My first picture in Suzhou, taken right outside the hotel. Note the smaller, more compact streets. Note the woman who was kind enough to turn around as I was taking a picture, using a popular Chinese technology for balancing several items. Also note what's in her basket: loquats, which I'd previously seen only on trees in the Bay Area, and in my hand after I picked them. They're commonly sold in China, and are bigger, more orange, and, in my opinion, less tasty than the ones I pull off the tree at home.

Our first activity in Suzhou - and indeed my first one with the group - was lazy and luxurious. We went to this nice little tea house, where we stayed for probably four hours, eating, going outside and walking around, and then eating some more.

The service was ridiculously attentive. There was a buffet, and I went to grab a couple of candies after my meal. The waitress (I think the one in this picture) took the candies, put them on a plate with about 20 more, and then insisted on getting me a whole bunch of other things as well. She went and washed some pipas (loquats) for me, and then insisted on carrying my tray as she walked back to the table with me. I can stand a little luxury, but there are limits. And the amazing thing is that 4 hours' worth of food (mostly much better dumplings and simple stuff, but still...) was about six bucks per person.

This shot, incidentally, was taken during the ceremonial tea pouring.

Lainey and I, with food.

Lots of fancy little designs abounded at the tea house.

Just outside the tea house was the only original surviving gate to Suzhou.

Looking out across the water.

Part of that original gate.

Some more modern decorations, just outside the gate.

Banana trees outside the tea house.

Back in the tea house, to take more pictures and eat more food.

This is the urinal in the tea house. This is definitely not typical of Chinese urinals, although unfortunately, I think it's the only urinal shot I have.

Except this one, of course.

The canal just outside our hotel. Suzhou has a pretty extensive network of canals.

Note the loquat tree. You probably don't care as much as I do, though.

Unlike Beijing, Suzhou features lots of scooters. As a result, the traffic seems more dangerous and the air more polluted.

I'm pretty sure Elaine took this shot. Something about the patterns of the stones on the ground.

More canal-ography

Suzhou has a few small back alleys which didn't allow cars. Crossing them was slightly less suicidal than crossing the major streets. I went running through one of these alleys one day. I passed about ten (non-electric) bikes, and not a single one passed me. I mention this not to brag, but to give an indication of how people use bikes in China. Most people use bicycles to get around, and they generally ride them very, very slowly. Other than two people I spotted in Beijing, I didn't notice anyone who seemed to be riding for exercise.

Purty flowers (I think the same ones are all over the Bay Area).

More Elaine.

Another alleyway.

In many cases, things are not exactly immaculately maintained. But I guess that's true in most places.

The university at Suzhou.

University building? Yes. University building in China? Also yes.

A brand new building, built of course from money made in an American technology company.

Well, at least there's a Chinese flag on the top.

Should I edit this one out?

The horseshoe-shaped doorway, which is popular in China. Except that this one isn't really a doorway.

Fancy new architecture...

That same shape, but this time an actual doorway. Much better.

Still that same building

Last one.

The commotion on the streets. Suzhou is not terribly hospitable to pedestrians. In addition to the many bikes and the cars that will accelerate if you try to rush in front of them, there's a lot of construction going on which makes the sidewalks inaccessible. In general, it's hard to avoid the feeling that much of China is running out of space. The same is true to an extent in Manhattan, but China doesn't yet have the financial resources to work around those problems like New York does.

Good to see that superficiality is not a uniquely American phenomenon.

To those who don't read Chinese: the top two big red characters say "dog meat." Mmm...

Tuesday night, we went to one of Suzhou's famous gardens to see a performance. We were sent from room to room, witnessing Chinese opera songs in a local dialect (so instead of understanding 10% of what was being said, I understood 0% of it), dances, and instrumental performances. It wasn't overly exciting, but some of the songs had a neat sort of bluegrassy beat, albeit with a more Chinese-sounding melody.

The interior of one of the garden's buildings.

Wednesday, we headed to a number of gardens. Only part of the first one is documented here, because Elaine didn't bring her camera (probably my fault), and my battery ran out (Elaine's fault, of course).

This window was in fact vertical; I was just trying to have fun with the composition. Sorry.

There were lots of different patterns in the garden's windows, and an often subtle distinction between inside and outside.

There were lots of bridges, ponds, overpasses, mazes, and more at this garden.

This rock looks much better with Elaine in front of it, don't you think?

The sure sign of a loser is someone who gets really excited about a clover that's almost as big as his hand. That's probably not all that unusual, but I still figured it was worth a picture.

Into the mouth of the beast...

One of those aforementioned bridges.

