june  2007

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, suzhou and shaolin
Day 14 through 19

Day 14 through 18 "Shanghai Shopping and Peaceful Pagodas in Suzhou"
We arrived by overnight train in Shanghai in the morning, checked in, showered and were off for a full day of touring around with Puma.  This would be a walking tour with Puma showing us how to get around and introducing us to some of the sights as the next few days in Shanghai we would have a lot of free time.  We started off toward the Bund, the waterfront area which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River parallel to Zhongshan Road.  You can see many historical buildings that once housed numerous banks and trading houses from Britain, France, the USA, Russia, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands and Belgium.  It certainly feels more like Europe than China.


It was an overcast day and the smog was intense.  Looking across the river you could barely see the Pearl Tower on the other side.  We continued into town where Puma pointed out the Peace Hotel, the Shanghai Club and other historically significant buildings as we made our way toward the pedestrian only Nanjing Road.  Nanjing Road is famous as the first shopping street in China and is known as the busiest shopping street in Shanghai.  There are upscale shops lining both sides of the road, little trains to take you and your packages from one end to the other and of course McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut.  Starbucks is on a nearby corner.


We walked on to the People's Square which houses the Municipal Government Building, the Grand Theater, the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall and The Shanghai Museum.  We were here for the museum.  The museum is five floors and was designed in the shape of an ancient, bronze, tripod cooking vessel called a ding.  We didn't have enough time before the museum closed to see everything but enjoyed the jade, bronze and minority craft exhibits before museum employees ran us out.
I had read reports of Chinese people approaching you, making small talk and then either saying they are 'art students' or visitors going to a 'tea ceremony' and would you like to accompany them and either 'see their art' or attend a 'tea ceremony'.  Then, of course attempt to pressure you into purchases or paying exorbitant amounts of money for the experience.  In Shanghai we were approached many times.  The first being at the Museum.  Bill was less skeptical than I was when she first approached.  After being approached many more times, always with the same format:  "Hi, where are you from?" from one person and two others standing near by with big smiles, he conceded.  It became comical and we just started smiling and laughing when they would recite their line about being 'students'.  Here is Bill discussing the tea ceremony outside the Shanghai Museum.

This was the last night for the first tour so a group dinner was planned at a restaurant near the Hotel.  Bill and I decided to take our time walking back to the Hotel, doing a bit of exploring along the way.  We met everyone in the lobby at the appointed hour and walked down the street for dinner.  The restaurant was on the second floor and on the first floor you could pick out seafood or snakes that they would cook and bring to your table.  Puma ordered an assortment of specialties including dumplings and poached fish.  Although we all passed on 'fresh' snake, amongst the dishes we enjoyed at this dinner were the infamous Thousand Year Old Eggs.  Surprisingly they taste just like a normal boiled egg.  Once you get past the fact that they are a lovely shade of dark green.

The next day was a free day and we spent the first part of it with Bill's parents visiting Shanghai's Old Town Shopping area, Yu Yuan Market and the Yu Yuan Gardens.  This is an area of modern shops that surround the traditional Chinese Gardens all built in the style of old Chinese buildings and housing a tea house, temple and large cafeteria style restaurant.  The Yu Yuan Garden is large and very nice.  We spent a great deal of time exploring here and wandered about the shops, finally having lunch in the crowded cafeteria.  Bill's parents headed back to the hotel and after buying some "Flower Tea" we wandered outside the market to the older shops and residential streets.  We found many of the same things that were inside the market at drastically reduced prices and did some mad bargaining on some chopsticks and souvenirs.   We found ourselves far from the tourist area wandering streets lined with industrial stores, repair shops and dingy apartment buildings.  

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We made our way back to the Bund where the view across the bay was much improved with the clear skies and we were able to get some nice pictures of the Bay and of the Monument to the Peoples Heros, built in the 1990's to commemorate revolutionary martyrs as well as those who have lost their lives fighting natural disasters.


We wrapped up our time in Shanghai the next day, picking up our laundry, changing money and trying to see a few more sites before moving on to Suzhou.  We decided to take the tourist tunnel to the other side of the Bay and visit the Aquarium.  The tourist tunnel or more properly named "The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel" runs cable cars under the bay.  It is a comical ride in a concrete tunnel with super cheesy light displays along the side.  The Aquarium was nice but didn't compare to the one in Hong Kong.  We took a taxi to the Jade Buddha Temple and purchased some paper cuts while we were there. 


