We were at the tail end of a month long trip to China, having made it to Shanghai, via the entire eastern half of the country and were exhausted. I was sick of Chinese gardens and seemingly endless bus trips to explore yet another one. (I do not recommend Suzhou, the Garden City, at the end of a Chinese adventure!)
But a side trip to Hangzhou for a couple of days was on the itinerary. Rather than pack up all our luggage and a month’s worth of souvenirs (most of which we could have purchased at home for less than what we paid there), we packed lightly for a two-night stay in this idyllic little city a couple of hours south of Shanghai.
With a mere six million inhabitants, Suzhou has maintained its culture and history, despite recent development as a resort getaway for Shanghai’s expanding middle class. There is gorgeous West Lake and more temples, palaces and exquisite relics to explore than one could possibly see in two days. But this is not a travelogue about Hangzhou.
You see, when I was packing my minimum requirements, I didn’t think about that little silver pouch containing my girly products. Sure enough, nature pulled one of her surprises. I browsed in the hotel shop, but whilst they were well stocked on mysterious snack foods, ‘authentic’ jade ornaments and Chairman Mao waving watches, personal care items were not catered for. Oh well, the hotel was in a mostly residential area and I had seen quite a few shops during the day.
I was several blocks away when I realised I had left my phrase book behind. Mind you, I had no intention of trying to verbally ask for anything. My previous attempts had the Chinese busting a gut, so I had taken to finding what I wanted to say and showing it to them – which worked just fine. I considered returning to get it, but these sorts of things are surely universal.
The late May night was warm, perfect for walking. Though it was getting dark, there were hundreds of people on the streets arm in arm, enjoying the night air, indifferent to a single western woman wandering. I soon found a chemist shop. Though there were no other customers, there were six people on staff.
It looked similar to a western chemist, austere white walls and shelves with boxes of various sizes and colours neatly stacked; some with Chinese characters, others also in English. I browsed around and couldn’t find anything resembling what I was looking for. Uh oh.
I went to the counter, where the entire staff greeted me, eager to help – five women and one man. I picked up a piece of paper and drew a picture of what I hoped looked like a tampon and gestured to my belly. The man was struck with a look of horror and disappeared into a back room. The women looked at it and one went to fetch something. A box of condoms. Uh, no.
I gestured a bit lower. Another went and fetched a box of strange white pellets, the size of robin eggs. I looked at the accompanying diagram and they were meant to be inserted, but whatever they were for was not what I needed. I shook my head.
I’m drawing more pictures – playing charades – or is it pictionary? We were all laughing so hard at the absurdity of it all. