Learning lots on our trip. For instance, YangChow, where we are now and famed for its fried rice, is famous for its "Three Blades": barber scissors, kitchen knives and manicurists.
We had a great time in beautiful Suzhou -- the hometown of architect I.M. Pei. He's since helped the city with urban design, creating really nice boulevards with parks down the center (like Comm Ave in Boston but with a stream winding its way down and nice bridges). The food was excellent, too. After the hustle and bustle of Shanghai, Suzhou was a welcome respite. I asked our guide how many people lived in the Garden City and she told us: 5 million. I guess scale is relative around here.
My dad got a couple of mobile phones so we can find each other in these parks and tourists sites. It goes off every time we cross into a new city -- we automatically get text messages that say things like: "Welcome of YangChow! Internationally renowned city of culture! Plenty of great business opportunities!"
Yesterday we were in Wuxi near Taihu (Lake Tai -- Tahoe?) and went to this Buddhist temple called Ling Shan that was pretty impressive. A statues of Buddha 88 meters tall at the top of a hill, a giant fountain with daily water shows worthy of the Bellagio and featuring a lotus at the top of a sculpture that opens up to reveal a young Buddha, etc. There were tons of places to buy incense, throw coins into sculptures for luck, buy food, film (film places also sell memory cards and they see me and recognize which card my camera takes).
Half of me thought the whole thing kind of crass, but the other half kept thinking that this is exactly how Medieval Cathedrals were -- places of pilgrimage that were also marketplaces and festivals. The whole thing was built in 1997 and is like a Buddhist Disneyland. There are real monks, too, but there are funny "cheats" like 108 cylinders printed with the 108 sutras -- they said that instead of reading all the sutras, you could just spin every cylinder and that would be the equivalent. There was also a cool audio tour there that would sense where in the park you were and send the correct message to you.
We were warned about coming to China during the May holiday (May 1-7), and it is pretty crowded here but we figured China was going to be crowded anyway. What's nice is to see how the locals spend their holiday, like at the Ling Shan. Also, this is a good time to get married apparently, and we've seen LOTS of weddings. Couples getting their pictures taken in parks in Shanghai, a triple wedding coming out of a restaurant in Suzhou and a wedding banquet downstairs in our hotel here in Yangchow.
How are things different from before? Sometimes it's hard to tell. One thing is that the tourist areas are much, much nicer. Cleaner, better facilities, Western toilets. And clearly this is not just for international visitors but for domestic tourism. And something else -- at the temple I noticed a couple of soldiers, the first I've seen here. Last time, every airport, every street corner had soldiers and policemen. Now there are more traffic lights and fewer men with guns. It's a good change.
Okay, better get going on the next leg of our adventure.