Monday, August 28, 2006

A Day in Paradise

All this time living just down the road from "Heaven on Earth", and "The Venice of China" - to mention just a couple of the tourist plugs for Suzhou - we had never quite got around to visiting there.

Now the owner of our private school has just bought herself a new apartment there, and so we were all invited to a "come-see-my-new-apartment-and-farewell-peter-and-ruth-and-welcome-christian-and-leo-(who-has-been-here-for-a-while-anyway)-party. Yes, really.

We went by train, and when we got out at the station in Suzhou we were pounced on by a (some) English-speaking lady and her husband who wanted to offer themselves as our guides for the day. Well, it was a very hot day (42degrees and muggy) and they had an air-conditioned van, so we accepted the offer to be chauffeured around all day rather than try to find a map and catch buses or taxis - we weren't even sure what we wanted to see anyway.

First they took us to one of the parks - Calming Garden, I think it was. We paid our way in (parks are not free in China) and wandered around in the heat, looking for shady spots and breeze.

teapot sz

And trying to avoid the tour groups with the MEGAphones ... Hmmm, "Calming garden ..."

At the end of the park there was a larger section of water, and - to our surprise - we realised our tickets entitled us to a short boat trip back down the waterway.

boat park 7 sz

Then our guides took us to the "Number One Tourist Spot in Suzhou - Tiger Hill." It was, of course another park with an entry fee, and a hill to climb with a tower on it. It claims to be 2 500 years old - yeah, whatever. The tower looked very old and definitely had a slight lean. The opening time for climbing said tower apparently ended moments before we arrived. Another guide offered us a ride to the top of the hill in an electric cart - we decided it was worth the price, and we all got the definite impression the ride down the hill was include ... but as soon a we dismounted the cart abandoned us and took off back down the hill.

The heat was intense and the humidity oppressive. We sat in the shade for a while, and then wandered back down the hill.

Oh, and the tiger? Something about the chap who was buried here (2 500 years ago), when he died someone saw a tiger here ...

In this park and the previous one there were some signs that offered some special interest:

park igin 2a sz

park sign sz

And the always curious bins:

bin sign sz

Our giudes told us that number three tourist spot would be the canal, but first we went for some lunch. They took us a to nice little restaurant where we ordered five dishes - including a Suzhou special "boneless" fish for 100 kuai. Well, the fish was nicely done in a sweet and sour sauce with all the bones removed (except head and tail), but considering the whole meal (for five of us) only cost 200 kuai it was a very expensive dish. (Soon be back in Oz, real fish and chips!)

Time for the canal - "number 3, canal", they kept saying - and then they stopped and told us to get out. "Canal?" we asked - because it certainly didn't look like it. "No, that's next. This is a silk factory ..."

silk sz

Well, it may be a while before we see yet another silk factory - do they have silk factories in Turkey?

The bit that always interests me is not this part (above) where they spin 6-8 strands together, but where they make doonas (quilts) out of the "double" cocoons - the ones that have a male and female insect inside.

silk 5 sz silk 4 sz

silk 6 sz

She starts with this tiny cocoon and stretches it over a frame, and then a bigger frame - its incredibly strong.

silk 8 sz

And then four people get hold of this scrap of silk and stretch it to double bed size.

silk 7 sz

After several layers of that, you have an amazing doona.

We escaped without buying any. Then it was time to go to the canal! We drove down some incredibly narrow alleys to get to the canal, but the little man our guides were supposed to be meeting wasn't where he should have been, so we went back and drove across to the other side of town to find a canal ride.

Not the sort of problem to expect in "Venice" ...

By now we were very tired, and tired of the hot weather, and pretty much out of cash. And so the offer of a ride in a canal boat (not a gondola) for 68 kuai each lost its appeal. It was time to go to the party in

The Apartment

The apartment is in the Suzhou new Singapore Industrial District, the fifteenth floor of serviced apartments belonging to the Crowne Plaza, right on the edge of the lake with views of the (man-made) islands.

marissa view 3

The Crowne Plaza itself is in the process of being knocked down and rebuilt - a little thing they seem to like doing here in China - so there was a lot of construction equipment and noise nearby, after all the place is brand new.

