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Looking for a towel in upcountry China

Today I went back in time. But before I did, I woke up in China with a headache. I slowly made my way downstairs to the lobby of my hostel to ask for a towel.

“Towel shi shenme?” she asked. What is a towel?

Maojin?” I remembered.

“Oh, yes. I know. Maojin 5 rmb.”

“You mean you don’t provide towels? I have to pay for it?” I asked. This may be normal for hostels, I don’t know. But I had not had my coffee yet. I don’t even talk before my coffee. This towel thing was unacceptable.

“Maojin 5 rmb,” she repeated.

“Ok, fine. 1 maojin please,” I conceded.

What was laid before me would have a hard time getting a drink at the Towel family reunion. This thing was a napkin– a pink striped, reusable napkin. I put it up to my chest for effect, the size of a bib, and looked at her unamused. She took my money and went back to work.

Upstairs after my shower my “towel” was dripping wet before I got to my waist. I finally dried out just in time to walk outside into the pouring Suzhou rain. Why did I even bother?

I was in Suzhou, a city 50 miles northwest of Shanghai, renowned for the canals that thread the city (“The Venice of the East”), its classical Chinese gardens and its beauty. A 2000-year old proverb calls it one of two paradises on earth. Marco Polo got in on the praise when he arrived there in 1276, calling Suzhou “a very great and noble city”.

But today it was far from paradise. After five minutes of wading through a sea of puddles, my shoes were soaked clear through.

Forget walking. I took a taxi to Panmen (“Coiled Gate”), the only part of Suzhou’s ancient city wall still intact. More than just a gate, Panmen is a fortress roughly the size of a WalMart SuperCenter, originally designed to control access to the city by land and water.

I paid the small admission fee and wandered in, only to find myself completely alone. In today’s bursting-at-the-seams China this doesn’t happen. Just stretching your arms horizontally without poking someone is a treat. And in Suzhou, a city packed with tourists both domestic and international, it was the last thing I expected. Apparently the rain had kept the cell phone-obsessed, furry parka-wearing masses at bay. For the first time all day I felt lucky.

I strolled in and out of the fort’s gardens and temples and gazed at its collection of statues and monuments. Suddenly I found myself in the 13th century, with no sign of modern China to tell me otherwise. I was Li Feng, member of the Song Dynasty elite, still sickened by the takeover of our northern capital by the Jurchen, and worried about this Genghis Khan character everyone was talking about (who was currently pillaging his way south through China). Still, Zheng Hoa, my lovely concubine, would be paying me a visit tonight. It was not easy being me, but the thought of her calmed me as I wandered around for an hour.

Eventually I made my way up the stone steps to the top of the city wall. And as quickly as Taylor had disappeared, he was back.

At the top of the city wall I was greeted with a vista of the factories, smokestacks, skyscrapers and television towers that define this horizon of Suzhou and much of China today.

My dream over, I made my way along the city wall and back down into the fort. A cluster of Chinese tourists were here now, battling the rain, a collage of colorful umbrellas and feet.

I decided to climb the fort’s pagoda before I left—a tall, narrow, 7-storey tower near the entrance. The Ruiguang Pagoda (Auspicious Light Pagoda) was built in 1004 AD, the oldest pagoda in Jiangsu Province, and it looked its age. At 1002 years, it is more than four times the age of my country. It is surely a feat that a structure 100 feet tall but only 20 feet across has made it this far; through 4 dynasties, countless wars (including the brutal invasion by the Japanese in World War II that upended Nanjing only 200km away), the founding of the People’s Republic, the cultural revolution (whose aim was specifically to destroy structures such as this), and the Reform and Opening of China (when nothing, including history itself, has been more important than economic progress, a notion embodied by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote “to get rich is glorious”).

Climbing the Auspicious Light Pagoda is not for the timid or the wobbly-legged or the claustrophobic. The staircase, the only part of the structure that has been rebuilt in 1000 years, is the steepest I’ve ever climbed.  At roughly an 80-degree angle and only 2 feet wide, it is equal parts rock climbing, sightseeing, and spelunking. Luckily you get a break every floor, though the old and creaky wooden slats that make up the floors are almost worse. The 3rd floor had the only open balcony and I went out to have a look. The guardrail barely reached my knees, and it was a windy day. I went back inside. I was alone in my fear until the 4th floor, when I popped my head up and heard a sudden “whoa!” I had excited a six-year-old boy with his mother. The shock of my whiteness was apparently more than the boys vocal chords could control.

“Ni hao lao wai.” Hello foreigner, the boy said to me.

“Ni hao zhong guo ren.” Hello Chinese person, I replied, like I always do. I turned the corner to the sound of giggles behind me, and proceeded toward the top. After every landing the stairs got steeper, narrower, creakier. Somehow I managed to notice the Chinglish signs as I climbed: “Beware of safety” and “take care of your head.”

I finally reached the top. My head was okay, taken care of, but safety was nowhere in sight. I looked out the windows for the view, but on a dark and cloudy day like this one it wasn’t much. The adventure here, I realized, was in the past and the future, the climb and descent. So I got on my hands and knees, stuck out my leg, felt a step, and started down.

Back at the bottom I took a deep breath, walked back out through the arched entryway and straight back into the teeth of 2006. Horns blared, cell phones sang Chinese pop, and people swarmed everywhere. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

China today is a story of rapid development, overpopulation, pollution, and increasing global power. For some foreign travelers it can be a frustrating mess of language barriers, red tape, and extremely small towels. But the romantic notion of The Central Kingdom that many foreigners carry with them is still there, if only in isolated incidents or with the right combination of coincidence and imagination. So take a walk in a downpour, climb a rickety pagoda, or heck, dry off with a napkin, because you just might find what you were looking for.

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