This past weekend, I went on one of the Intrax arranged trips to Suzhou (苏州) which is a very famous tourist destination that is about one hour outside of Shanghai. Fan Di, the coordinator here for Intrax, along with one of his coworkers named Yu Huan, picked me up in a car from the subway station and we went on our way. The distance of "one hour outside Shanghai" is quite misleading since Shanghai is quite large. It took us around an hour to get outside of the Shanghai municipality and 2 hours in total to arrive at our destination. Even though I have traveled by bus or car outside of Shanghai several times in the past, it still always surprises me how expensive the tolls are. One of them was around 70 RMB which is around $11! Besides the price of the toll, however, lies the danger of a car accident right before getting to the booth, since 6 lane entrance gates provide many opportunities for Chinese drivers to suddenly switch lanes in order to gain a more strategic location for passing the toll booth. So far I haven't died yet in the chaos that China calls traffic and honestly I've grown quite used to it. As long as I don't pay close attention to what's going on around me, it seems safe although I have to admit, Fan Di seems to have a strong tendency to straddle lanes. When he noticed my slight discomfort, he assured me that he was a "master driver. " Fan Di told me he has spent a lot of time in the States and Canada taking long road trips when he had vacation. Apparently, the Midwest is the best place to drive since you can "take naps for 2 or 3 minutes" on the highway since there are not too many drivers compared to China. His conclusions did very little to reassure me of his apparent "master driver" skills but I guess we made it there and back in one piece.
The locations we went to included Tiger Hill (虎丘）and the Humble Administrator's Garden (拙征园). According to Wikipedia: A famous Song Dynasty poet, Sū Shì (苏轼) said, "It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill." I really was not too impressed with Tiger Hill, which is named because it apparently looks like a tiger. Its main attraction was a tower that is slightly slanted. I heard several tour guides talk about Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa when referring to their Yunyan Pagoda （云岩寺塔）. It was built over 1000 years ago and gradually became slanted due to nature's forces. Other than the leaning tower, there was not much else that seemed too special to me. The Chinese, on the other hand, were extremely fascinated by certain rocks and stones. I don't really understand why and probably never will know why but the Chinese really love their rocks. Landmarks at any popular tourist site in China are sure to have rocks that have special names and meanings. Apparently, the ancient Chinese would see a rock and think, this rock looks like a turtle, and thus the Turtle Rock became a famous must-see location for that site. I had a conversation with a coworker about why the Chinese place so much emphasis on these rocks and she said she really wasn't sure either. Taking a picture while touching the rock though is extremely popular and said to bring good luck.
I think the most interesting experience I had with Chinese and strange rocks was when I went to a cave last fall in Yixing , a city near Shanghai. The cave itself was really pretty nice but from my Western perspective, the Chinese had taken a beautiful natural cave and converted it into a Christmas light color show. We had tour guides telling us about the different rocks and sure enough, there were rocks that looked like an elephant and a lion. Instead of the natural lighting though, they were illuminated with Christmas lights in every color. If I were to go to a cave in a Western country though, I am sure a tour guide would be telling me something about how the stalactites and stalagmites had developed over many years, and how examination of the different rock layers reveal the story of the formation of the caves. This is a clear example that perfectly displays how different thinking patterns are in the West and East Asia. I find the Chinese way quite beautiful and creative in its own regard, but not very useful. It's true that the West has placed enormous emphasis on science, rationality, and facts, and although China has definitely moved in that direction, there are cultural differences that are thousands of years old that separate us. It's kind of strange, however, to think about how Western companies are typically known for their innovation capabilities when it seems that the Chinese are better suited to seeing the world in a creative way. Except at the same time, the Chinese education system virtually stifles any creativity. They are immersed in a world of memorization; even their writing system requires hours of repetition in order to become literate. Furthermore, while I find calligraphy both exotic and aesthetically pleasing, I sometimes struggle to see it as a true art form simply because these master calligraphers are rewriting poems that were written hundreds of years ago. It seems that there is too much emphasis on tradition. I suppose it's true that one could argue that musicians simply learn compositions that were written hundreds of years ago as well, but there is still the ability for pure improvisation through mediums such as jazz.