So I Went to China

So I Went to China

The cast of characters – yours truly, Spousal Unit, Jay and Linda (parental units in law), Breanna and Brian (stepsister and her fiance), Andrew, Audra, Glenda, and Spencer (friends of B & B, who also got to be friends of ours throughout the trip).


I 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 Spousal Unit out of bringing half his wardrobe, promising to include him in the hotel sink laundry rotation. All of our checked business squished into one suitcase.

We convened at Breanna and Brian’s place in New Jersey to take a shuttle van to JFK. Having easily slept through most of a 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.


Eric, our guide, met us after customs and baggage and shepherded us into a bus to our gleaming oasis of a hotel. I took a bath just because it was there and conked right out into a lovely sleep.

First 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 periods of vacation or unemployment. I can’t keep up the vampire act 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 plain 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. Spousal Unit 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 was 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 – friendly notifications more so than indignant blats. 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 an informative first stop with an unfortunately short time limit. I spent most of said time with the porcelain, jade carvings, and ceramic glazes designed to mimic different materials. There was also a scholar’s study and a pottery studio to walk through.

Next up was a view of the Bund and the buildings across the Huangpu River – and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, with stairs down to a carved wraparound mural below street level.


The road to Suzhou is the G2 expressway – a toll road like other smooth highways between the eastern coastal cities. We passed assorted industry, clumps of power pylons, small farms of neatly furrowed greenery anywhere it 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 in accordance with feng shui. 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, the Gusu district, is separate from its urbanized regions. The beautifully preserved, 400-year-old Lingering Garden gave me my first sense of time travel, noise 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 under the gray pall of a cloudy late afternoon, which offered little in the way of informative commentary or views I couldn’t have seen from the bridges. 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 without any chance for photography. A dense tide of shoppers carried us past stalls and curbside sellers offering 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. One briefly got stuck on Breanna’s jacket.

Back at the hotel, we shared 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.

And we were off to the first excursion subsidizing tourist trap – a silk factory, where we observed a small demonstration of silk manufacture and passed around tube-enshrined silkworms preserved in various stages of development. I took advantage of the dressing room and size variety to buy my obligatory I Went On Vacation shirt for returning to work. A silver lining – or silk lining, if you prefer.

Tongli 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, much to Spousal Unit’s amusement.

Our ticket allowed us into a few small gardens, which we skipped after having seen the more prominent ones in Suzhou. As Eric explained, the only attraction with separate admission fee was a sex museum. 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.

Tongli Town Alley

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 said 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 via any comprehensive search engine. If you’re curious, view with obvious discretion.


Wuxi, Land of Parks. At least from the perspective of our brief time there.

Eric gave us a Chinese lesson en route to Tai Lake. A person (rén – 人) raises their arms to become big (dà – 大) and then gains a stroke to become grand (taì – 太). I recognized the first two characters from my minimal familiarity with hanzi, which I slightly added to over the trip. The last was new to me.

Tai Lake lived up to its name. Expansive. Relaxing. Fragrant with chrysanthemums lushly arranged and lining the stone paths.

Tai Lake Flutist

A flutist performed from a small building in a pond. I wish I’d had a zoom lens for a better view of her attire. I also wish I had more to write than Nice Day for a Long Walk, but I hope the pictures convey that as intended.

Turtle Head Park may as well be called Buddha Disney World. It’s a spectacle pervaded with reverence surprising amid its scale – worshippers kneeling before fruit offerings on altars, wooden prayer placards hung on red ribbons from racks and trees. Spousal Unit and I sprung for the optional tram because the place is huge, with quite a hike between each point of interest.

Turtle Head Park Buddha Wall

The central fountain periodically puts on a show about the birth of Buddha set to Mandarin narration and classical music. Some friends and I staked our claim at an unpopulated section of the central area. We realized too late why everyone was on the other side – we were about to get an eyeful of baby Buddha’s butt. (He does a full rotation, so the breech delivery didn’t matter.)

Turtle Head Park Birth of Baby Buddha

Curious birds flock in the courtyard nearby. Ashley, a fellow bus tourist, went to feed them and ended up with a new friend in her hair. And scratches on her shoulder, as it was warm enough for tank tops.

The Grand Buddha – all 88 meters of him – delivers as advertised. We climbed the stairs all the way up to touch his toenail, which is about the size of my desk. The statue’s base contains some gift shops and museum displays of various Buddhas and other context that we rushed through due to time constraints and minimal English signage. Even so, it is interesting to note when an exhibit is geared toward domestic tourists more so than foreigners.

Turtle Head Park Giant Buddha

Our last stop was Fangong Palace, one of my favorite sights of the entire trip. It’s a triumph of modern Chinese aesthetics and craftsmanship – simpler elements and traditional ornamentation combined for a sense of future-proof timelessness. Elaborate sculptures and trim are set among clean lines oftentimes enhanced with texture, such as glass barricades etched with classic swirly clouds.

