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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Grateful alive

Our first Thanksgiving in China, and it's been a busy few days. A turkey dinner at home on Thursday with our next-door neighbor who will be leaving Shànghăi 上海 next week, first for Washington, D.C. and then later to his next post in Brasilia. The purchasing on Friday of a tree (artificial, but pre-lit, saving the hassle of having to string lights), signaling the start of the Christmas season (for an officially atheist country with few Christians relative to the size of its admittedly huge population, the local flower market is well-stocked in Xmas paraphernalia, including decorations, trees and wreaths). And with winter almost upon us, a first and last chance to get a glimpse of the kind of autumn scenery we had enjoyed back in Japan and Virginia. Fortunately, we didn't need to go far from Shanghai, as Tiānpíng Mountain 天平山, one of the four best places in China to see red maples (according to Shanghai Daily), is only 90 minutes away by car, just southwest of the popular tourist city, Sūzhōu 苏州. Unfortunately, many other people didn't need to travel far from Shanghai and other nearby localities, either. Such is life in China...

In order to beat the crowds, my wife made the eminently sensible suggestion to spend Saturday night in a hotel close to Tianping Mountain. Her choice was Míngshān Yījiā 名山一家, one of those institutional Chinese hotels that caters to noisy tour groups. The guests were quiet last night; the same couldn't be said of the construction crew, who were hard at work onsite next door at the ungodly hour of six a.m. on a Sunday morning. Such is life in China...

We were given the honor of sleeping in the mahjong room, complete with an automated table and a carpet scarred with cigaret burns. There must've been many sorely disappointed guests at the hotel last night. 

Despite Pamela's best intentions, by the time we arrived at the mountain around nine in the morning, the tourist hordes had descended en masse, and the cacophony would be a constant drone the entire time we were there. Our timing was a little off in other ways, as the reds, golds, oranges and purples had already lost much of their brilliance. Still, it was enough to satisfy my 红叶-obsessed spouse.  

While my wife was looking for leaves in all the right places, I had my sights set on loftier goals. At 201 meters (659 feet), Tianping Mountain isn't very high, but in the vertically-challenged greater Shanghai area, soaring peaks are in extremely short supply. Since arriving in China in early July, the only serious hiking I've done was in mid-September, on Dewa Sanzan 出羽三山, and that was in Japan.

Alas, the crowds did me in. Tianping Mountain may be short, but the stone paths up are steep, not to mention narrow in places. As a result, the trail leading up quickly became congested, leading me to search for an alternative (as in less-crowded) route to the top. Such is life in China...

In the meantime, there were other things to see and do. The girls enjoyed a horseback ride, though I was put off by the cruel way in which one of the handlers cracked a whip to keep the animal from stopping. Such is life in China...

The foot of the mountain was full of pavilions of various kinds to check out

A statue of Bái Jūyì 白居易, a government official and prominent poet who lived during the Táng Dynasty (618-907).

Getting into the spirit of things

Most of the pavilions were connected in some form or another to the descendants of one Fàn Zhòngyān 范仲淹. The Fans seemed to enjoy welcoming guests into various pavilions, where they would sit in heavy wooden chairs, facing each other, while presumably drinking tea and spouting poetry. As to where they ate, slept and went to the bathroom remained unanswered questions.

No matter where we went, the masses were never far behind

An image evocative of classical China...complete with late-20th century air conditioning

Classical images of Amber and Pamela

On the way up to the top of Taiping Mountain via a side route. The scenery in the immediate area was impressive...

...but the city of Suzhou could barely be made out through the smog, meaning the view from the top wasn't going to be anything remotely close to spectacular. So in deference to my tired spouse (who has never been a fan of the great outdoors), we gradually made our way down the mountain and eventually to our parked car, hoping to get back to Shanghai before the traffic got too heavy.

The smog was pretty bad as we drove through Suzhou, and it only got worse the closer we got to Shanghai. While the expressways were relatively free of traffic leaving Suzhou, once we reached the Shanghai city limits, traffic slowed to the proverbial snail's pace, with drivers constantly cutting in and out of lanes with the barest of distances between themselves and the other cars, while the city could barely be seen through the thick brown soup. As this Thanksgiving holiday weekend nears its end, I'm most grateful for the fact that we made it home unscathed and in one piece. 

Such is life in China...

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