of real estate in Shanghai (and L.A.), his family has no hope to buy a place, and property values have increased many-fold in the last few years. Is homelessness a problem (Linda shares that LA has 80,000 homeless, some sleeping on the streets, under bridges)? Probably there is some, but no one is allowed to sleep under bridges or on the street—they would be arrested and sent home (to where there residency is)—everyone who has a resident card (born here or who moved here legally) has a home, they couldn't be evicted. If their place is demolished, they would be given another place, although, possibly in the suburbs. Linda spoke about the problem of mortgage defaults—he said that couldn't happen here, no one would be evicted for that. I didn't learn what happens if you default on a loan, though. Drug addiction came up in relation to the homeless discussion—he said it is a problem, but drug dealers are executed, and high school students don't have the money to buy drugs, possibly it's not as prevalent. We arrived and joined the mighty river of passengers flowing down the platform, the stairs, the underground corrider, up the incline and out, down to the taxi. The driver was NOT happy about taking us to our hotel, whether it was because he wanted a longer distance or to a different district was a matter of discussion between Linda and Dawei. I, having no information on it, didn't venture an opinion. Too tired to do more than go straight to our rooms, I didn't write this till the next morning. We're all pooped, but going out shortly, probably to a temple. If the first visit was marked by seeing workplaces and schools, this one predominates with temples, churches, pagodas, parks and shopping streets. Quite a contrast.