Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Auchan Experience

No matter where you live you have to buy groceries, there are always local markets, but more and more we buy the necessities of life at a supermarket. When I first arrived in Suzhou, I walked down the street to a little market and a small grocery store for the essentials. You know orange juice, bread, eggs, beer, important items that civilized life requires. I was determined to cook my own meals and eat Chinese food, so I had to determine where everyone else shopped. Gordon, my roommate, another Canadian from Calgary came to my rescue and said, “No problem, you just need to have the Auchan Experience!”. He gave me directions and lent me his bike and I was off.

Now I have shopped in supermarkets all over the world, and seen some large stores, but this was without a doubt the biggest. It didn't look like much from the outside, and you couldn't see the actual store. You park on the ground floor and go up an escalator to the actual store. As you rise into the world of Auchan, your first sight is rows and rows or scooters for sale – I wondered where they all came from. Canadian Tire back home might have a few little motorcycles for sale, but here they have every possible size, colour and variety of Scooter (Or E-Bike I am told is the correct term). You have to walk a ways just to get into the store, but stepping inside you cannot help by be amazed at the size of this place. This being my first experience I walked right to one end to explore the whole thing. From all the way at one end you actually cannot see to the other end – it is too far away.

Ok, now, starting at one end they sell, computers, Televisions, washers, stoves, pots tents, plants , shoes, clothing, dog food, books, Cds & DVDs, bicycles, and . . . . . . oh, forget it , I think they sell everything, yes, there are the car parts, and the tools, and I still can't see the other end of the store. They don't have everything, and you can certainly find cheaper things on sale elsewhere, but in two months in China I can only think of one thing I couldn't get there, a roll of metal strapping to fix my bike, and it was available next door at the Chinese Home Depot B & Q (They even wear orange aprons).

Like Costco back home, this place is dangerous. You are always finding things you didn't realize you needed so badly. I found black cotton Chinese shoes for 10 RMB ($1.50), I found an electric kettle for 24 RMB ($6.00)I found some really nice journals – oops, I came here for groceries and I had to carry all this back on the bike; some of this stuff will have to wait.

When you actually get to the “grocery” section in Auchan, it is like entering a different world. Coming along the back of the store you come first to the meat department. There is an in-store butcher, so all the meat is fresh and packed in the store, but I had to go by looks, because there is no English on the packages. The first thing you notice is the variety of meat. They have way more “cuts than I was used to, and I quickly discovered that the Chinese eat the meat that us westerners throw away, and the lean cuts we favour back home are not popular. I could always get nice lean cuts of pork, beef or chicken, whereas the chicken necks, pig feet, beef intestines, or duck heads were usually pretty well picked over. Although there was always lots of choice on the shelves, the Chinese seem to prefer their meat fresher than fresh, and are willing to stand in long lines to get the butcher to cut something special for them. There was always a long line-up in front of the butcher, and walking by you could hear the customers yelling their orders at the cleaver wielding men behind the counter. They really do not waste anything, and it seems that the Chinese have found a tasty way to prepare any part of the animal. When I discovered the whole duck heads neatly packaged, I thought this must be purely a decorative item, but after questioning one of the teachers, I discovered that it is in fact a real treat – one however that I will pass on I think.

The vegetables are wonderful in China. They are always so fresh and tasty; so much better than the ones that have to be shipped from Florida, Mexico or California all the way to my city in Canada. The variety is amazing with whole aisles of peppers, mushrooms and greens. Now if I could only figure out what everything was. The peppers, potatoes, broccoli, and the tomatoes I recognize, but what on earth is that white thing, and who knew they could grow beans that long. Those carrots have got to be Genetically modified – I have never seen a carrot so big! There is a whole aisle full of what looks like herbs, but I can't see or smell anything I recognize. I quickly decided that I would try something new every trip, and have brought home lots of mystery vegetables to be introduced to my stir fry, Chinese soup, or curry. Most have been very welcome additions to my diet.