There are fountains built in to the edge of the lake, and we were looking forward to the show in the evening - as were many others who gathered - but apparently they heard we were coming and decided not to do the show.

marissa view

Still the view is specky. Don't think I'd like to live here - nice to visit and see.

And a good time was had by all. (At the party ...)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Soup and Shatter-Bread

Yep, that's what I had for lunch today.

shatter bread

I can't take it any more. I can't face any more Chinese bread with that sickly sweet coconutty smell (and sweet taste). I can't face any more Chinese street food, nor funny bits of various animals. Its just not nice. I want something plain, a little bit savoury, familiar.

Yes, the soup is still in a Chinese packet, but it just tastes like "cup-a-soup" ... a little thinner, more watery, than back home.

And the shatter-bread? Well, if you buy the bread-sticks - the only non-sweet bread we can get most of the time - we buy several at a time because we have to travel to a big supermarket to get them, and they don't have any preservatives or whatever ... so they go hard as rocks in no time. Who needs croutons? Just use shatter-bread.

Ok, I admit it. I haven't been out of the apartment for two days and I'm a little bored.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Putting them up and tearing them down

Or doing things in the right order

I like sewing, I like turning a flat piece of material into something someone can wear. I like cooking too, turning some powders and liquids and 'goo's into a nice rubbery piece of cake that looks nothing like the ingredients it started off as. With everything, though, I have learnt by hard experience, you need to do things in the right order ... otherwise you end up un-picking and un-doing and doing over.

Jian Kang Lu,

our street, has always had a charm of its own. The first time we were driven down this street my heart sank - what a grotty place, the back-side of town! The road surface is bumpy, the pavements are 'splooshy', and a whole lot of people live and operate their businesses on the narrow pavement area making it necessary to take your life into your hands and walk on the road. And there are dozens (literally) of pink rooms with friendly girls who pop out to invite you in.

But what was always unusual about this street is that for the most part of it there were actually three rows of big, shady trees. One row of younger trees were on the edge of the street, and then two rows of huge trees separated the car lanes from the bike lanes. Over the summer at least it gave it a real "green leafy" feel, despite the decrepitity of the rest of the street.

jian kang lu bus stop

Our apartments nestle at the corner of this street and Wu Ai Lu - and for our first four or five months here WuAi Lu was just a construction sight, closed to most traffic, most of the buses were redirected down Jian Kang Lu. Suddenly they finished resurfacing WuAi and planted instant big trees and it was a nice place to be.

When we head to work we tend to go out to Jian Kang Lu to catch a number 40 bus - infrequent though it tends to be, because it takes us directly from our gateway to the front door of our office.

Last summer we stood baking on the pavement in front of the construction wall where they were building some posh new apartments next to the bus stop. Then they finished and knocked down the wall, and we stood and shivered through winter next to the instant garden they planted there, (complete with underwear trees). The buses would come bouncing into the stop over the rough surface, splashing muddy water from the puddles all over the myriad of cyclists clinging frantically to their vehicles as they clanged and bumped their way through.

Then they re-bricked the pavement by the bus-stop! I spent several happy hours over several days waiting at the stop and watching the little men (especially one particular one-eyed elf-like man) lugging the pavers from where they'd been dumped and carefully laying them in a neat pattern.

Then they put up a new bus stop sign - instead of the old bit of tin wired onto a power pole.

And then, oh joy! They finally gave us a bus shelter! After nearly a year of standing around in the weather, we finally had a bus shelter.

But I wasn't quick enough to get a photo of it, it was only there a few days, then it was gone.

bus stop

That's where it was. Now we were all back to standing in line in the shade of the power pole like this lady is. I waited with her, and the bus finally came and we climbed aboard. But this was the day they started cutting down the trees in Jian Kang Lu. They hadn't closed the road, but there were trunks and branches and leaves and great gaping holes in the road, not to mention the heavy machinery that was doing the work.

