March 7, 2014
In typical fashion we probably overdid our first day in China. As I write in the evening, we still not been here 24 hours. Here is our first day.
We managed to leave our luxurious (for us) room. We are on the 16th floor near the illuminated crown.
Had to take a break before I finished. At 2:30 am, I am wide awake after six hours of rock like sleep. Here goes.
We met our tour guide in the elegant lobby with Jen and Brian-like center pieces all over the place. “Chris” picked us out of the gathered businessmen quite easily and we were off. He would be our private guide for the day. It was quite a time.
The tour was a standard gig to the ancient city of Suzhou and the living history “water town”of Zhouzhuang. We got much more than we bargained for as I will try to relate.
We were expecting to be part of a small tour like in Israel with 6 to 8 folks. These “private” tours are preferred over the follow the umbrella bus tours. Today there was Chris and a driver who spoke no English whatever but must have just returned from Daytona. We were just three people in the car, Chris felt free to open up on all types of personal and political issues. Many of the topics were the ones that tour guides warn you not to engage in while in China. We had our personal sage, guide and philosopher in the guise of a thirty year old Taoist adherent for the next nine hours. Suzan, eat your heart out.
Our first destination , Suzhou lay an hour freeway drive from Shanghai. Our driver AKA Parnelli kept us on the road. Chris did the normal probing to find out who was on board. It was good that we had boned up on Chinese history before the trip. After we had passed the initial ignorant tourist questions, Chris started a dialogue that would last the day.
Chris is a Daoist AKA Taoist who adheres to the filial piety part of Confucianism but rejects most of the Confucian values of being happy with societal roles. He would ask us our views on topics and then explain his outlook. He is proud of Chinese culture and feels that its spiritual values would be good for the rest of the world. He rejects the current dictatorship primarily because his feeling that its decision making process is without openness and not subject to question.
He is an only child, like almost all of his generation due to the one child policy. He helps support his parents and the 91 year old grandmother who lives in a retirement home (at great cost to the family). Despite have guided a cruise ship tour until midnight the evening before, he kept up a fascinating dialogue and inquest.
We arrived in huge city of Suzhou without incident and went to one of the restored private home and garden of a retired bureaucrat that was built a thousand years ago. It was not a palace. It was designed as a retreat from the political world. It is called the Garden of the Master of the Nets. It revealed the thinking of a Daoist from long ago. Chris patiently explain the symbolism and rationale for the design of the rooms equipped with Ming dynasty furniture. It was like having a personal guide in a great Christian cathedral.
Chris would use his smart phone to explain how the natural rocks which were eerily similar to both Chinese ideographs and the limestone rocks in Columbia. He would use his finger to write the word and explain each line and what it meant. In the context that we were in, it was fascinating. Peggy wanted to know how 5 year olds could learn the 3,000 characters to be able to read. Chris said he doesn’t remember except that the picture-words made sense and spoke to him visually and emotionally. No wonder the Chinese are poets and not known as a land of great speakers.
While the tour groups which were blessedly small rambled by, Chris explained the myriad symbols of Daoism designed into the structure and its rooms. Just one example. The Daoists believed that to learn, one needed to fist empty the mind before learning. The favored decor for a study was a bamboo theme since bamboo is empty on the inside. I still remember many a bamboo brain from my years of teaching. Maybe they were Daoist.
The house buildings were built around an artificial pond filled with gold fish and surrounded by plantings and male and female rock formations. It was all quite mystical. Sometimes I felt like Keanu Reeves in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. There were hundreds of these gardens long ago. Today there are but twenty in the area and only four open to the public. It was quite an experience. Time for some pictures.
We returned to our race van and saw the remnant of the Suzhow wall and canal that surrounded the city. We are In front of a thousand year old bridge that we crossed. The watergate was the way into the city.
We next found ourselves in a mandatory Silk Factory stop that originated in Nationalist times and still is in full swing. Silk production is full of jobs that I wouldn’t like. Handling worms and cooking pupae and unwinding cocoons…the list goes on. The end product is wonderful. It is getting the there that is icky. Our factory host was charming and we met Chris outside the elaborate store.
We enjoyed a delightful lunch with Chris (we insisted he sit with us instead of the customary guide and driver seating). He explained the “sweet” nuances of Shanghai or Wu cuisine along with a brief seminar on tea. All of the topics were laced with Taoism and Chinese medicine.
OK, Taoism focuses on a return to nature to achieve balance and tranquility. Think of Yoda and the Force. Confucianism relies on man made rules as being the natural order. Chinese architecture focuses on horizontal lines unlike most Western structures that have underlying vertical themes. Think Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style vs a Steamboat Gothic. Chris says it is because the Chinese have no Gods to reach up to. To say that the day was heavy is a bit of understatement.
Our final destination on the tour was the water village of Zhouzhuang. This historic village was saved from modernization by some genius in the department of tourism. The town is primarily set up for Chinese tourists who want to return to their pre-modern roots. It was tourist heaven for me. Picture a miniature Venice filled with craftsmen doing their thing in the midst of real historic structures. Kind of like Williamsburg without pretense.
We continued to cover topics from the origins of Western Civilization to the evils of Capitalism ( the foundation of modern Shanghai). Chris was exhausted and napped. I would have also napped but I had never been in a NASCAR race and could not bring myself to close my eyes for fear of not seeing the eyes of the driver next to us that were four inches away. We made it back to the hotel at five. We took care of some cruise paperwork and decided to head out to the Apple store to get a gizmo that I need to transfer pictures to this gizmo from the camera.
Invest in Apple. There are 1.3 Chinese who all want an iPhone under the tree. I knew the store was close but I asked the Concierge for directions. She gave me the “is the Pope a Catholic?” look. The Apple store is as famous as the Shanghai Museum. Five blocks down the street. Our walk included stepping over fire hoses putting out a fire in a ten story building. We almost managed to get on Chinese TV. We crossed the streets a number of time knowing that pedestrians are only so many bumps over which taxis must pass.
No missing the Apple store with its sixty foot square LED light show. Inside the place was packed with the 30 and under crowd. This was Friday night and the gang was here. It was actually fun to walk around this part of the future China.
Bought a Polo knockoff jacket and had a pizza. Knowing that your meal emerged from 400 degrees is a comfort. Of course we showed our California pizza oven picture to the admiring chef. We returned to our humble abode and crashed as will I before the sun comes up.