As you might have noticed, I’m not very good with beginnings (or with naming things for that matter), so now that I’ve put it out there, I can jump right into it (and figure out how will I start part 3 later), and get into the next part of my humble little series, which is about the adorable city of Suzhou.
First, the most important thing to know about this place, is that it’s spelled Soochow, or so I’m told. Most Chinese names or words were giving me the biggest challenge in my life, and I have to admit, most of the time my spelling skills failed miserably. Anyway, the place we’re talking about now is one you will find in the adorable Jiangsu Province, and just like it’s older brother Shanghai, it’s quite an important place when it comes to economics and trading, and is a Prefecture-level city, which actually means a whole administrative unit, and not a city in a classic way. This means that the city officially accounts for about 10 million residents, counting in some surrounding towns, making up for a huge administrative mass. Now, I didn’t ask locals, but they might still be a bit pissed off for not getting the capital status of the province, which went to Nanjing. I’ve shown my dedication to Suzhou by never going to Nanjing, and their train station stinks too. Justice for Suzhou!
As a matter of fact, Suzhou is a historically awesome place, with shitloads of cultural relics, landmarks, and everything that comes with that status: Magnificent pagodas, gardens, canals, and an old-city area you just can’t ever leave. Not only because it’s amazing, but also because it’s ridicuolusly easy to get lost in there, but if you’re lucky enough you’ll find the Belgian waffle house, so at least you die with your belly full of happiness. Up until the 19th century, all dynasties held this place in high regard, and has always been an important hub of commerce for about 2000 years, which is pretty impressive, there are like boatloads of whole giant kickass empires with all the wealth in the world not lasting that much, and it’s still counting. At one time they held the title of largest non-capital city in the world as well, although it’s not something I’d put out in the window, it’s like being the best football team never winning any trophies. Thanks very much but f*ck you. Jokes aside, this place doesn’t need to be a capital to be incredible, it just is. I was using the words ’up until the 19th century’, because the turmoil going on in the country at the time, especially the 1860 Taiping Rebellion left the city in a little bit behind due to the occupation by the bad guys and the subsequent deterioration. Gladly, it didn’t last long, and two true gentlemen, Li Hongzhang and Charles George Gordon managed to get it back for Mother China. Unfortunately, this was enough to get behind the lead towns in China, and Suzhou didn’t get back to it’s former glory until the 1980’s, when a series of well aimed economic reforms put it back on the radar finally. Nowadays, Suzhou is the one of the fastest growing places on earth, they’re literally building up full districts and areas the size of Amsterdam in a day. That’s some real dedication to real estate development, and work ethics you haven’t seen since Pharaoh’s decided they want to build those giant triangle-shaped cribs where they could chill out in their older days.
Upon arrival, our little crew of course didn’t see much of that, because the moment our shoes touched concrete, we got swarmed by ’transportation experts’, by which I mean people with or without taxi licences (or whatever you call those), who convinced us that there is just no other way to enjoy this nice evening in this nice town then to jump on their backseats, or, in case of scooters, wherever you can find a butt-shaped spot you can sit on for half an hour without any kind of pain. And you have to admire their persistence, these people just won’t go away. Just like when you charm a beautiful woman, you just never give up, and they don’t do that either. We left the station to look for some public transport, even though we really had no idea at all where we were, and after 30 minutes of hoping for some sort of unexpected miracle, we just went back, and stood in line for the official taxi. And that was fun, 40 minutes of pure queuing entertainment, with the occasional Rider of Hope coming over with an offer, thinking we got pissed off by waiting for a taxi, and just leave with them.
Next big step was the first time I really seen a clueless driver. Don’t mean to disrespect anyone, but that’s going to be the word for any taxi driver who just doesn’t know their city. Well, let’s not be harsh, we were marred by the no-street-number-address problem for the hostel again, as in there was a number in the official address, but locals thought only godless low-life sociopathic scum put these numbers on the actual buldings. So after half an hour, and a lot of wasted money, we thought it’d be nice to just walk and either look at all the buldings in the street until we find the hostel, or die of starvation. To top it all off, upon arrival at the hostel check-in, our very special buddy managed to destroy our last bottle of Tsingtao beer, which we risked our lives smuggling onto the bus and carrying with ourselves the whole trip.
