The view from the bridge was refreshing despite the busy environment. Car drivers honking, and pedestrians talking loudly did not distract me from enjoying the beautiful sun which was setting just behind the houses near the canal. My friends went ahead, but I decided to stay behind for a moment to take a deep breath and just be grateful to Mother Nature for her wonders.
Our last volunteer work was done. My Chinese friends decided to take us (the other foreign volunteers and I) to visit (Shan Tang Jie, 山塘街), Shan Tang Road, to see the effervescence of the celebration of Chinese New Year. The streets were packed. The shops were small and colourful.
The atmosphere screamed merriment. Shan Tang road was very famous for traditional crafts and food, and it more than lived to the descriptions that we heard from our friends. The busy streets did not discourage us from visiting those delightful little shops. What caught my attention was neither the clothes, nor the paintings nor the cute souvenirs, but in fact the food. The street food smelled like heaven (even if I don’t know what heaven smells like). We knew that we had to leave space in our stomachs for dinner but we could not resist the wonderful smell of food. We visited the shops, bought some souvenirs and ate our food. We then went for a walk in the streets.
It was dark and silent. We stood on the sidewalk, mesmerised by the beauty of the canal and the lights highlighting the traditional Chinese houses on the banks of the canal. The full moon provided us with enough light to wander near the canal, without falling into it. We stood, hypnotised until a bike came swerving just behind us. The magic was lost and we returned to reality. As we walked farther down the canals, we found lanes, with shops, most of which were closed, on either side. The shopkeepers were not really surprised to see a few foreigners with other Chinese people. They seemed to be familiar with seeing (外国人) wai guo ren(foreigners), as they say in Chinese. The kids who were helping their parents were pretty welcoming, and were eager to talk to us. They were surprised that we could speak a little a bit in Chinese. We tasted and bought a few traditional Chinese snacks and foods that were prepared and sold specifically for the Chinese New Year, and then we set off to find a restaurant to have dinner.
As we came nearer and nearer to the main scenic spot, we were appalled by the number of people on the streets. And there was more to come. All the restaurants were full. We were hungry, despite the huge amount of street food we just ate,so we decided we could wait a bit to taste the popular food, which was noodles. So we went to the noodles place (I forgot the name of the restaurant) and we ordered with the recommendation of our friends. After that, we waited and waited and finally, we got our food. I chose noodles with seaweed and other leafy vegetables, along with spring rolls stuffed with shrimps. It was delicious. I was not very keen to eat seaweed during my first year in Suzhou, but that day I decided to take a leap forward and try it. And, it was surprisingly good.
Afterwards, we decided to leave, to get back home as we knew that traffic was going to be horrendous. As soon as we stepped out of the door, we stood aghast. There was barely place to move. People were moving in two different directions, and it didn’t seem as if they were even walking. They seemed to be pushed by people from behind them. As soon as we managed to get in the crowd, it was a stuffy experience. There was no room to move hands and head. All we could do was to literally go with the flow. It was like a giant massaging machine. The road was, in fact, not narrow at all. It was quite wide but it was very inconvenient since it was a two-way road. We were in a human traffic jam. During this trip, though, we managed to take good pictures of the beautifully decorated shops, houses, and the well-lit restaurants.
“Have you ever seen so many people before?” one of my Chinese friends asked me. “No, never, I think maybe the whole of my country’s population can fit in here”, I said, trying to make a joke about how tiny my island is, and how insignificant the number of people in my country is, compared to Suzhou. After what seemed like hours of just getting pushed around, we finally reached the main road. The situation was slightly better here. What was most interesting was that the full moon was just above a traditional Chinese structure, which was dressed like a bride, with millions of lanterns and lamps. The sight was to be held. Our eyes stayed stuck to the moon as we walked around. Finally, we went to the subway station to return to our dorms. It was a night full of discoveries, excitement, and gratefulness.