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Cheng Chin Yuen

Friday, September 22, 2006

6th Sept – Nanjing to Su Zhou

We were in Nanjing mainly to visit the gory Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre. Everyone needs a blinding reminder of the ‘otherside’ of human nature after so much staggering beauty and friendliness in China. This ‘otherside’ meant 300,000 to 400,000 Chinese civilians killed in six weeks and at least 20,000 women between the age of 11 to 76 raped.

We bought tickets for the late afternoon express to Su Zhou, deposited our baggage and took the rare 30 yuan 8 kilometre taxi ride to the museum…which happened to be CLOSED FOR RENOVATION! Karen made some bitter remark about having the common sense to renovate the museum in sections. Next time, if we are were going somewhere just for one attraction, we better call ahead. Perhaps Huang Shan is also under reno.

For us, good food heals much better than time, and the splendid value for money ‘kuai(4) can(1)’ or quick meal by the roadside almost made up for our foul luck. For 5 yuan per serving, we had a meat dish, rice and 4 different veges!

Plan B was the Imperial Examination Musuem to have an idea of how the scholars of that age took their O, A and U levels. The exam centre in Nanjing was one of the biggest in China and 37,000 candidates sat for their papers in rows of cubicles just over a metre wide in the company of the occasional bug, rat and snake. Some papers would stretch over a few days which meant living and eating in these cells (There are toilets at the end of each row). Naturally some looked of the model candidates here looked delirious. One bloke was still taking the exam when he was 55. He passed and went crazy after that. The museum also show how the candidates try to cheat with notes written on palm-sized pieces of paper. Very little of the huge original complex is left and the mannequins in the mock cubicles ranged from depressed to decomposing. One cubicle was even on ‘fire’.

One exam topic went something like this: ‘Women and peasants are problematic to govern. Discuss.’

Of all the candidates who took the paper, the only one who made it was the only female who naturally was the only one who disagreed with the proposition.

On the streets just outside the museum is a cacophony of pet shops. Crickets are sold in small cans which have a tiny porcelain bowl glued to the base to contain water. When they call, they sound like shrill alarm clocks.

Soon our stomachs were calling again and had to be stuffed with some tasty Nanjing cold salted duck and ‘ba(1) xian(1) mian(4)’ or a bowl of noodles so generously stuffed with 8 different ingredients (more salted duck, sausage, pork slices, two kinds of mushrooms, bamboo shoot, salted vegetables and green veges) it could feed three.

We went to the internet café across the road to search for a place to stay in Su Zhou. Many hostels have websites and can be easily traced on Google. There are also many unofficial YHA hostels but we didn’t find any in Su Zhou. These roadside wang ba or internet joints charge only 2 yuan per hour and a little less for members.

At Su Zhou, one taxi driver wanted 30 yuan to get us to our hostel not knowing that we had phoned ahead to reserve a room. They told us that a taxi should cost only 20 yuan. We hailed a more honest cab and got ourselves there for 15!

For dinner, we were suckered at Sarawak House which promised authentic Sarawakian Food. The beef rendang and the prawn sizzler was one of the worst I have ever tasted. ‘Big Al’, the Sarawakian owner (who was present) really does injustice to his native dishes and to the tourists and locals he feeds at such a high price. I should have complained but we went back to have one of the best showers in China - the type that could cook you.


7th Sept – Su Zhou

Su Zhou’s gardens are supposed to be an art-form much alike the Japanese zen gardens were water, wood and stone blend perfectly. I think they are in general a rip-off and time and money could be better spent somewhere else in China.

The Master of the Nets Garden is mainly a cluster of rooms surrounding a central pond. Very good for hide-and-seek and ninja movies. The art gallery is really nice though and auntie’s here has a son doing his Phd in NTU. It was fun talking to her about Singapore and trying to convince her that the Singapore Zoo was a better attraction than Sentosa. We also met another Singaporean tour group here who yelled to their guide ‘Wait Arr…Take picture at this pavilion first can?...Eh! The camera must adjust first!’

One thing I got out of this garden is that the floor tiles for the Forbidden City all came from Su Zhou. This I overheard from one of the guides. Not exactly shattering news but still something new.

The ultimate garden must be the one surrounding the Coiled Gate. The mastermind tries to make the rather high price of 50 yuan (for a garden surrounded by 3 storey terrace houses) worthwhile by throwing in a free show and a boat-ride in the compound. Both turned out to be severely sub-standard. For us, the highlight of this place was watching people feed a few hundred carps in the huge pond. With them swimming all over each other and mouths recklessly gasping for tiny fish food, they looked so funny. We have to give it to the Chinese, they can lay a small perfectly round marble platform, give it a fancy name like Sun Stage and make it part of the garden’s attractions. On the opposite side is the similar Moon Stage with a white crescent carved in. Some funny signs here read ‘Captive Animals Freeing Pool’ and ‘Beware of Safety’! There was a small weapon display on the old city wall featuring spears, halberds and one interesting weapon called The Judge’s Pen which is a big iron fist wrapped around a metal stake attached to a long pole.

We did pay to climb up a 9 storey pagoda just for the fun of it. The view was urban as far as the eye could see but the change for ground-level perspective was refreshing. Su Zhou is mainly a low rise old city with several fringing skyscrapers.

While Karen went online, I roamed the local neighbourhood and stumbled into the wet market. Here I witnessed my second chicken slaughter. The foul-lucked fowl was chosen, throat casually snipped with a pair of scissors and binned. The banging died down quite swiftly. This reminds me of a story one traveller told us. His friend was travelling in Cambodia and saw kittens on sale in at one market. She felt so sorry for the little prisoners that she decided make a little difference by saving one. She pointed to the cage and raised her index finger to the guy at the stall indicating that she wanted one cute little kitty. The guy picked one at random, snapped its neck and gave it to her. Next time, check if it’s a pet shop.

Su Zhou has really nice Chinese-architecture themed bus-stops. I didn’t get too see that many of their famed beauties though but they weren’t good enough reason to stay here any longer.

For lunch I had a bowl of excellent duck blood noodles, loaded with bouncy blood cubes and duck-everything except meat. Dinner was a much better re-run of beef and prawns, this time are a satanic-looking (black building outlined with red lights) Chinese restaurant. In China, eat Chinese.

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