As a final highlight of the day, another anecdote about White People Eating Out in China: As a first thought, I have to mention that what you will always find plenty of in this fine country, are restaurants, buffays, and snack bars, even during the night. Most of them are family-ran operations, so they’re basically living there, which is something I was very glad for. The place we went to was pretty cool, as in you don’t pick your food off a menu, like in any other regular jerkoff borefest restaurant, you pick off the ingredients from a fridge. Yes, there’s the raw stuff in the fridge (well, not classic raw, but needs to be, well, you know, cooked), and then they’ll put them all in a bowl, and make an amazing soup of it. You can also choose the level of spiciness, and as a little advice from me: DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMASTANCES ASK FOR SPICY OR HOT. You’ll be laughed at, called a chicken, pansy, french schoolgirl, and all of their Chinese equivalents, while they point at you and make duck noises. Yes, that’s embarassing, but I’d still choose this any time of the day over the endless torment your body has to endure if you dare trying yourself on their level of spiciness. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. So yeah, just say no, and it will still be as hot as the deepest well in hell reserved for people like Hitler, Saddam, and Justin Bieber, but at least it won’t ruin your life. And that was some of the best soups I’ve ever had, although I have to say the way the chicken was boiled, and mainly it’s girly color was a little concern, but apart from that, it kicked ass. We also acted as the main attraction of the evening, the lovely family waking their children up so they can see westerners, making pictures of us, and about 15 minutes later the whole street congregated at the place. Have to give it to them, they did their best for discretion, but after a while it just becomes a little suspicious. Pointing at us didn’t help either I guess. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of this particular cooking style, or the food, so if anybody reading this knows, please enlighten us on the Facebook page (which you liked already, obviously).
Let’s go down history and culture road again: The best part in this city for me are the canals, hands down. The area looks like one of those classic Old Towns, but with a fantastic China-vibe that I find a little hard to describe, added with this canal „system” that looks just lovely really. It’s story is fascinating as well, as from the year 772, the city was governed by none other than the famous poet Bai Juyi, which is pretty cool, and something I never heard of or seen before, but I’m not very clever, so this might not be a big deal at all. Anyway, when Mr. Juyi lived the life of a superstar poet and mayor, living the proper sex-drugs-and-phonaesthetics, he thought it’d be brilliant to build roads and dig ditches in the less developed areas of the city at the time, and given the Chinese work ethic, they had a waterway, and a web of smaller streets and canals around it, filled it up with arches, old temples, , guild halls, and some other stuff, which made it some of the most beautiful urban areas in the country. Another interesting bit is the fact that in the capital, Beijing, there’s actually a Suzhou street, which is not a big deal in itself, but the place actually is the exact copy of this place here called Shantang street. Needless to say this area was home to the cultural and social elite most of the time, and a lot of awesome locals spent their childhood here, who later went on to do big things. Can’t remember any names now, but there were a lot of them.
Here was the bar where we first got to play this super-popular board game of the Chinese. It is played by 2 to 76 players, each having a little colored cup, and two dices beneath that. Got to say, neither did I get it, nor did I like it all that much(maybe that’s another reason why I was playing like dogpoo to be fair), but the point is that everyone shuffles and gets a number with the two dices, and you have to guess the overall amount drawn on the table. Obviously, you only see your dices, so you’ve got to base your guess on the number they make up. Of course it’s not that easy, as you can challange each other and stuff like that. So, first player makes a guess, and then the second, and so on. At the end of the round, players raise their cups, and count the overall amount the dices make up on the table. Closest guess wins. A funny twist here, is that before the round ends, one player can challenge the one before him/her, and then that’s an instant show of dices, and and of course the moment of truth comes. Suppose this was meant to be more of a put-your-money-where-your-mouth is scenario, but since I haven’t seen anyone actually waging money on this game, it more looks like a silly and completely unnecessary cockfight between two adults. Of course, at this point I need to state the fact that my memory is downright horse excrement, so it could well be that my memories are incorrect, or I just simply didn’t get the game at all. So anyone who knows, and plays this game on a professional level, and their sponsorship deal with Adidas allows, please correct me in the comments section of the Facebook page. Thanks.
It would be weird to go without a major city and not talk about a garden or temple, so I will not be this foolish either. We’ve seen two there, that’s how much we’re into temples and gardens. But what is a temple in China? These are basically a collection of multiple buildings, mostly shrines and sanctuaries, and other sacred buildings, and there are also living quarters, since monks used to live in these places. Well, not all of them, as there are two kinds of temples: Taoist and Shen temples. The former is being maintained by the local council, community, associations or other similar entities. Temples also differ as in what are they enshrining, which can be natural/national gods, or the ancestral gods of a wealthy family. Taoist temples don’t have monks living there, but obviously have a few providing services and stuff, as in Christian churches for example.
