Sunday, April 12, 2009

Suzhou (苏州市) – the older city

If you have been following my Blog, you have been reading all about modern Suzhou, and the area I am living in is between 10 and 15 years old, but there has actually been an established community in Suzhou for at least 2500 years. Coming from Canada, where a building is considered old if it is 200 years old, it is hard to comprehend something that old. Suzhou is actually one of the oldest cities in the area. After exploring the “new” area close to my new Chinese apartment, I decided to expand my excursions, and hopped on a bus to see what the rest of this interesting city is like.

The further west I went the more you could see things aging. Even the bus stops changed from shiny silver things with stylish curved plastic roofs to wooden structures with the typical tiled roofs with curved pointed corners we expect from China architecture.

Referring to my handy “What's ON in Suzhou” calendar with it's nice English map, I first headed to an area identified as pedestrian only across the Wai Chen He River. Getting off the bus at TGI Fridays (So much for Historical), I wandered into the area. It is very easy to get twisted around in this area as you follow interesting shopping areas, or go off down side streets in search of that interesting photo. Keep your wits about you; it is easy to get lost, because although most streets are labelled in Chinese and English, sometimes it is hard to find signs and sometimes the names vary slightly from the names on the maps.

This area is certainly interesting, but it is a strange mix of old and new, and is very commercial, with MacDonalds, KFC, and hundreds of Chinese stores. There are many old buildings, but also many new ones. I wandered here for a while, finally coming across a Temple with an amazing crowd of people. It was a weekend and it seems everyone came down here. Very few of them seem to be here for the temple however, as the big draw seems to just be the crowd itself. Everywhere you look there are vendors selling meat on a stick, and the Chinese cannot seem to get enough of it. There were places where the ground was covered with sticks from these popular treats, I'm not sure what they were. Some looked like squid, but others seemed to be chicken. I'm afraid I didn't get up the courage to do an actual “Taste-test”. There were so many people there it was almost impossible to get from one side of the area to the other. With so many people all crowded together here I picked up another titbit of information. I noticed that black seems to be the most popular colour for clothes. You don't really notice it normally, but in the crowd like this the popularity of black clothes really stood out.

I tired of fighting the crowd after a while, and headed down one of the many little side streets branching off from the central areas. These are really little more than lanes, and there is no room for cars to pass, and some are too narrow for cars at all. The scooters however continue to silently careen down even the narrowest passage, beeping frantically as they get close to move you out of their way. Walking down these narrow lanes you begin to see the older Suzhou. Old masonry buildings mostly painted white many years ago , with the tiled roofs often with weeds growing in the joints, and low doors revealed houses, tiny stores, fruit stands bike repair shops, and even a beauty shop with one chair and a lady getting her hair done. I don't think many tourists venture down these tiny streets, so although I was getting used to the stares, these people seemed really amused with this strange foreigner with the beard and the hat walking by their windows and doors.

I came out on one of the many canals running all through Suzhou, but this one finally was accessible. The buildings on one side were built close to the canal, with a paved walkway wide enough to ride a bike between them and the canal and you could walk along beside the canal. Crossing he many bridges spanning the canal brought you back into another business district with a busy street full of cars, so I walked back along he canal to try to find the bus back home.

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