Rainbow lighting brings contemporary verve suited to the overall dignity. The ceiling in the great hall changes color, as does that of the huge circular meeting hall.

The next morning brought us back to group tour reality – oh, there goes gravity. The so-called pearl farm was a showroom where we got to drink tea with ground-up pearls – or not, because I picked the best possible time for a safety whiz – and do the Clueless Shuffle with everyone else apathetic about the merchandise. I switched it up with an occasional round of Guess Why This Necklace Costs Ten Times As Much As This Apparently Identical Other, which at least kept me moving enough to foil the sales staff’s radar. There was also some quality conversation to be had with the others disinterested.


The lakeside area of Hangzhou is like Pittsburgh’s greener districts on high octane fertilizer. The rental bikes, conveniently lined up at roadside, would have been fun on a longer stay. As it was, our itinerary provided a pleasant survey of culture amid nature.

Jingci Temple Lion

Even as one of minimal religious faith, I get warm fuzzies at others’ joyous expressions thereof. I love classic church choir Christmas music – the more Latin, the better. So I had dust in my eye, so to speak, at the sheer dignity of Jingci Temple. People read in the study hall, knelt and sang before golden Buddhas gleaming amid riots of flowers. Monks in black robes led worshippers in song and bowing with incense, smiling as they saw us look on. An old woman told Spousal Unit to tie his shoe, breaking the language barrier with a sharp and unmistakable gesture. He did as instructed.

The drive to West Lake produced a new entry in the Comeback Hall of Fame. I swear this transcription is nearly verbatim.

Adventure Time Eric: Can I pee off the boat?

Awesome Guide Eric: When you smoke in a no smoking area, they take your cigarette away. When you do that where you’re not supposed to –

Delivered with deadpan fluidity, and that’s why he’s awesome.

Eric freely answered questions about the Communist government and ramifications of policies past and present. He spoke of skewed demographics from the birth restrictions typically known as the one child policy, of Mao’s lies to China about how miserable the rest of the world was – only for said lies to collapse upon his death. The modern history Cliff’s Notes of this tour added some valuable knowhow to my skeletal understanding thereof.

West Lake can be summed up as misty grey chill time. We enjoyed a boat ride and some time afterward to photograph the scenery.

The statuesque fellow is Yue Fei, a Southern Song Dynasty general I should probably know more about. My knowledge of pre-20th century Chinese military history is limited to the Three Kingdoms era.

My one regret of the trip – missing out on Impression Westlake, a local legend performed in song and dance on the water’s surface. Awkward dinner logistics and general exhaustion led me to crash in my hotel room without thinking to make plans with anyone else opting out of the group meal to return to the lake. Our friends had an entertaining excursion in downtown Hangzhou, and I heard noise of others making it to the show. At least I got some much needed rest.

Said rest inspired me to wake up early for a walk around the hotel. I got a few photos, some cash – easily procured from a credit-card-accepting bank ATM with English menus – and my first solo experience with crossing the streets – not too bad when I found cyclists and walkers to tag along with.

This adorable utility box is typical of those around the major cities. China’s infrastructure is surprisingly embellished in general, with traditional patterns and cutouts on lampposts and concrete walls and other utilitarian features typically left plain in Pennsylvania outside historic districts.

The tea plantation wins the tourist trap prize for aesthetics – a pretty building alongside working terraces and a town prosperous from tea farming. Adventure Time Eric and I inwardly facepalmed through the science fair show purporting to prove green tea’s power to cure ass cancer, morning tiredness, and cases of the Mondays, but it had its charms as a demonstration of an iodine clock. This was also our first experience with the Tourist Attraction Exit Funnel – a slow serpentine path through all manner of counters and merchandise. I bought some tea, which does serve to financially reward the effectiveness of the entire song and dance, but I like tea and it tastes good. Hooray?

Food on this tour was a sampling feast for most everyone else, a game of Not It for me because of my non-meatatarian habits. Eric ensured I had enough to eat, but I missed out on the fun of Try All the Plates. At lunch, I had a chance to try something new – a variety of boiled melon which was likely an acquired taste. I’m sure it has one. I just couldn’t parse it. I had to agree with Brian’s verdict of “solid hot water”.


The Shanghai Urban Planning Museum had a cute mascot and some nifty displays – modular housing concepts, a light-up model of the city, a discombobulating 360-degree video flythrough. Best of all were an old man’s ink drawings of historic urban scenes alongside contemporary photos of those same locations.

Too bad I had to rush through the ink drawings – and miss another art gallery only glimpsed from the escalator – because we had less than an hour at the museum. Did we have to catch a plane? A train?

Just the bus to yet another shopping experience.