Now that you know all that, I’ll mention I’ve been to this majestic one, called the Xijuan temple, where I’ve first seen people giving food to the Buddha sculpture. Guess it’s obvious why, that’s their gift to their god. Word of advice: You’re not supposed to take pictures of the statue. I know most tourists do regardless, but still, it’s disrespectful. Or something. The most kickass part of any temple is a pagoda, which is basically a multi-storey tower, on top of which you can see all the way to Moscow. From the inside, it looks like one big staircase, with not much functionality, except for providing a training ground for monks who’d like to lose weight and get their femoral muscles pumped to titanium hard. Certainly, these are monuments, serving as tributes to the gods. The story of this temple is just the usual, people did holy stuff here, Taiping’s came and destroyed half of it too, then rebuild.
About the gardens, the one we’ve been to is one of the most famous and fabulous one in all of China, and the best-named place ever: The Humble Administrator’s Garden. I mean, you can’t get any more eastern-block than that, really love it. The name basically comes from the writings of an old scholar of the Jin Dynasty, Pan Yue, who was very keen about spending his retirement days kicking back and doing some gardening here. Thing with gardens is, to me at least, they really do capture the essence of China, mostly the beauty it’s nature can offer. Not everything though, but these are still very lovely, calm places, with springs with those little wooden bridges over them, tiny hills, and all kinds of flowers I have no idea about (Need to mention here that I don’t know anything about my mom’s flowers in her window either).
And to close this whole post, let’s just give an honorable mention to the nightlife of Suzhou: Because there is some, although not much. They’ve got these KTV karaoke clubs and ’bars’ where they play all kinds of board games. Karaoke is actually a lot of fun, or so I was told, as we couldn’t try ourselves, because the only place we actually entered was holding an exclusive party, something to an extent of ’facial hair prohibited’. It looked a little shady anyway, I mean we only saw a door leading to a hallway direct from the street, without any signs, just heard the cheesy music with derailed vocal harmonies. So, we weren’t to any karaoke bars afterall, which is obviously a crying shame, but I did my learning, and got even more bummed out I’ve never tried it (Not like I’d have the balls to actually go out there singing, unless I’m blackout wasted). What you need to know is what these places are offering is not the classic ’one fella singing to the whole’ kind of alcohol fueled melodic skirmish, since the whole bar is split to several smaller rooms, where groups of people can enjoy a night out in private, so you’re not embarassing yourself in front of strangers, only in front of your friends/family/colleagues/kidnappers. This is because Chinese are surprisingly shy people in general, and I know shy is not exactly the right word, but I’m not going to start describing several thousand years of cultural development here. You usually have to pay a larger sum for the room in advance, for which you can stay for a varying amount of time, depending on the bar, but if I remember correctly you can stay for as long as you want in most. This also includes drinks and food as well. This is actually what most bars do, when you reserve a table, so you get a mountain of canned beers upon arrival, with little lakes of sweet peanuts around it. Yes, they get warm.
Afterall, thanks to our adorable guide, who wished to be called Red Rum, we managed to hang out in a neat bar, with live music and stuff, only bummer being this was an american bar. Now, it’s not agains the US, the issue had more to do with our intent to see locals in local bars, ideally with a real local, so it wouldn’t feel infinitely awkard. I mean of course myself, the rest of the crew, and I know your’re reading this, are all uber-cool kids who have no similar mental issues, and would gel in with locals in a heartbeat. Here was the point where I first met the payment method at places with table service. So, in China you don’t drink on a bill, everything you order will have to be paid right away, which is something I strongly support. However, they don’t just carry around those silly purses like some lame drag queen, they just take the money away, back to the counter. This happens with credit cards too, and if you’re supposed to get change back. What’s the big deal you ask? Well, I can’t speak for all bars, but in this one the waiters didn’t have any issues with taking the full process for about 20 minutes, and you just sit there baffled, not knowing if you’ll ever get your few cents back, and wonder if that’s because you didn’t tip, like a cheap dipshit. Then you realise it’s not cool to tip in China, and sigh out of relief, you’re not actually a heartless bastard.
Well, that’s it for the second part, hope you liked it, the next day we buckled up and went to the cursed city of Hanzhou. I mean, the city is not cursed, only the Hungarian-French-Dutch mixed groups visiting it. Anyway, make sure you do the right thing and visit the Wanderlust Facebook page, rightfully called the jewel on the crown of The Internetz: Wanderlust FB