Thursday morning, Elaine and I took a taxi ride out to a random park 10-15 miles outside of Suzhou. We had a few hours, and figured it was about as remote as we could get. It wound up being pretty cool, as you'll see by the pictures. We tried to offer the cab driver some extra money to come and pick us up, but he wouldn't agree to it. Being a rural spot, there was no other option but to take the bus back, which was a fun experience.

The highlight definitely came when the bus was speeding down a four-lane road, in the right lane. Someone coming the other direction tried cutting us off to turn left. It was clearly an overly-agressive maneuver, but the intelligent thing would have been for the bus driver to tap the brakes and let the car go through. However, traffic in China behaves as if all drivers are in an eternal game of chicken, and he was thus forced to accelerate. It quickly became clear that neither vehicle would win, as the bus blocked the intersection for the other car, and the car was directly in front of the bus. Some traffic piled up behind us, while many cars went past us on the left; there was nowhere for either the car or the bus to go. Finally, after a few minutes, the car was able to back up into the other lane, while we were able to drive by it. I have no idea if that car ever successfully made the left-hand turn, but I am confident that both drivers learned their lesson and will now follow the AAA etiquette of defensive driving.

But I digress; here are the pictures from that day.

The view of the bridge we were crossing on the way to the park, out the back of the taxi. I'm planning to submit this shot to National Geographic.

The nicely manicured gardens near the entrance to the park.

The hill we would climb to reach the temple. Temples at the top of hills are a very common sight.

As we were making our way to the hills, Elaine and I heard some loud animals screaming out. We weren't sure what they were; our first guess was some sort of cat. Was it safe? There have been a few well-publicized mountain lion attacks in California in recent years, and we didn't know if there might be some sort of similar creature inhabiting the hills near Suzhou. As we walked along, the cries grew significantly louder, and we realized the animals were fairly close. Somewhat apprehensive, we gazed off to our right, and saw the perpetrators: peacocks! I imagine this was some sort of mating ritual; it way certainly surprisingly loud and abrasive.

After a picture of a peacock, we headed up the hill. We were mostly in solitude - a relatively unusual thing on this trip. We looked forward to a nice, quiet top of the (small) mountain. Alas, it was not to be. It being China, commerce had to be nearby: a few hundred meters from the top were three people aggressively selling drinks, incense, and assorted knickknack. And as we got to the top, we found two more welcome sights. First, we had to buy another ticket to see the temple (we'd already paid to get into the park). Read on for the second...

Looking out onto Suzhou on a hazy day.

The Buddha atop a nearby hill.

This is the second "welcome" sight: construction. It doesn't exactly feel like a revered shrine when you're stepping over tools and debris and dodging sparks. But such is life in China, for better or worse: rapid progress has its price.

The so-called "Liberty Bell of Suzhou" (as described by renowned Philadelphia and Suzhou scholar M.W. Greenfield)

Cool little doorway. I imagine this pagoda is fairly old, but I don't think there was any indication of its history.

Another impressive doorway. Note the unfortunate prevalence of graffiti surrounding it.

Another overlook of Suzhou.

A nearby building; I'm not sure what it is.

Buddha, taken from just below.

The gate leading up to Buddha, from above.

The flat green area at the bottom of the hill.

A small man-made rock structure and cave inside the park.

The peacock opens up his feathers, just for us.

This guy really likes us!

Out the window of the infamous bus.

Upon getting back into Suzhou, we had some dumplings at a place that Elaine knows as one of Taiwan's best dumpling houses. We would later find out that it is a decent-sized chain, with four branches in Shanghai, and one even in California!

After that, we rejoined the group to make our way to Hangzhou. We were going to take an overnight boat down the Grand Canal. No doubt it would be a nice rural experience: we'd experience the clean waterways and have a romantic evening away from the pollution and noise of the cities.

The initial impression didn't fit this expectation, and it would only go downhill. The canal was quite busy with commerce, and reeked of the polluting engines that ran the boats that move the raw materials that make China's construction boom possible.

Most of the boats serve as residences for the people on them. They carry large loads, and make their way up the canal quite slowly.

Docked boats are of course packed in quite closely.

Our boat - not exactly a luxury cruise itself - often had to maneuver some pretty small spaces. We were awakened several times by loud honking, and heard from someone who had been outside in the middle of the night that our boat had barely avoided a head-on collision with another boat.

Men loading bricks onto the ships. Although I wouldn't describe the trip down the canal as an especially fun experience, I found it extremely interesting to view this aspect of China's economy in action.

I guess this is the shot the boat operators might use to describe the warm, luxurious atmosphere.

This, and the next picture, were my attempt to capture an amazing sight: one small boat, that must have been trailing at least twenty much bigger ships.

Full Moon on the Canal...