There are 1.3 billion people in China. 19 percent of the world’s population resides in this single country. To put those statistics slightly into perspective, the US houses about 300 million (4.5% of the world population), and Australia, 30 million (0.32% of the world population)–all three countries are roughly the same size, area wise. Of that astronomical figure, 23 million people live in Shanghai–a population equivalent of about 3 times that of New York City.
Statistics are just statistics until you are actually immersed in the daily ebb and flow of the bustling, thriving mass of humanity. To step outside in Shanghai, is to be fully engulfed by the swarming masses. Drivers make their presence known with the nonstop blaring of their car horns, and motorcyclists tires come to screeching halts as they narrowly avoid the pedestrians who flood the streets. Suzhou, a town just outside of Shanghai, with its traditional gardens and network of intricate canals, promised the escape we needed from crowded city living. Looking back, I’m not sure what gave us that ethereal mental painting of Suzhou, but we were comically wrong in our presumptions.
The day was disastrous from the start as we were startled awake by our 7am alarm clock. After a late night at a bar, where we were enthralled by the discovery of China’s “hipster scene,” we trudged to the subway for the 40 minute ride to the train station where we intended to depart for Suzhou. After waiting in another (always long) line to buy tickets, we were asked for our passports, which we had left sitting back at our hostel, falsely assuming international identification was only needed for border crossing. The thought of taking a 40 minute subway back to our hostel, then coming back to the exact place we were standing, pushed me right over the edge. Rage and frustration were rapidly growing inside me and I needed a release. I wanted to scream or hit someone, but instead chose to throw a box of Wheatbix cereal (which I happened to be holding) against the wall. A less violent but equally inappropriate reaction.
We finally arrived in Suzhou (after what should have been two hours later turned into six), only to find ourselves in another city with more tall buildings and six lane highways–nothing like the ancient garden town with woven with footpaths we had in mind. As it turned out, Suzhou was a huge city, maybe not by China’s standards, but definitely by ours. We had to rent bikes to see a mere quarter of it. We warily rode our way along the busy streets, dodging trucks and swerving around pedestrians, as we navigated to the first garden. What we didn’t know about this garden was that it doubled as a zoo–a zoo of Chinese tourists. All we wanted was to escape somewhere to find a little zen but instead we were caught in an inescapable maze of people. We could only walk a few steps before getting stuck on the narrow paths behind another tourist group, fully equipped with a megaphoned guide. I’ve never had a panic attack, but I was sure if I didn’t get out of that “garden” immediately, my body might act on its own accord and hurl itself into one of the shallow ponds. We traveled in circles in a labyrinth more difficult to escape than a chinese finger trap, until we eyed the desperately sought after ‘exit’ sign and fled. That was enough garden for us. We stumbled down a deserted alley where we found a cafe–completely empty besides one barista and a gorgeous Siberian Husky. We ordered a much needed beer and played with the pup, at last discovering the ‘zen’ we desired in the most unlikely of places.