Then there was the black wood ear fungus. One of the teachers, Catherine, gave me a recipe for lotus root with black wood ear fungus. Now that has got to be the least appetizing sounding item I have heard in a long time, but I trusted Catherine, and wanted to try her recipe. I however, had no idea what Lotus root in it's raw form looked like, and black wood ear fungus is definitely not on any grocer's shelf back home. Now Catherine offered to buy it for me, and her mom kindly picked up the lotus root, but I wanted to do this on my own. Once I knew what the Lotus root looked like, I was able to find it at Auchan, and low-and-behold, there right beside it was a package of decidedly fungusy looking stuff that actually resembled black ears. No matter how disgusting it looked I bought it, and brought it home. I took the label off, took a photo of it and sent the photo to Catherine asking if I got the right stuff. Unfortunately she did not get back to me in time, so I took a chance and following her recipe, cooked it all up for supper. Not too bad actually, and she e-mailed me back (after we had eaten it) to confirm that I had indeed purchased the right thing. When I get home I wonder what Pete Luckett will say when I ask him for black wood ear fungus?

The seafood department is not even close to the meat department so it took me a while to discover it. There is some frozen seafood, and you can buy very expensive salmon fillets, but there the familiar ends. All other fish is sold whole, and most is sold live. The seafood department is a series of large tanks full of live fish. Each tank has a nice dip net attached and you simply choose your seafood, scoop it up in the net, and put it in a bag. Don't worry it will stop thrashing around by the time you get to the check out. You can also buy live turtles, eels and frogs – and I don't think they are for pets (That's at the other end of the store). Just don't choose that one swimming upside down. My dear father did his duty and took me fishing long enough to discover that I found it boring, and we never got to the “cleaning the fish”, lessons, so I'm afraid that seafood will remain out of my diet until I get back to Nova Scotia.

Back home I always keep eggs in the fridge, and here I find myself with time to prepare large breakfasts every morning, so I needed some eggs. In Halifax I have a choice of white, brown or outrageously expensive organic eggs, but here in China I have to choose between probably 30 different varieties and packaging all at different prices. I'm afraid I stuck with what I know, and brought some nice brown eggs home. The most popular choice for the Chinese was the Fresh eggs bought from large bins full of straw and bought in bulk by the bag. There was always an Auchan employee selling bulk eggs, and I never saw the lineup to get them less than 50 people. One day the line to get fresh eggs stretched half the length of the store and turned the corner into the wine and beer section.

It is always entertaining to just wander around Auchan looking at things. You can buy seaweed Soda Crackers, orange juice with sparkles in it, or Cookies made with Onions. The choice of Soy sauce is mind boggling, and the snack section is a constant source of wonder. How about Vanilla Olives, Broad Bean Cookies, or Fresh Cucumber Pringles? I have also discovered that I have become part of the Auchan experience as well. I am always catching the Chinese peering into my cart to see what I am buying. They don't even try to hide it. It is no sideways peek, this is an intent examination of the contents of my baskets. “Lets see what those foolish foreigners eat?” I think in most cases they are probably disappointed, because I have made a point of buying Chinese style food, and I pass most of the “Western” section quite happily. I can however imagine them laughing at my selection of meats, “Looks like the foreigner couldn't find the chicken feet, necks or wings, he picked up the cheap old chicken breast instead, must be on a limited budget.”

Just getting around this store is an experience. At first I just picked up a basket, because I only ever bought enough to comfortably carry home on the bike, but I quickly discovered that no matter how much you buy, a cart is essential, because carrying the groceries is only it's secondary purpose. The main reason to use a cart, is for personal protection against other carts, so of course you can figure out the other purpose. Without a cart, you are constantly being run into by someone who wants something where you are standing. If you are standing where someone wants to go, they simply try to move you with their cart. There is no “Excuse me?” or “Opps, sorry!”, the world of Auchan, is a dog-eat-dog world, and the most aggressive shopping cart gets the best buys. I quickly adopted to this technique, and I must admit, I've gotten pretty good at it. I think even the little old ladies who used to take advantage of the unknowing foreigner to push me out of their way are impressed with my acquired technique of edging my cart in at 45 degrees to wedge them out of the way to get those promotional broad beans or oranges.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Humble Administrator?

Ok now, who ever heard of a “humble” administrator? Most of the administrators I had to work with were anything but “humble”. Now of course I'm not talking about School based administrators like principals and vice-principal, because they have no choice but to be humble, stuck between demanding teachers and demanding administrators. I guess it must be different here in China, because one of their most recommended attractions in Suzhou is this Humble Administrator's Garden. After visiting and enjoying Tiger Hill, I decided to go visit this garden while my daughter Alisha was here visiting me from Japan. She is a talented amateur photographer (Taught her all she knows), and I thought this might be a chance to go picture-taking with her.