The bus-driver - apparently taken by surprise by this development - found the road ahead blocked, but then he saw a space on the extreme left of the road (yes, they drive on the right here - mostly) so he wormed his way over there, and drove down the pavement for a bit. Then the bus jammed a bit between a couple of tree-trunks. Undeterred the driver scraped his vehicle onto the left-hand bike lane instead. Finding this blocked too, he headed back to the extreme right-hand side - through several muddy holes and over a heap of dirt - and drove on the pavement there for a while. Of course he wasn't the only one meandering back and forth. It was peak hour traffic and apparently no one had known they were going to start digging up this busy road today.

Of course its much worse now. They still haven't actually closed the road - as far as I can tell - but the buses have quit coming down here. I am so glad we are not living right on Jian Kang Lu, the noise at night time would be very hard to sleep through, we are three buildings back from the road and the machine noises are mostly drowned out by the dogs barking, squeaky bike brakes, doors slamming, doorbells ringing ...

All that you get used to. But I am totally puzzled by the lack of coordination between departments. The people who do pavements and bus stops obviously have no language in common with the people who do roads and drains. This is a level of incompetence I really only thought was possible in the west.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Cheek by Jowl

All of a sudden the "heat wave" has passed. We can turn off the air conditioners and open the windows - at least for part of the day.

And rediscover our neigbours.

kitchen neighbours

There they are, just a few metres away. And over here as well ...

living room neighbours

Everywhere you turn - people, people, people ...

Last night I spent some time in the bathroom ... and the people were all still there. The man downstairs walking between the buildings shouting "Wei! Wei!" (hello) into his phone, and the baby in an apartment that was wakened by this and started to bellow, and the dog that decided its owners and everyone else should know that something was going on. A few metres away, in the next building, someone had come home at 2 am without a key apparently. Each apartment has a strident doorbell that screeches "Avon! Avon! Avon!" when you touch it. (Except ours which is, thankfully, not working, again). The occupants of the apartment were asleep, or maybe out, or possibly dead, but the person at the door just kept on pressing that bell, again and again, and even I finally fell asleep again despite it.

Our students often use their country's overpopulation as an excuse for many things, including poor study habits ...


and falling asleep on the job ...

corporate class

The real problem is not the number of people in the population, but the lack of concern they show for each other. It's not that hard to talk quietly on your phone at 2am, and to not spit all over the pavement, and to not push when you are in a queue, and to look out for other people when you walk past them ... all those little courtesies we were taught as youngsters.

Monday, August 14, 2006

The owl and the pussycat

Our daughter-in-law, when she was much younger and still 'the girlfriend', often ate at our house but didn't like to eat her vege's - especially her "greens". Just for fun, we always kept a few green "icy-poles" (lime flavour) in the freezer to make sure she kept to a balanced diet.

So when you see an ice-cream with this wrapper:

pea green wrapper

What flavour of ice-cream do you expect?

pea green lick

If you didn't know that ice-cream came in "pea" flavour, then you obviously haven't been to China. Or maybe you are in China but not game to taste this delicious (and cheap!) dessert!

And this is not one of the best ones. Last year in Zhengzhou we often bought pea-creams that had chocolate, nuts and sultanas in the middle.

Maybe this would have taught young Jenn to eat her greens!

Owl and pussycat? Who needs a pea green boat when you can suck on one of these beauties...

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

of Blains and Blawn

I was at the office, slogging my way through a five-and-a-half-hour stint with one business class, and badly in need of a (second) cup of coffee ... and for the second time that day I found that the bottle on the water machine was (still) empty, so I headed down to the other end of the office to fill my cup from the other machine. [Had there been a spare full bottle next to the machine, I would have replaced it - but I didn't fancy carrying (or rolling) one from the other end of the office.]

As I stood at the other water machine, I noticed Manager Mark slaving away at his desk, working on next week's timetable, and so I mentioned in passing that we could do with someone with 'muscles' to replace the water bottle in the teachers' office.

