Day Trip to Suzhou

March 15, 2010

One of my day trips from Shanghai found me in Suzhou (sometimes known as Soochow), about an hour and a half away, along the exotically named Yangtze Riverine Expressway. Suzhou is often called “The Venice of the East”, a reference to the ubiquitous canals crisscrossing the city; it even has a leaning tower (which by all rights should make it the Pisa of the East, but that’s another story for another day). Marco Polo is quoted waxing poetic about Suzhou (although it was “Suju” to him): “It is a great and noble city; it has 6000 bridges, all of stone, and so lofty that a galley, or even two galleys at once, could pass underneath one of them.”  I stopped counting at a couple of dozen, but I have no reason to doubt Marco Polo’s account; there are graceful arched stone bridges at every turn.

Since the tenth century, Suzhou has been the center of the Chinese silk industry, a position it jealously guards even today. There is a fine silk museum displaying antique and modern renditions of traditional designs. Countless silk factories, embroidery workshops, and tapestry makers offer tours to visitors, in hopes of separating them from copious quantities of their yuan. I am no connoisseur, but to my untrained eye the workmanship is unparalleled, and the prices reflect this. A small embroidered picture could easily set you back a simlar amount to what its creator makes in a month.

The fine thing about Suzhou, though, is the complete lack of boutique-y pretentiousness about the place. Sure, there are some touristy areas, but for the most part, the city is unashamedly charming, lovely almost by accident. The colors of the city are the colors of working people and nature: the sky reflected in the water of the canals, the flowers that break forth in cracks of old concrete, the drying clothes hanging from every window, the whitewashed walls and black tile roofs. Just a marvelous place to while away a few hours…or a few years.

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A Few Random Shanghai Notes

March 15, 2010

There is a saying  in China that Chinese will eat anything that swims except a submarine, anything with four legs except a desk, and anything that flies other than an airplane. These delicacies adorned a table top  in the waiting room of the day one lunch stop:

I opted for something a bit more mainstream, steamed fish with vegetables.

You’d almost think that you were driving in 1950s Detroit, the way Fords, Buicks and Chevrolets dominate the Shanghai automotive scene.

A big Buick I have never seen before

A Buick Firstland minivan

A quite attractive midsize Chevy

Sure, the taxis are largely made by VW, an updated 80s Passat, locally produced and known as the Santana:

And then there is the usual complement of Volvos, Beemers and Lexi, but by and large, the “it” car for the Shanghai glitterati is (get this!) the Buick Regal (yep, the same one that is a mainstay of US rental fleets), usually a black four-door.

GM displayed a moment of rare insight (or, if you prefer, a rare moment of insight) in locking up the China auto market even before most Chinese realized they wanted a car. It was a prescient move, as last year China edged out the US as the number one car market in the world. The car companies haven’t done such a good job on selling the Chinese on the notion of the romance of an open car, though. In the better part of a week in Shanghai, I have seen only one convertible, an Aston Martin; sadly, it was just a picture on a billboard, but at least it shows that convertibles are (apparently) on sale. It’s just that nobody wants them. Another quick note about cars in China: based on my admittedly limited observation, I would hazard a guess that brakes must last the life of the car in China, although horns likely must be replaced about every six months.

Regular readers may remember a Mysterious Orientations column a few posts back, in which I described my upcoming Shanghai lodging, as depicted on their website. Their catchphrase: “It’s just too good to be true!” Well, yes and no. The room was perfectly okay, perhaps even a bit better than okay. The breakfast was in the acceptable range as well, although this time it erred slightly toward the lower midrange, with indifferent breads (although real butter), none too special meats, and a variety of casserole-style dishes with Asian overtones. Oh, and coffee that in no way resembled the beverage I have come to know and love, except perhaps in color. What made it all work was the wacky early morning soundtrack: sixties and seventies hits like Smile a Little Smile For Me Rosemarie, Brandy, It’s So Nice to Be With You, Winchester Cathedral, One Tin Soldier, Wasted Days and Wasted Nights, and Rhinestone Cowboy (I’m missing some, I’m sure, but you get the idea). Most of these were tunes I was none too crazy about the first time around, but as I listened to them again I began to notice subtle differences from how I remembered them–a bit of difference in the phrasing here, a slightly different voicing of the instrumentation there. Now, as I have pointed out before, my memory is flawed at best, but I am pretty good with songs. I began to pay closer attention, and sure enough, these were not the originals, but rather some Chinese wedding band doing credible cover versions. As I was the only non-Asian in the place at the time, and one of few on hand who was even alive when these songs first topped the charts, there was nobody with whom to share my insight and amusement, sad to say. Still, it went a long way toward making me look forward to my morning grazefest.