This was where I started getting chafed at the priorities of the tour and my own naivete for failing to see them ahead of time. At least we got another Chinese lesson en route. A king (王 – wáng) gets a belt ornament (玉 – yù). The king then rules a region (国 – guó). Eric is great at engaging non-speakers in the logic of hanzi. Later on, I overheard him explaining that 口 kǒu – a word for “opening”, compounded into entrance or exit – resembles a mouth.

The jade museum, in a tweet – Seek sculptures. Avoid salespeople. Chat with tour folk. Award prize for most patronizing sales pitch ever. That last bit requires an explanation. A young apprentice sat us down for an introductory talk. She spoke of her master artist, who just so happened to be in the back room with an hour to spare before catching a plane. I almost expected him to sell us a jade bridge along with the bangles.

Lunch redeemed the afternoon with tasty food and unique atmosphere. The restaurant was themed after the Cultural Revolution, with Maoist propaganda and wait staff in camouflage and red armbands. I had not expected to see such a casual portrayal less than fifty years after such a painful event. I’m not sure if it was more an acknowledgement of the past or a tourist attraction. It was certainly interesting, and as mentioned, so was the meal – tofu purses, including an extra plate for me. Too bad I derped some on my pants and was self-conscious of the lap splotch until I had a chance for sink laundry.

The City God Temple Bazaar was the best type of shopping-focused attraction. It’s fun – albeit overwhelming – to follow the human tide past the incredible variety of stores. It’s popular among domestic tourists as well. And it has a vegetarian restaurant.

City God Temple Bazaar

Despite having just eaten lunch, I dragged Spousal Unit there for the indulgent relief of picking out random food and knowing it wouldn’t have me gagging. The signs were Chinese, the offered items neatly displayed on the counter as plastic wrapped samples. The Point and Smile ordering method got me many smiles in return, scallion pancakes, and a crispy lacy rice noodle roll with sweet red bean paste filling. The snacks were tasty, the mostly empty restaurant a quiet respite. I only wish I’d had room to try more of the menu.

We saw pork buns in progress and a surprising selection of bronze Three Kingdoms statues. The expected Guan Yu was joined by Zhuge Liang, Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei, and Lu Bu with Diao Chan. Counterfeit goods were offered subtly by people with printed-out catalogs or conspicuous designer branding, like a woman with a Chanel pin who tried to catch my eye. I briefly considered following them for the sake of novel research SCIENCE!, but I stayed away – Eric had warned that you might be stranded in a distant alley or forced to buy before leaving the store. There was lots of cigarette smoke and a hallway smelling like cow shit, which I belatedly realized was some form of stinky tofu I should have tried for the sake of Just Because.

Pork Buns in Progress

Our rendezvous point was a building with a tea shop on the third floor. We went to check it out and ended up tasting tea for a good long relaxing hour. Kasey, in a black and white maid uniform, showed off assorted varieties of tea, including the flowering sort, and asked us about various details of our home town. The parental units also wandered in along with more people from the bus. We bought tea with dried fruit which tasted like brewed Pez in the best way possible. There was no charge for the tasting or pressure to buy, so I considered the price to be a fair trade for chill time.

Flowering Tea

At dinner, a table of elementary school kids waved at us and said “Welcome to Shanghai!” Adventure Time Eric poked his head into a celebration in an adjacent partitioned-off room. Awesome Guide Eric ordered yellow wine on someone’s request. I had a small taste. That was more than enough.

The very impressive Shanghai acrobatics show was hosted in a small circular auditorium that put us close to the stage. I especially dug the couple on aerial silks, who did many one-armed holds, and the muscle man catching and turning a heavy jar with his head, even balancing it on edge. As a finale, seven motorcyclists in ancient armor roared around in a spherical cage and also through the audience. A+++ worth the $35 add-on ticket price.

We had heard rumors of a great massage at the spa across from our hotel. Glenda and I went together and ended up with an accidental couple’s massage through the language barrier of scheduling. It was a very nice Standard Relaxing Massage – not quite the Myofascial Release Hell I craved for my stiff from staring out the bus window neck, but good for what it was, and a bonding experience of sorts with a bonus funny story.

The next day, we had our final infomercial – a carpet factory well out of everyone’s price range and impulse buying instincts. At least it had the visual interest of an in-progress rug on display. Adjacent thereto was the worst meal of the trip – a Mongolian stir fry joint from the innermost circle of cross-contamination hell. The chefs loved to make a show of tossing food all around the circular grill and through everyone else’s detritus. I gave up on my inedibly meat-strewn dish and attempted to satiate myself on mixed vegetables, fruit, and cookies. The silver lining – an amusing variety of celebrity-themed merchandise, with pop stars, athletes, and Obama alongside the likes of Qaddafi, Putin, and bin Laden. It seems that any famous face will sell a pack of playing cards.