I often try to play up my independence and capability at life, but there are certainly times when I still feel like a quivering, gelatinous little boy at the prospect of adult responsibility. This is especially true if it entails taking care of myself in any capacity, and doing so in a foreign country, despite, you know, having actively lived in one for the last year and a half, is still high on that list. So when I touched down in China alone, without a guide or a terribly diverse arsenal of Mandarin at my disposal and a two hour route to my accommodation, I was slightly intimidated.
China was a sort of perfect storm of necessity. Due to arcane Chinese bureaucraticisms, my work visa in Korea gave me a limited time in which I could feasibly enter China, a time-period that was rapidly closing. I had to use up some of the remaining vestiges of my vacation days before they evaporated into the also arcane vagaries of Korea’s own bureaucracy. I had a vague, obligatory desire to go to China: it seemed absurd that I would live in Asia for two years and never go to the place. That I had a friend there, freshly arrived from his own south Asian getaways and thus unlikely to be far away from my free place to stay, pushed me all the more.
And so I left the airport, and found my way through its many tunnels and turn-abouts to the long-distance buses. I deciphered just enough of the bus schedule (the only characters I had memorized being the name for Suzhou, where I was headed) and stuffed my way onto a bus full of bedraggled mainlander travelers. We drove through the enormous highways of Shanghai while the sky darkened, before I was eventually ejected on the rain-slick, bewildering streets of Suzhou. I had little idea of where I was, as I apparently managed to stumble from the bus a stop too early, and into a rainstorm. One unmarked taxi later, I was trudging into my friends’ waiting, cavernous apartment.
I walked around the canals and pagodas of Suzhou alone, the sky slate-grey and my camera always at my side. It is weird, doing any of this travelling alone – I have no one to talk to, really, no one to prattle on to endlessly while we see the wonders of the world, but alone I tear through far more territory. I scale to the heights of pagodas and look out over the city-scape, and explore the crevices of architectural, manicured patches of rock and greenery and water. I walk kilometres in every direction and make the city my own.
The food options are dour, as those few restaurants I see do not seem to possess picture menus. Where in South Asia, most places had so few options I could generally slide into a chair and simply grunt until food appeared before me, Chinese establishments tend think of good service in terms of the volume of choice. Menus are cacophonous horrors of language, and after Greg tells me the result of one of his random selections from such menus (in so many words: a plate of rectums) I am too nervous to chance it. I suffice on street food and baked goods. I live like a bachelor, but on the move.
Outside of the Humble Administrator’s Garden, a massive, serene parkland in the north of the city, guides swarm the tourists like helpful but aggressive hornets. They call out to everyone in multiple languages. I try to wave off a guide, who tells me, “But sir! No guide, no interesting!” I shrug. I need no interesting. I’m a solo traveler. I will suffice on zen.
Greg and Agatha lead me down to the water to see the Suzhou Laser Lights Show. While I visit Greg’s school, everyone assures me it is something I must not miss.
They tell me that Chinese tourists flock to Suzhou, because the amount of industrial investments is fast pushing the city to basically seem like a futuristic wonderland. There are foreigners everywhere, new buildings spiderwebbing up into the sky, and whole neighbourhoods are seemingly birthed into existence overnight. This is where China is creeping into new decades, into new centuries. It seems a different nation from many of other cities and towns surrounding it.
While at his school, some migrant workers amble across the soccer field (it is an easier, more direct path for their walk) and stop to watch the children at play. These people appear to have wandered in off the Oregon trail, with one carrying a spade, another with a worn bandana holding back her hair. They look at the children: of numerous ethnicities and home countries, speaking a dozen languages, playing together in a massive, high-tech school. They cannot take their eyes off of this sight, and brief smiles play across their weathered features. It is very nearly a prophecy in their eyes.
The Laser Lights Show is everything I want it to be: fire and green beams shooting into the air, water spraying in every odd direction. Holograms are projected onto mist. In the distance across the water, nightclubs and casinos blast still more light into the dark sky. I live for this particular kind of weirdness. Families are gathered to watch the show. The music is bizarre and jarring, and stimulates the crowd. It alternates between the latest Mando-pop jams, and communist worker chants, so deep-voiced and stern they sound as though they must be sung in Russian, or some deep ancestral language of humanity, one that we only break out for menacing political anthems. It is the future, as envisioned by the 1970s, imagining if the Commies had won.
The Bottle Opener Building in Shanghai is enormous, and like all really tall buildings, it has an overpriced observation deck. But for the same amount of kuai, we were told in whispers, we could sneak through the Hyatt up to the observation bar one floor below, and at least have a few drinks.
We were unkempt, compared to the guests who actually lounged as their right rather than for tourism, but our endurance allowed us to eventually secure a table by the window, and we watched as the lights flickered on across one of the most populous cities in the world. The chairs are comfortable, the free snacks provided plentiful, and the bathroom (another recommendation from Greg and Agatha’s coworkers) had toilets with thorough anus-cleaning jets. We mused on the luxuries enjoyed by the rich, with their fancy beer-nuts and their oscillating butt-washers.
I like travelling alone, certainly, but sitting atop that tower, wandering the streets of Shanghai (and letting Greg and Agatha assume most of the Chinese-language burden), made me grow anew my appreciation for travel partners. You can drink soup out of dumplings or rest in the shade of seven-story pagodas, or think about how the rich cleanse their orifices by yourself, certainly. But it’s nice to have people to share those things with.