Please Don’t Be a Chicken Foot: The Lonely Suzhou Adventure

After I narrowly escaped being kidnapped at the Suzhou train station, I spent about three hours just walking around Tiger Hill Pagoda. Tiger Hill Pagoda is part of the Yunyan Temple and the buildings there are over a thousand years old.

The temple is surrounded by a moat and a thick stone wall, with a paved path that circles around the inside and crisscrosses between all the buildings.  The land is full of streams and ponds. Sometimes the path formed a small bridge to cross the stream, other times there were just stones in the middle of the stream that I jumped on to get across (I’m still not sure if I was supposed to do this).

You can go into some of the buildings, but much of it is closed off so you can only look in from the outside.  There are signs all over the place that talk about the history behind the buildings, but not all of them have English translations. Some of the buildings have golden Buddhas and stone carvings. The stone carvings were really cool to look at. Some of them are completely covered in ancient Chinese script and you can tell how old the stone is. In some places, the carvings are so old that the characters look more like hieroglyphs, because they were made before the more modern Chinese script had been invented.

The whole place is structured around a hill, with the pagoda at the highest point. This means there are a lot of stairs to climb.

My favorite was probably the lotus pool. It lies in front of one of the bigger structures and there are huge square stone blocks set in the ground leading into the pool. The blocks are steep, but if you’re brave enough, you can climb on them and stand in the center of the pool.

This article talks about the history and legends of some of the more well-known places within the temple.

It was very solitary, but I had fun walking around. I think I spent about three hours wandering around by myself. It was tiring, but I was sad when I realized that I had seen all the buildings in the temple. I didn’t want it end.

As much as I didn’t want to leave, I was starving. The need for food is what finally got me to tear myself away from the beautiful pagoda. As I left I realized that I had no idea where to go next, but I figured that, since I was in the touristy part of the city, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place to eat. I decided to just walk down the main street that led away from Tiger Hill Pagoda. I was exhausted after three hours of walking and climbing stairs, but there was bound to be something, right? Walking down one street wouldn’t kill me.

This was on a Tuesday at the end of January. A week before the Chinese New Year.

I was furious with myself for not realizing this back when I booked my flight. If I had made my return flight a week later, I would have been in China for the New Year. I also didn’t realize that everything starts to close right before Chinese New Year so that everyone can be with their families for the celebrations.

This meant that, although I was on one of the main roads in a decent sized city, everything was completely deserted. Imagine trying to find a restaurant that’s open on Thanksgiving. That’s basically what I was doing in Suzhou.

So there I was, exhausted and hungry, trudging through the empty streets and wondering where all the people were. Every time I saw a restaurant I would run to the door, thinking longingly of food and a warm place to rest, only to find that it was locked. I would peek in through the window like some lost puppy, wondering why there was no one inside, and then trudge away again, my hopes dashed.

I honestly don’t know how long I walked. It couldn’t have been more than forty-five minutes, but it felt like I had been walking for weeks. At this point I was so hungry I was ready to eat the next person I saw.

Finally, when I was getting ready to gnaw my own arm off, I found a street vendor. It was as if the clouds had parted and a golden ray of light was shining on her stand as a beacon for weary travelers. I hurried toward it, but I stopped when I saw the menu.

It was all in Chinese.

This shouldn’t have surprising, given that I was in China, but as I’ve mentioned before, I couldn’t read Chinese. Up until then, I had only been eating at restaurants with bilingual menus or pictures of the food that I could point at.

I stared at the menu. I had no idea what to do. The vendor looked at me with a grumpy, “What the hell do you want?” expression, and she kept glaring at me while she waited for me to order, as if my standing there quietly were somehow offensive. I frantically scanned the menu for some symbol that looked familiar and my eyes finally settled on one. I didn’t really know what it meant, but a part of it reminded me of the character for “bird.”

Nothing else on the menu stood out to me, so I pointed to that one and said, “Zhe shi shenme?” (What is that?)

She glanced at it and said, “Ya tui.”

I had no idea what “ya tui” was, but I was starving and she was still glaring at me, so I ordered it. As she reached under the counter to get it for me, I realized that the containers on top of the counter were all full of chicken feet.

Chicken feet are a delicacy in Asia, and I’ve always been grossed out by them. I remember seeing them when I was little, when we would go to Chinese restaurants with my grandpa (I mean real, authentic Chinese restaurants. Panda Express does not serve Chinese food, according to my grandpa). I loved going out with my grandpa as a kid and I usually tried everything he ordered, but even back then I thought the chicken feet were creepy.

They look like hands. Severed hands. I had to see them every time I went to the grocery store, in packages full of liquid like horrible, horrible pickles.

So when the vendor reached under the counter covered in severed chicken feet and I realized that I had ordered something with bird in it, I almost panicked. I’m not a religious person, but right then all I could do was close my eyes and pray, “Please don’t be a chicken foot. Please don’t be a chicken foot.”

When she handed me my food, I couldn’t even look at it. I just gave her the money and took my food. I remember feeling the cold, dead weight of it in my hand as I walked away, looking for a bench to sit on and horrified at what I would find once I got there.

There were no benches, so I sat on a low concrete wall by the park leading back to Tiger Hill Pagoda. Finally, I unwrapped the dreaded hunk of meat.

When I saw what it was, the relief hit me so hard that I actually laughed. I probably looked like a crazy person, hunched over on a concrete wall and laughing at the piece of meat in my hand.

It was duck leg.

I was so happy that I wanted to run back to the top of Tiger Hill and scream, “It’s not a chicken foot!” while brandishing my duck leg for all to see.

The meat was cold, but it had been marinated in some kind of spicy sauce. I’ve heard horror stories about buying food from street vendors, but right then, alone and exhausted on a cold January afternoon, it was the best thing I had ever eaten.

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