The gardens of Suzhou vary in admission prices, and this one at 70 RMB is one of the most expensive, so you would expect it to be one of the best, and it lives up to all the expectations. We were even given a usable map with English as well as Chinese, making it much easier to find your way around. There are also signs throughout the garden telling you where you are, although I can't quite figure out why the red dots that locate your present position on the map were all rubbed out. Why do people have to actually touch the dot? It doesn't mean you are actually on the dot; you do not have to touch it to be there.

It is actually difficult to explore most of the Chinese gardens in any systematic fashion. I usually try to walk around the perimeter first to get an overall view and then explore the central areas, but as you walk around there are so many photographic opportunities that you are pulled in many directions. There is a lot packed into a small area in most of the gardens, as the original designers were careful to make the most of the space they had, carefully designing pleasurable retreats and vistas from what was there. Carefully placed pavilions, towers and halls provide restful places to contemplate and enjoy the ponds, trees and flowers on the garden. The focal point of the Humble Administrator's Garden is a central lake with many little islands, now connected by bridges and paths. There are a number of raised areas, usually occupied by “towers” to increase the viewing pleasure out across the garden.

The Humble Administrator was certain busy naming all of the building throughout the garden. You have the “House of Sweet-smelling rice”, the “Far away looking Pavilion”, the “Hall of Distant Fragrance”, the “Listening to the Sound of Rain Pavilion” and the “good for Both Families Pavilion”. Oh, and under the “Hall of 36 Pair of Mandarin Ducks” there really are ducks, but I didn't count to see if all 36 were in attendance that day. There are over 30 beautiful buildings each with fanciful names like this around the garden, and most are open to the public at least to view. In many of them you can sit and think about why they were named as they were – most are pretty obvious.

There is a lot to see in the Humble Administrator's Garden. Alisha and I spent the better part of a morning there, and we could have spent longer but we only had a day and a half to explore Suzhou, so we kept moving. Many people do exactly the opposite; they come here to sit and relax in the incredibly peaceful and serene surroundings. That was probably why the Administrator built the garden; as a retreat from the bureaucratic rat race of the Ming Dynasty 500 years ago. No wonder he was humble with this to come home to after a busy day at the office.

A week after visiting this garden I met a young man from London England who only had two days in Suzhou and he asked my advice about what to see in only a day, and I suggested that this garden was probably the one attraction he should not miss. It is very well maintained and a beautiful place to spend a day just slowly wandering around. My advice is to take your time, stop and sit, smell the sweet rice, and enjoy the distant fragrances. This is a tourist attraction that is best viewed at a leisurely pace. Alisha and I were constantly finding things to take pictures of, and we enjoyed talking about different views and perspectives on things in the garden. It always amazes me how many times we both decide to take a picture of the same thing. The really interesting thing is to watch the other tourists then try to figure out what on earth we both found so interesting in that roof-line or the shadows created by something. They see us both taking a picture of something they figure it must be significant, but they look and look without seeing what we saw.

After spending a day in The Humble Administrator's Garden, I can highly recommend it. In fact All senior administrators should have a garden like this to come home to. I don't know if they would all be “humble”, but being able to sit and relax in a place like this couldn't help but make them better Administrators. What a place to sit and contemplate the problems of your school, your city or your country.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tiger Hill - Doing the "tourist thing"

I'm not much of a “touristy” tourist. If I read that something is THE place to visit in a city, I normally put it well down on my list of excursions. I just don't want to be go where all the other tourists go. In fact, often when telling locals about the places I have visited, I often get worried faces and expressions like “OHHHH we don't go there.”

