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China

Suzhou

Gardens. More gardens.

May 1998

The Chinese have a saying, "In heaven there is paradise, but on earth Suzhou and Hangzhou." During my stay in Shanghai I took a quick trip out to Suzhou (pop. 600,000) and one of China's oldest cities, founded in the 6th century BC. It's alternatively called the "Venice of the Orient". An attractive, prosperous city dominated by gardens and canals, Suzhou is 75 kilometers west of Shanghai, about an hour by express train. With such close proximity to Shanghai it should come as no surprise that Suzhou is experiencing rapid development. However, the powers that be have pushed all development outside the core city. The central area is but twelve kilometers square, surrounded by a moat, which dates to the 12th century. A few kilometers outside the city, high-rises, industrial parks, office parks, and the like dominate the region. I left Shanghai late in the afternoon May 1, spent all day May 2 in Suzhou, and returned to Shanghai the following morning.

Throughout Asia, a common game run by taxi drivers is to pull commissions from hotels. They bring in a passenger and demand that the hotel gives the driver a percentage of the rate for one night. Inevitably, hotel operators cave in to the taxi drivers lest they face the unpleasant prospect of too many empty rooms. The real loser is, of course, the traveler who must contend with taxi drivers who may refuse to take you to certain hotels, or pay the resulting higher room rates that are charged to cover the commissions. In China I first encountered this problem in Suzhou.

I arrived by train just after sunset. After a little bit of aimless wandering I found the taxi line. Next to the taxi line was a gathering of motorcycle taxis and pedicabs. As with everywhere else in China the pedicabs were most aggressive. Of course I had no idea what was a good hotel in Suzhou, but a good review came in for the Friendship Hotel, located in the southern part of the city, so I figured I'd give it a look.

I requested it to the first cab driver. "You don't want. Hotel no good. Maybe you want..." and he mentioned some hotel I had never heard of. I shooed him away. The next cab came along, again I repeated my destination, "Friendship Hotel," I said. "No, hotel closed. Go another hotel," he responds. I shooed him off. The same scenario repeated itself several more times. There was no question in my mind what was going on here, and it was obvious the Friendship Hotel had not yet caved into the extortionist demands of the Suzhou taxi mafia. I was now more determined than ever to stay there.

Meanwhile, all the while I'm having difficulty getting a cab, the motorcycles and pedicabs were circling closer like a pack of vultures waiting for me to succumb. Finally after about six cabs refused to take me where I wanted to go, one driver finally agrees to take me to the Friendship Hotel. As she starts to pull away from the station she makes a phone call on her cellular and a few minutes later stops to pick someone up, a young man of about eighteen, her son maybe? He turns to me and asks in broken but still intelligible English to reconfirm where I wanted to go. I showed him my book which had the hotel listed in both English and Chinese characters. I thought that was strange but I was promptly driven in a straight line to the hotel I wanted.

I walked into the front lobby of the Friendship Hotel, which by the way, was immaculate, the first taxi driver's comments not withstanding, approached the desk and inquired about the cheapest rooms. Posted on a board were the four different room sizes and rates, ranging from about 275 yuan ($34) to 795 yuan (almost $100). As with most eastern Chinese cities, budget guesthouses were virtually nonexistent. The man behind the desk shook his head, "Sorry, no have cheapest rooms." Marvelous. "What do you have?" I really didn't want this conversation. It was evening, it was dark, and I was hungry. I had no desire to run around Suzhou looking for an alternative which may not have existed anyway.

"Just a moment, please." Another man arrived who I guessed to be the manager. There was also a young woman behind the counter; the three of them huddled.
"We get you room 500 yuan."
That's sixty dollars and a fistful of change. "500? Can't you go any lower?" I ask.
They huddle again. This time longer. "Okay. 395 yuan."
Hmm, almost fifty dollars. "I don't know." I pause to decide whether to bail out, knowing I had no guarantee of doing better elsewhere. Although this was a few dollars more than where I stayed in Shanghai, there was nothing about Suzhou to indicate I'd find anything cheaper. Seeing me hesitate, the manager steps in, "We give you this." And he pointed to the top of the board, the 795-yuan rooms.
"You stay two nights we give you executive suite, half price. 395 a night."
I didn't need an executive suite. I needed a clean bed and a hot shower. But I figured that I probably wouldn't get anything cheaper, so why not be a high ranking Communist Party cadre for two nights and live in decadent western luxury?
"Okay, I'll take it."
And for 120 yuan more than the cheapest room I was given a two-room suite with a bathroom bigger than some hotel rooms I've stayed in. The bed alone was big enough to sleep an entire family of six and maybe the family goat as well.

After checking in I turned to the manager and asked him point blank, "So when did the cab drivers start demanding money from the hotels?"
He looked at me blankly.
I pressed on, "It took me about seven tries to get a driver to come here, and they all had their own ideas about where I should stay."
He forced a half-hearted grin. "Nobody hotel pay taxi." And he politely excused himself.
Oops. I think I struck a nerve with that one.

The hotel had a restaurant but it was being used for a big wedding party. A smiling hostess, though unable to speak a word of English, pointed down the street to where there were a number of restaurants. One establishment had mixed in among all the Chinese characters the word 'restaurant' in bright red neon light. Probably a good chance for having an English menu so I walked in. About six young employees were assembled near the door. An even mix of boys and girls, they all looked to be high school or college aged, much like you'd expect to see working at any family style restaurant in America.

