Friday, July 04, 2008

Biking Barefoot

To my readers, it may seem that my feelings about China tend toward the negative.

This is not true. Although many things about Chinese culture and practices grate against my American sensibilities, my experience so far has been positive and I am glad to live here right now.

Days like today remind me of that.

Friends from Kansas City are visiting for the week. They toured China independently for a week, and are finishing their vacation at our family bed and breakfast. The time with them has been relaxed, with many chances for conversation and catching up with each other's lives. But today we followed a pack itinerary, which began at 6:30 in the morning and is only now finishing - at 2:30 am the following morning.

We began the day with a roadtrip to Suzhou. Leaving at 7:00, we made the journey in about 2 hours. The girls did great, the traffic was standard and the drive was smooth. We reached The Garden of the Humble Administrator around 9:30 in the morning, and opened the van doors to overwhelming heat. Our driver told us that the temperatures hit 38 degrees Celsius - that's just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. confirms a 99F high. Add in the region's thick humidity, and this was a hot day to spend wandering through a garden. Dave could not join us, and my friends went on their own with promises to meet back in an hour. So I was on my own with two toddlers in the garden.

I must say, The Garden of the Humble Administrator may be my favorite place in all of China. Often, I find classical pieces of Chinese culture and I fail to see the beauty in them - our cultures differ so vastly that it should come as no surprises that our views of beauty differ as well. But I can not deny the beauty and tranquility of this garden. The girls and I spent happy hours wandering the grounds, and this is nearly 100 degree heat. Pavilions stood on craggy hills, providing shade and catching cool breezes. Stone floors kept hallways cool. No doubt the place was hot, but it was built to so fit its environment that we still enjoyed it. But beyond the inescapable beauty, "the man" in China had done nothing to decrease the integrity of the sight. Too often, beautiful scenery is marred with plastic trees or mountain hikes are avoided by tram rides. But the garden remained in the same state the humble administrator must have left it - the Chinese had the sense to leave well enough alone, and left a truly beautiful setting.

After the garden, we explored a bit, enjoyed some ice-cream and toured the Silk Museum (not really worth the cost of admission), and headed back with two sleepy girls and three hot adults. Traffic was horrible on the drive home, but we all napped and no one seemed to mind the added hour.

After a relaxing afternoon, we gathered together with a crew of Americans to BBQ for Independence Day. I often feel here that I'm faking my holidays when I celebrate them - as if I'm placing them on random days rather than celebrating with a regular community. The same felt true today. Nowhere have I seen anything alluding to American Independence Day, and why would I? So the BBQ felt more like a chance to get together with friends - only a bit odd, since everyone was friend the United States.

As evening BBQs tend to do, ours lasted well into darkness. My friends and I took off at 9:00 for our midnight bike ride, following the same guide and route as I had a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it thoroughly the second time, and will happily ride along with any interested guests in the future. As we split from the crowd in Yu Garden, the three of us enjoyed gentle conversation waiting on the wet curb outside the ferry station. After a long wait, we rode 5 minutes across the river and deboarded to find the ramp to dry ground entirely flooded.

What were we to do?

This was no rain water flood.

This was no burst water pipe flood.

This was a breakage in the river walls, causing the Huangpu to overflow the ramps meant to carry us dry to the street. This was slimy, smelly water. This was the type of water which once soaked into your shoes would leave a permanent stench.

What could we do? It seemed that most people planned to wait it out. While motorbikes steamed right through, pedestrians crowded to the water's edge and stared as if their eyes could force the water to recede. After a few minutes of this staring, our crew lost patience. We untied our shoes, peeled off our socks, and stuffed this new package into our baskets.

And we rode, legs in the air, straight through the water. We carried slimy river water with us all the way home, and left our bikes standing in the hallway to dry.

And my thoughts went two ways.

Thought #1 - What would I have done had I been with the girls? How would I have gotten a stroller across?

Thought #2 - Alone, China's quirks, eccentricities and failure to work can be quite amusing. But so very Chinese.

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