In my latest reader survey I asked your opinion on doing some posts on trips I had taken in the past. Your response was positive so here I am with the first in a series I plan to do. This is aided by the recent raiding of my storage unit where I re-obtained two boxes of photos that I had not looked through in years. It has given me plenty of fodder for posts. Remember, you asked for it!
I want to apologize in advance for the quality of the photos. They are old and they are scanned. Hopefully they will add flavor to the story and won’t annoy you with their quality.
During 1998 and 1999 I was working on a global project that brought together teams of people to transition the company I was working for from their internal and proprietary ERP system (Enterprise Resource Planning system > supply chain, manufacturing and planning system companies use) to one of the big ones (Oracle, SAP, etc.). This involved a whole bunch of people from all over the world and 14-months of work.
This team of incredibly talented people traveled from location to location en masse to roll out various regions for the project. The first six months of the project was based in the U.S. so there was no travel (for me anyway), but then the entire unit picked up and moved to Suzhou, China where my employer had its manufacturing facility, in order to continue the project roll-out.
By that time the team was like a family. Extremely close-knit. It is a camaraderie that I have never experienced since. I worked as the project administrator and besides my many tasks keeping everyone organized, I also took it upon myself to keep up morale. So in January, February and March of 1999 I spent nine weeks freezing my ass of in Suzhou, but loved every single minute of it!
We worked six days a week and long hours, but the moment we were off most of us hit the streets exploring the region. If we weren’t too tired we would explore the night market near the Temple of Mystery where we would buy fresh water pearls, silk, CD/DVDs as well as Beanie Babies (remember, it was 1999!)
We also loaded up on food! We were all staying at the Sheraton Suzhou (now the Pan Pacific) where we all partook of the morning buffet for breakfast. Lunch our first two weeks there was KFC every day until we told our hosts that we were more than happy to eat Chinese food! From that day forward we had a Chinese hot meal brought in for lunch, the quantity and quality varying day-by-day. So in the evenings we really tried to take advantage of the last meal of the day by either exploring a new restaurant or eating food from stalls at the night market.
That required money. Last September I wrote about the “dog lady.” A woman who owned a trinket, jade and souvenir shop where she also happened to exchange money. She was in need of US dollars for her son going to school in Canada and we were happy to oblige. I was thrilled to find a photo of her dog in my photo albums. Here is one of the two Pekineses she had and that is one of the toys I brought him.
Sundays were our complete day off and we spent it outside of the hotel and discovering. We often visited the Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) which were gorgeous and meticulously maintained.
It was always cold and usually rainy, but we did not let us stop us from enjoying the gardens. I went several times and there was always something to see even in the winter.
There are dozens and dozens of temples and pagodas and we visited as many as we could. The North Pagoda was quite impressive. It was a nine-storied double-eaved octagonal design with circular verandas. It is typical of Buddhist pagoda construction and made for a wonderful view of the city and the water.
And there is tons of water! Rivers, lakes, ponds. Water everywhere. We did a tour on one of the barges that run up and down the Grand Canal (which actually runs between Beijing and Hangzhou). It was quite an experience. Not the same as a Parisian bateaux mouches, but fun none-the-less!
For a real water experience we ventured to Zhouzhuang (known to as the Venice of the East). We walked around climbing up and down bridge after bridge. We went on the Chinese version of the gondola for a quick tour of the town. We shopped and we ate. This is one of my most memorable food experiences during my entire stay in China. It wasn’t eating dog which was very memorable but rather having lunch in this town where I both feasted and fasted.
Zhouzhuang has two food specialties. I wonderfully seasoned ham that I couldn’t get enough of and huge giant snails. Now, I like snails, in fact, I love them. But these things were huge and to me, inedible! Interestingly enough, when I tried to find photos on the web to illustrate their size (I don’t have a photo of my own) all I could find were actually some really appetizing snails stuffed with ham (probably the ham I really liked!) and now I kind of want to go back and find out (a) what were those that I was served and (b) what are these ones I found on the web!
In any case, I tried eating the snails but just couldn’t manage it!
Besides the water and all the wonderful gifts (a.k.a. food) that it had to offer like crab and freshwater eel and other yummy fish, the region was also well known for two other things. Tea (check out the Suzhou flowering tea here) and silk. Both silk embroidery and silk clothing. There are four types of Chinese silk embroidery and Su from Suzhou is one of them. This is beautiful artform that is very intricately done by hand. It is generally images of nature and animals, but you can also bring a photograph and have a custom piece done.
I bought many beautiful pieces and gave them as presents as they are very unique. It is very hard work, back-breaking work, but the people who do it always seem to offer a smile when you visit their modest studios.
I also bought many, many silk scarves which I still wear today more than a decade later. I would love to go back today for those alone!
It wasn’t all shopping and food. It was hard work, bitter cold weather and a new-found appreciation for this very beautiful region of southern China. I made lifelong friendships with many of the people I worked with and brought home memories that live on today.
How about you? Ever been to Suzhou? Tell me your experiences.
Interested in reading more? Frenchie-blogger Corey of Tongue in Cheek has a daughter currently living in Suzhou. Her name is Chelsea and she is writing a blog about her experiences appropriately called “Hello from Suzhou.” I certainly am enjoying it!
Also, here is one last fact, a Frenchy one! The architect I.M. Pei is from Suzhou. Don’t recognize the name? He is the guy who put that glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. Opinions vary on whether it should be there or not, but it certainly put Mr. Pei “on the map” in France!