I somehow communicated to them the need for an English language menu, or perhaps more likely they just figured it out. Regardless, instant activity began. They talked at each other, poked around, looked through drawers. After a minute or so, another girl comes over from the dining area. "Good evening," she says to me in English before talking to the others. She turns back to me, "Have English, we look, just a moment." Several more minutes pass and nothing turns up. I was eminently impressed with this whole episode. There must have been six or seven of them looking every possible place for an English language menu, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves, as if this was the most exciting thing they'd done all week. Finally, someone appeared from a back office holding a dusty, frayed at the edges, English language menu. They all cheered. You'd think they found lost treasure or something. Maybe they had.

The single English speaking girl seated me at a table. Though she was working an entirely different part of the restaurant from the small table she gave me, she cheerfully waited on me anyway. Once again, I'm thoroughly impressed at the Chinese ability to grasp the concept of customer service. Though certainly not all businesses in China have figured out customer service, not by a long stretch, but those that have figured it out have very much outdone their western counterparts. I wonder how many restaurants in America would go to such lengths to serve one non-English speaking Chinese customer? This restaurant practically tore their place apart looking for a single menu to serve a single customer even though it could be weeks or months until they see a foreigner again. They could have so easily just shrugged their shoulders and said, "no have" and sent me on my way.

There are a lot of strange things on Chinese menus, aside from every conceivable internal organ served every conceivable way, you could eat snake, pigeon, eel, even rat, but there it was, somewhere in the middle of page six, "dog, 40 yuan". My mind flashed images of my own happy dog. I looked suspiciously at my waitress, "Dog?" I said in a drawn out, slightly disapproving tone.
"Oh, you want dog?" she cheerfully replied.
"No, no, no. Sorry, I just ah, umm, uh, never mind."
I settled on some kind of pig's leg that was absolutely delicious and huge. Along with the leg I had soup and some cold duck, all of which cost me about 50 yuan. I was so stuffed I could barely walk out. When I did finally walk out, the same group of young employees was still lounging about. They all smiled, laughed, and waved goodbye, one pulled the English language menu from the drawer proudly showing me that it was now in its rightful place among the other menus.

Suzhou is famous for its gardens and canals. Numerous traditional Chinese gardens are all over the city. Chinese gardens are comprised of small courtyards, rock formations, plants, small ponds, bridges, walkways, gazebos, and more. At some of the gardens one can also tour the accompanying residence which will provide an interesting glimpse into how the Chinese upper class lived centuries ago. In one busy day I saw one hill, one temple, and three gardens.

The day started with a trip to Tiger Hill. This is a manmade hill northwest of the city. It is the burial place of He Lu, the founder of Suzhou. Legend has it he was buried with 3,000 swords and a white tiger to protect him. Atop the hill is China's version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Built in the 10th century it is an octagonal pagoda that goes by the name of 'crooked tower'. Though not leaning as dramatically as everybody's favorite pizza box decoration it's still an impressive sight. There is also a temple with a large reclining Buddha bearing a swastika. A swastika inevitably elicits a negative reaction from most westerners. However, one should keep in mind that it is an ancient symbol, and the traditional swastika rotates counterclockwise. The Nazi version rotates clockwise.

Next stop was the West Garden Temple. Here the main attraction is five hundred different seated Buddhas. Every image has a distinct, vivid facial expression, with accompanying hand movements that are unique from all the others. Each of the five hundred figures corresponds to a different year, and the one that corresponds to the year of your birth is 'your' Buddha.

After lunch I visited three of Suzhou's gardens. The three I visited were the Garden for Lingering In, the Blue Wave Pavilion, and the Garden of the Master of the Nets. The Garden for Lingering In is renown for its many rock formations and the Blue Wave Pavilion is Suzhou's oldest dating from about the 10th century. The Garden of the Master of the Nets is Suzhou's smallest. It was originally laid out in the 12th century. Perhaps Suzhou's best garden, it's as much residence as it is gardens. Lining the walls of the various rooms are many calligraphy paintings and scenic watercolors; well-maintained antique furniture fills the rooms. If Chinese parents have a reputation for strictness and severity I found out why. In the sitting room, on opposite sides of a small table are two chairs for the father and mother of the family to sit in. These are small, wooden straight-back chairs that don't look at all comfortable. A few hours in one of those chairs would turn any parent into a despotic tyrant.

I returned that evening to the same restaurant. Why not? The food was great, they busted their butts to serve me, and I knew they had an English menu. Again, they proudly showed me that the English menu was still in its rightful place in the drawer with the other menus. They had now cleaned off the cover, too. I had the same pig's leg but ate different soup and I forget what else. Again, I stuffed myself fully.

I wish I could say more about Suzhou, but my time there was only forty hours. Spending the day running around looking at gardens and pagodas, I never really had the chance just to wander the streets, but my impression of the city is a good one. It strikes me as a very livable place and one I'd like to return to for a few days more sometime. I recommend anyone visiting Shanghai to at least get out here for a day if possible. It's a reasonably clean (except maybe the canals), attractive city that still maintains much of its old city charm. The small, old city feel is something the residents are trying to keep, clearly evidenced by the zoning regulations that have designated all new development to outside the city core. But one can't help to wonder about Suzhou's future when its distance from Shanghai is a mere one hour by express train and a whole lot less in influence.

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All text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.