This was the turnaround day for the tour.  We said good-by to Vivien, Colin and Bill's parents and picked up the new additions to the group.  Joining us was Bob from Canada, Louise from The Netherlands and Dick and Mary from the US.  That night everyone got together for the Shanghai Acrobats Show.  The show was great with balancing acts, artistic trapeze acts and of course the progression of motorcycles in a cage

 The next morning we were riding the Bullet Train to Suzhou.  Its a very comfortable ride in big padded seat at 251 km/hr (156 mph), making it a short ride as well.  In less than 20 minutes we had arrived.  We checked into our hotel and had free time until the evening when we would be attending a performance at the Master of the Nets Garden.
Bill and I decided to take the bus to the North Temple Pagoda.  We figured out what bus to get on and verified with the driver that he stopped near there, by pointing at the map questioningly and his returning nod.  We had no idea where to get off but luckily the driver was taking care of us and motioned us off the bus at the correct stop.  It was still early in the day so no tour groups had yet desended upon the Pagoda and we had it mostly to ourselves.  It is nine stories and 250 feet tall, the tallest pagoda in Suzhou.  We climbed to the top and enjoyed the views.  We took our time walking around the grounds of the Temple, over to the teahouse and koi pond where we relaxed from our climb with a beer.


Suzhou is well known for its silk embroidery so we visited the nearby Silk Museum while here.  It was around lunchtime so there weren't many demonstrations going on but we were able to wander on our own throughout the museum.  Of particular interest was the Silk Worm Rearing Rooms where they had an assortment of different silk worms and even a small grove of Mulberry bushes with silk worms crawling on them.  They even had a stuffed black cat in the corner (?!!).
We stopped for a late lunch at a dumpling shop nearby and ordered with the help of the clerks few written down English words and some pointing. We were the only Caucasians in the place and were stared at by everyone and invited to join a couple of guys for some lunchtime shots of some clear liquor.  We passed on the hard stuff and just had a beer with our dumplings.
That evening we joined the group and rode by local bus to the Master of the Nets Garden for our evenings entertainment.  This garden is very well known as the smallest of the Suzhou gardens.  It was inspired by the simple and solitary life of a Chinese fisherman and was originally constructed more than 800 years ago.  Though small it is regarded as one of the most beautiful.  We attended a unique series of cultural performances set up on stages or in rooms throughout the garden, the audience moves to seven or eight different locations to see performances of music, opera, and drama.


We slept in a bit the next day and decided to take the bus out to Tiger Hill, considered to be a must-see tourist attraction in Suzhou.  It is home to the Yunyan Pagoda or the Leaning Tower of Suzhou which stands at the top of the hill.  The Pagoda was erected in 900's and leans due to the foundation being half rock and half soil.  A thousand years of shifting soil has caused a more than 7 foot variation from the top to the bottom.  There is no access beyond the bottom floor.  There is a narrow river that runs around the hill and the gardens make the entire area very scenic.  We ran into Ken, Dick and Mary and all decided to take the river boat from the Tiger Hill area back to the city.  We negotiated a lower price since there were five of us and set off for a nice river boat ride through the canals of Suzhou.  People live in the houses banked along the canal and we could see them through the open doorways and some doing laundry in the canal. 

Once back to the city we had a late lunch together and then everyone split up; Dick and Mary went to the bank, Ken was off in search of yet another massage and Bill and I went to locate a grocery store for snacks to take on the train.  We were meeting everyone at 4pm for the overnight train to Louyang.  It would be a long train ride, about 15 hours and I was opting for the middle bunk this time.  My rib was feeling good and I wanted the privacy.

Day 19  "Kung Fu Fighting in Shaolin"
Arriving in Luoyang we transferred to a private bus for the ride to Shaolin.  Along the way we would stop for lunch and have the opportunity for a short visit to the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China.  It was drizzling and we didn't have much time but the gardens were nice with small lakes and a big pagoda.

The views through the bus windows as we got closer to Shaolin were of rural countryside farms, rolling hills in the distance and small shabby villages dotting the road.  Shaolin is often credited with being the birthplace of Chinese Kung Fu.  The Shaolin Monastery was founded in 495AD.  Legend has it that three decades later an Indian Monk who went to the Monastery spent nine years in contemplation, facing the wall of a cave in the mountains above the Monastery.  When he returned to the Temple he found the monks had been neglecting their health and devoting their time to translating the scriptures.  He taught the monks a series of exercises based on the movements of animals, specifically the tiger, snake, crane, eagle and monkey.  These exercises were the beginning of what was to become the discipline of Kung Fu.


The temple has set up a school where the monks continue their practice of Kung Fu and students from all over the world come to live and learn from the monks.  The children live here and in addition to their martial arts training they also study a normal school curriculum.
The Temple Hotel where we stayed also houses students, their visiting families, even classrooms.  It is incredibly shabby, run down, fairly dirty, without hot water or working AC.  And it rained the whole time we were there. 
The students were everywhere wandering around.  All ages and both girls and boys.  Smiling, laughing and waving at us.  We saw two performances and while each was a bit different they focused on skills taught at the school, performed by students.  The most impressive feats were of course things like throwing a pin through a pane of glass and lots of breaking metal bars on their heads. 
The temple and grounds were fantastic.  We had a local guide that gave long interesting history of so many aspects of what the Shaolin Monks had gone through over the years.