Travelogue: Hangzhou & Suzhou, April 2002

12 Apr 2002

Random observations and impressions from China.

In one of my sightseeings I went visiting Lingyin temple in Hangzhou.
Very gorgeous buddhist temple set in a magnificent location, with rocks and trees and mountains and HUGE statues of buddha ("FO"). Also, nobody pestering me, trying to sell me things or anything like that.
Instead, lot of chinese tourists that were seriously worshipping the temple, burning incense, kowtow in front of statues, pray....
Then I walked beyond the temple for long, even if I was quite tired. I was rewarded by a really beautiful view. There is a tiny village just past the temple and beyond that a nice valley where tea is grown.
There were people harvesting tea leaves (to make the famous hangzhou's "longjin") and a nice (although quite recent) building in chinese style.
Really perfect setting, sound of birds, no signs of modernity, no cars, no people (a part from harvesters), a place of highest serenity and peace. I loved it there.

The mentality as expected is so materialistic and pragmatic.
They are friendly and curious (maybe too much, sometimes their curiosity borders rudeness), so it's easy to talk or make friends (such a difference from England!!) but I feel like a circus animal sometimes. I think I could never be able to fit, be accepted, snuggle in without being considered always a foreigner.

A part from looking at me (each and every one of them) intensely, a lot of them want to meet me and start chatting and want to buy me everything. If I want to visit a place they buy me the ticket, they want to pay for my food, my taxi, anything. Amazing.
So I have to argue NOT to be paid. Very nice difference from having to argue NOT to pay.

They are so avid of informations about "the outside world". And despite their kindness sometimes they can be really rude and vulgar, often spitting on the ground, pushing and pushing to jump you while you are queueing, talking loudly.
Or invasive, because of too much curiosity.

And china - at least in this season, I am not sure about the rest of the year or other places - looks so grey. The sky is grey, a pale sun sometimes shows up from behind thick clouds, the cities are grey. A great part is due to the pollution and dirtyness.
Such a pity china is polluting so much to try to catch up with world economy. In the end they'll have to pay so much to clean the environment.... and a lot will have been marred.
I still haven't seen a single sunset in Hangzhou, even if I waited almost every day sitting by the lake. The sun gets swallowed in thick clouds just when it starts to go down. Maybe it's the season, I should see it in another period.... maybe.

Hangzhou and Suzhou certainly live up to their fame, to be extremely beautiful, at least in the scenic spots of gardens, lakes, temples. But the cities themselves (streets, houses, shops, squares) are not at all impressive, quite the opposite.
Chinese cities - I fear - start to look all exactly the same, and in western way.

Chinese people, as I had been told long ago, are not able to relax, to enjoy life, to rest a bit and contemplate, to enjoy leisure time. I wonder if this is because they are still struggling to become richer. Maybe in some years it will become like Italy now. Or maybe the difference in mentality will remain.
Definitely they are quite poor and have to work so much.
In Suzhou I became friend with two clerks in a book store. I learned that they work every day (no sunday or anything like that for them), 10 hours a day, for a total of 600 yuan per month (80 euro). It's so low! The one way ticket Hangzhou-Suzhou costs between 35 and 70 yuan, for example. And a beer in a pub can cost 15-20 yuan. Definitely it's not easy to have leisure when you have to work so hard for earning few.

I've been also watching many chinese movies here. Two in particular, made in Beijing and quite famous.
One is "shower" (XiZou), so perfectly in theme with the reflections from these days: the contrast/conflict between a relaxed life of the previous times (a family taking care of a public bath) and the bustling frenzied fast pace of modern life and modern mentality.
The other is "beijing bicycle", talking about the contrast between country and city people, life in beijing, loss of moral values, where everyone makes its own justice....

Most people seem to be not thinking at all. Just working and shopping.
It looks so similar to the "western" world. But I know the chinese culture is there, not forgotten, just a bit buried. In those people (and I've met some, really deep and philosophical) that start thinking, all that knowledge and mind schemes resurface and are used constructively. All these marvellous proverbs (ignored by the Singaporean chinese youth I've talked with) that sound so much "DaoDeJing". Like "long separated must join, long joined must separate", a proverb that a friend here used when we were talking about future geopolitics.

I had my deathday here in China, for the first time celebrated without any Friend, without party. But I had dinner and beer with some nice people I met in the campus here. And I had a wonderful gift: finally yesterday evening I was granted to see beautiful stars in the sky after days of longing for a gaze on the sky palace.
Also during the afternoon I went to fly kites with a hangzhou friend. Two beautiful chinese kites I had bought, one in shape of a falcon, the other of a butterfly. Such a beautiful experience, careless and free as a kid, as the wind that was pushing my kite to the sky.

And then, with one of those contrasts I really love, I jumped from kid to adult and went visiting a bioinformatics center here in Hangzhou, talking about my current research, discussing prospectives about a possible future work as researcher or principal investigator in such institute.
The most funny thing was the swap between the two periods, the interface: when I arrived at the gate of the institute and the guard saw me holding a bag with the kites and introducing myself as a cambridge phd student coming to meet the researchers here.
Hahahahah, I think the guard was wondering if shooting me immediately or waiting a little while, in a very puzzled fashion.

Tomorrow I'll move to Shanghai. I don't have high expectations, I imagine it as similar to Singapore, westernized.

I didn't have the occasion (as I knew) to visit rural china. I really would like to come back and go to some little village somewhere, for example in Yunan, to see a different face of China. A face that maybe is just hidden, not disappearing.

My time in China is soon going to end and I feel already sad. I loved staying here, I loved going to classes, meeting people, talking on the streets, observing and learning, playing WeiQi (Go)....

Joseph A.L. Insana

Last modified: Thu Apr 25 14:58:37 BST 2002 First appearance: Thu Apr 25 14:58:36 BST 2002