MAY 6 – I awake early, dreamless, and eat a delicious egg pancake thingie from a street vendor for 4y. Then go for coffee at Burger King for 13y, which makes no sense. But that’s cheap for coffee! (more about that later). Suzhou is famous for its walled in gardens. I head to the giant pagoda near my hotel, and am met by some folks holding signs looking to book people like me on tours, a tour that I’m actually interested in taking. I run into the same problem – I WANT to book it, but there’s no way of telling when or where it starts/leaves from. They don’t get the “wrist” body language. How can people not get that? Finally, because it’s only $20, I say “Okay,” and wait to see what happens, whereupon I’m directed to jump on the back of one of the group’s motorcycle, who drives me to where a bunch of buses are lined up, and sends me off on one.
The tour leaves at 9:30AM and we start off with a boat tour down the canal which is very nice, but our guide, a very well-put together woman, never shuts up, and holds her microphone too close and speaks in a loud, shrieky tone. I wonder if she gets paid by the word. She also starts a lot of sentences with ‘AHHHH,’ like she is answering a question that she just asked herself.
Next stop is the silk museum. Silk has its beginnings, apparently, in this area, and because the Chinese are so into symbolism, the silkworm’s cocoon symbolizes eternal life, or going up to heaven, or something very good. It also conveys status, especially in the past. So we rush through 2 or 3,000 years of the history of silk in 10 minutes so we can spend an hour in the gigantic silk emporium in the adjacent halls. Then we’re whisked off to lunch and directed into this huge restaurant, which I opt out of in favor of the cheaper, emptier place next door, which is pretty mediocre.
Then we go to the ‘Calm’ gardens, one of those famous Suzhou gardens, only it’s on every tour’s itinerary, all of whom have guides who, whether male or female, sound like my guide and talk way-yyy too loud into their megaphones. So the gardens are noisy and anything but ‘calm.’ Then we’re off to a pearl factory, and it’s a replica of the ‘silk’ experience – hustled through the exhibit halls, only to come to a prolonged halt at the shopping area.
Apparently this is standard practice on tours like these. One tour operator was in the news for severely berating her tourists for not buying enough at the respective stops, and she threatened that if they didn’t spend a lot more, their plane tickets home would be canceled! Someone videoed her and posted it and she was fired, but stuff like that probably goes on all the time.
I jettison the tour while we’re marooned in the pearl shop, and hop a cab to the Suzhou Museum, which is fabulous looking, and designed by I.M. Pei. Then onto the nearby and heralded Humble Administrator’s Gardens, which is definitely a trip highlight. Truly fantastic, gorgeous, beautiful, with lakes and pagodas and hills and bonsai and filled with attractions with great names, like “Appearing Nearby Pagoda” or “Hill of sweet-smelling rice,” stuff like that.
Then walking (!) back to my hotel, because I actually know the way, I stop at a neighborhood restaurant. I’m looking at the menu and when I look up, six middle-aged people are standing at my table, watching me. There’s no embarrassment at all. They smile and think it’s entertaining. I smile and am all, “What?” and then when I order they laugh and watch me eat with chopsticks. I find it funny. I get an enormous amount of food for 30y, or $5. Spicy green beans, vegetables, a large plate of noodles. Plus, eating out is even cheaper because there’s no tax added, and no tipping waiters (or anybody).
OK. So here’s a Big Travel Tip. Before you report that your hotel room was ripped off, go through your things five, nay 8 (lucky number) times. I imagine every trip to a foreign land is going to have a cringe-worthy moment, and I just hope this was mine and I got it out of the way early.
When I got back to the hotel, I couldn’t find my driver’s license and two of my bank cards and a credit card. I had taken them out in the morning and left them in my luggage, but can’t find them on my return. I look and look and look. Then I realize my suitcase is on the floor, and I was almost positive I left is on the table, and my clothes seem jumbled and zippers are opened and it’s NOT the way I remember leaving it, so I’m sure it’s been ransacked. Plus, my bed is ‘made’ – sloppily, but made – which is something I wouldn’t have done. So I report it downstairs. At first they don’t take it seriously, but I come back later – after looking through stuff again – and use the word “police” so they start to pay attention. I’m thinking the odds of this actually happening are small, and I’m not yelling or acting accusatory or anything, but it is a big deal. The young staff – and a young tourist guy who speaks rudimentary English – come up to help me. Then they go downstairs to get the manager, and while they’re doing that, I go through the lining of my luggage AGAIN and I feel the outline of what feels like cards, and I almost wish they’re not there, but they are. All except one ATM card, but at this point I can’t say with any conviction that it was stolen. When the manager and staff knock, I’m too embarrassed to admit that I made a mistake – after causing all this upheaval – so I try to save face by saying I took care of the problem and canceled the cards, but I’m pretty sure the manager knows I’m BS-ing. It’s very embarrassing. The weird part is I’m still Not convinced the room wasn’t gone through because of the way the luggage looked. This worries me somewhat, because the last couple years my mother was alive, when she was in assisted living, like a lot of old people, she was always accusing the staff of stealing from her, even stuff that made no sense stealing. And when I found it, she still was convinced that they’d stolen it, and put it back, or something. This wasn’t that bad, but it reminded me of it, which was enough.
When that kerfuffle was settled, I took a taxi to Shangtang street, which was BUSTLING with outdoor restaurants, tacky music, and side streets with canals and more quiet restaurants, which was very nice.
OBSERVATION: One thing that immediately makes me enthralled with this country is when you tell people you’re a writer, they’re EXCITED! They think it’s fantastic! They wanted to BE one! They’re really thrilled. AS opposed to the US, where when you say you’re a writer to, say, a woman, she thinks “poor” and looks for the investment banker.
OBSERVATION: THIS COUNTRY DOESN’T BELIEVE IN NAPKINS!! WHY?? EVERYTHING NEEDS IT!
CFF: CHINESE PEOPLE DON’T CLAP. At ends of songs in park, or in cafes, there’s virtually…nothing