Okay, I'm officially "beauty'd out". No more.
This may seem like an odd thing to say, but seriously... I'm sick of the nice China, the tourist China, the mainline China. Bring on the grit.
I saw 4 gardens the other day and by the time I got to the nicest, the Humble Administrator's Garden (HAG), I was de-sensitized to it. The only enjoyment I got from it was taking pictures I thought my mom would like. (Suzhou is garden city, by the way... there are like 10 of them here, and tonnes of waterways.)
To this purpose, I've begun to more actively seek out the aesthetic of ugly, as I'm calling it.
Now I'm starting to wander the back alleys and residential lanes, looking at the real China. It's far more interesting, and strangely the people don't stare or what-have-you. They just go about their lives as I go about mine, not really caring that I'm there. The real China seems to exist in between the busy streets and blazing lights, in these lanes and quiet alleys. Ragged laundry hangs above the broken pavement and gravel; children play in the rubble that used to be a part of their home or that of their neighbours; old men sit on small stools by doorways quietly chatting, bent and heavily wrinkled with age; tiny old women shuffle along with the aid of a cane or with hands behind their stooped backs, blinking and squinting as they very slowly meander along; whip-thin workers share smokes, sitting on brick and beam rubble, broken walls, or squatting in the streets in semi-circles; women yell out to people (I assume family members) while they cook in dark rooms or do laundry by hand, rubbing clothes against the stone stairs leading down to small canals or ponds. It just feels authentic.
I'm sick of the glitz-and-glamour China that's steamrolling (or trying to) into modernity. China is really cheating itself, I think, and like a maddened leper is losing parts of itself as it bull-rushes heedlessly forward.
Anyhoo... I indulged in a bit of the old-school China today, in Tongli. It's not exactly ugly, but it has that entropic beauty going for it. It's not "look at how well maintained we can keep things". It just is.
I got there around 13:00 or so, and ended up going the wrong way from the bus station. As it was, I went the right way if one considers the importance of the juxtaposition in seeing what they're doing to Tongli and not just heading into the old district. God I was scared. I mean, here I was in a town that is widely known as being an old, historical water town... and all that I saw initially was suburb development and matching mass-constructed plazas and shopping areas. It was something that many people would have seen and been impressed by, but it scared the shit out of me. I almost turned back to return to Suzhou I was so stunned, my expectations so horribly dashed by the facade of modern shit they were throwing up.
(As it turns out, had I gone right out of the bus station instead of left... in about 20 steps I'd have seen the gate for the old district and been spared the horror.)
However, I decided to carry on and just explore. I figured I was out of Suzhou, don't worry, don't sweat it, just look around. Within 20 minutes of following a side street built exactly like all the others, I noticed something odd. Where there was brand new white paint on three-storey buildings, suddenly across a canal I was seeing ramshackle low houses... mossy, cracked stone and dirty whitewash and underlying brick where it had worn away. Huzzah! Decrepitude!
I moved very quickly to get over there. Crossing the main bridge over, I was surrounded by foreigners, who, from the next three hours' experience, didn't stray too far from that bridge as I never saw them around afterwards. I sped past them, ignored the pedicab drivers (and actually elbowed one who followed me, shoving a map in my face and protesting that he could show me it all) and moved into the actual area I'd been wanting to see.
It was beautifully wretched. The whole placed seemed to be slowly sinking back to Nature - by way of water, encroaching vegetation and the slow mastication of implacable Time. GLEE!
I wandered and wandered. A guard even waved me away from an area saying it was ugly. I asked "Can I still walk down there?" He shrugged and replied that I could. It wasn't the ugliness that turned me back, but that the path disintegrated and any chance of moving on was blocked 50 meters in.
Walking around the main area was nice, and as I said... most tourists stuck to the canal walkways. I criss-crossed the entire place, seeing all that I could of the actual house laneways and people living there. Tongli and Suzhou actually have a kind of Mediterranean look about them (at least I think so).
(Oh and though I didn't pay for a ticket to go in, there's a Museum of Sexual History ("Antiques" was the word they used...) in Tongli. I thought that odd. Should have paid the 20 kuai, though I got some weird looks from the two ladies who were selling tickets. I must have had one of my crooked smiles goin' on or something.)
It was just so nice. It felt like being 500 km away from Suzhou as opposed to simply 30 km. Same architecture and style, but it just had a completely unsullied vibe. Well... away from the suburb development area, anyway. (makes me shudder to think of that.)
No real anecdotes from the day. Only one nutter calligrapher. Man, he was crazy. He reminded me of one of the inventors in the first or second chapter of Ninjai. (Aaron knows what I'm talkin' 'bout.) He kept going on about how I shouldn't be going to Suzhou, regardless of having a room booked there. "Wu Jiang! Ni yinggai qu Wu Jiang!" blah blah. 1 kuai to get there, blah blah. Very short, save distance, etc. Guy was totally eccentric that people were stopping to watch him race around chatting to me while gesticulating wildly.
Anyway, ended up finally getting something for my dad, and grabbed something for Angie. It was a great tour, and a very pleasant place to lurk around in. Now Tongli felt like a Chinese Venice: tonnes of waterways and canals, and most only 7 or 8 meters across. Many many bridges - large, small, new, old. Tonnes of green, and plenty of character. Very character-infused, actually.
It was a very satisfying day. Tomorrow, it's off to Tiger Hill, and maybe one more garden if I can stand it. If not, I will re-roam some of the side streets I found today and yesterday. Just need to wrap the night up with a little surprise...