At the end of my lesson I returned to the teachers' office to be greeted with this sight.

clazy laowai

What are these clazy laowai doing?

Well, apparently neither of these chivalrous males had ever before changed a water bottle, nor even watched one of the skinny little office girls do it, nor applied their problem-solving skills (blains) to thinking about how it is done.

They attacked the full bottle with great gusto, removing the plastic cap and blue collar, and then stared in amazement at the open, naked bottle neck, wondering how on earth they would up-end it onto the machine. So then they looked longingly at the empty bottle,

empty bottle, with collar

still wearing its little blue collar, and wondered if they could somehow get the water into the old bottle.

They hunted around and found a plastic folder, which they twisted into a funnel, and voila! Great problem-solving skills, guys!

(P.S. For those that are not familiar with the term, "laowai" is a general Chinese term for us foreigners)

Ringing in my ears

Last night I was having trouble getting to sleep. My ears were ringing. I felt like I had been at a rock concert or something. Then I remembered.

Talkative Taxi Driver

I have to travel out of town a-ways to teach in a couple of different factories. One of them sends a car - makes the whole 30-40min trip quite relaxing. For the other, I must take a taxi. I had a couple of bad experiences with drivers from the inner city getting lost on their way out there. So now I have a regular taxi booked by the Chinese staff at work. I climb in the back, and relax all the way there going over my lesson notes and enjoying the scenery.

There is always a line of taxis there waiting when its time to come back. At the end of my two hours of teaching there I am tired and hungry and I just want to get home for tea.

As I emerge from the guard room at the front of the factory the drivers are standing around in a group, discussing me. No, I'm not paranoid, they really are. By the time I've taken a few steps towards them the front driver has the door open ready for me and the engine running, and all of the drivers are chanting the few words of Chinese that I know and use when I tell them where I want to go. So, no need to explain anything - just laugh and agree, get in and go.

Several times the driver of the front taxi was a little lady who can barely see over the steering wheel, even when she sits up straight in the seat and doesn't let her back touch the seat-back. She drives tentatively and makes me a little nervous, but at least she is quiet.

Last night I stepped into the waiting taxi which had the door open and the engine already running, and smiled at the driver. We were a few metres down the road when he got conversational.

He wanted to practise all of the English words he knew, and he wanted to teach me a bunch of Chinese. We "discussed" where I come from, and my job, and his, and where I live. He pointed to things we passed and said their names in (very bad) English, and how to spell it, and how to say it in Chinese (with a Wuxi accent). All of it was shouted at the top of his voice. We went through the days of the week, and numbers - he missed "seven", but I decided I didn't care.

About fifteen minutes into the trip he patted his hand against the ceiling of the cab and yelled "langa!" He was staring at me, questioning. I looked from him to the road ahead and back to him frantically, wishing he would also look at the road. "Long?", I asked, and suggested, "You mean 'tall'?" Silly me. "Langa, langa! L-Ooow-N-G!" he shouted. Obviously I didn't look convinced, because he turned on the cabin light and opened a tiny notebook from the dash, and started flipping through it. Again I was watching the road ahead hoping nothing jumped in front of us while he read the scrawls in his notebook. I decided I would not disagree with him again, and stared out of the window wishing he would just stop talking. "Short! S-H-O-R-T!" he was shouting at me. I agreed with him, and tried hard to repeat the Chinese words he was throwing at me. Finally he was tired too, and started "singing" (loudly) instead.

We were still a couple of hundred metres from where I wanted to get out, and I had my briefcase and a CD player to carry. He started practising words again. "Stop! S-T-O-P!" he bellowed. "Ting che," I said quietly, wanting to show that I knew at least a few words of Chinese. He took me at my word, and stopped straight away. For a brief second I thought about telling him I didn't want to stop right yet, but thought better of it, I would rather lug my stuff the last bit than put up with any more shouting in that small space.

This morning my ears are feeling better. And tomorrow I will be out there again catching one of those taxis.