It was like that here in China. I went shopping where the Chinese go shopping, and I wandered the same streets they did. Oh, I went to see the old historical part of Suzhou, and I went to the Bund in Shanghai, but I didn't go up in the Oriental Pearl Tower, and so far I had not visited any of Suzhou's famous gardens. Today however I gave in. The worn and very “Dog-eared” map I have been using to find my way around Suzhou, has on the cover a beautiful picture of Tiger Hill and a caption announcing “NO.1 sight of suzhou”, and a lot of the teachers I've been working with have also recommended this spot to me. I figured that on a Wednesday morning I might avoid the “tourists”, so I went to have a look. Of course in Suzhou, the “tourists” are mostly all just Chinese who are not from Suzhou. I'm not sure if the residents of Suzhou really consider me a tourist or not. I expect they just refer to me as “That crazy foreigner who takes pictures of doors.”

Tiger Hill isn't too hard to find. It is not far from the city centre, and considering that the part of Suzhou I have been living in is so flat, that the speed bumps are considered “hills”, this actual hill is pretty easy to spot. After locating it on my map, and using the excellent directions from the Teachers, I boarded the bus and was able to track my progress by watching the large leaning stone Pagoda on top of Tiger Hill grow larger out the bus window as I got closer.

It costs 60 YUAN admission, but it is worth it; there is a lot to see, and you can spend a better part of a day exploring the grounds. I do have one complaint, recommendation or observation however. Although the excellent signage around the grounds is all in English as well as Chinese, it really would have been useful to have an English brochure to follow. I was asked if I wanted an English guide, and I believe it was free, but I prefer to explore on my own, and the map on my ticket was only in Chinese. I've run into the same thing in the Tourist Information Centres – the sign over the door is in English, but do not expect to find any English information inside. I know there are not TOO many English tourists, but obviously if the signs and maps are in English, someone recognizes the need for it. It can;t be too hard to produce a few in English.

A large group of Chinese “tourists” were just entering the grounds at the same time as me, and as they all scrambled to get that perfect shot of the large Pagoda on top of the hill, I slipped quietly down a side path and started walking around the lovely paved walkways and forest paths around the base of the actual hill. I found a little pagoda hanging over the canal where I watched a woman cleaning out her mop across from the park. I walked through a lovely little Bamboo grove, and through I little tea house (I believe). I came upon a nice waterfall with a screaming little girl. I believe she was simply have a temper tantrum, because when her father pointed out that a very tall odd looking man with a beard was approaching, she shut up immediately. He probably threatened her with “The Hairy Scary Man” would get her if she didn't behave, but when I went up to her and said “Hello” and asked her why she was crying, she decided I wasn't so scary, and gladly shook my hand and posed for a lovely picture by the waterfall, giving me the obligatory “V” sign with her fingers – what is with that anyway?

After making my way all the way around the base of the hill, I started climbing up the paths and stairways to the top. As I climbed I came upon a museum of stone/rock sculptures, various houses and buildings all with interesting displays and explanations. I was fascinated by the different styles of carved wooden chairs in each building. There seemed to be a different style chair in each building. All through the park were beautiful gardens and peaceful areas to sit and just relax and contemplate life. I often saw people just sitting and reading, and some of the Teachers mentioned that they can purchase a “Garden Card” that gives then unlimited use of these attractions. I can see the value of this, as it would be a lovely place to visit just to have a peaceful place to relax.

Part way up the hill I came across a beautiful Bonsai garden with hundreds of potted trees displayed on pedestals. It was fascinating to see the many different trees trained and trimmed to beautiful shapes. You could see on many of the the wires forcing them into the desired shapes. This was probably my favourite part of Tiger Hill, and I spent an hour here all by myself wandering among the little trees admiring them. The bus load of Chinese tourists were obviously more interested in the pagoda, because I had the Bonsai garden almost completely to myself.

When I finally made it to the top of Tiger Hill, it was actually a bit anticlimactic. The large multi-storied pagoda is very spectacular, all made from stone and leaning slightly to one side, but it is closed to the public and you cannot climb it any more. The view from the top would have been speculator. I walked around taking a few shots from various angles, but it is actually quite difficult to take pictures of the pagoda because of all the trees around it. The nicest pictures are taken from other areas of the garden with the pagoda in the background. I should have realized that because that is exactly the shot displayed on the map that brought me here.

I enjoyed my visit to Tiger Hill, and now that I have seen how nice it is, I'm going to have to visit some of the other “Tourist” attractions around Suzhou to determine if Tiger Hill really is the 'No 1 sight of Suzhou”. I've heard that The Humble Administrator's Garden is lovely?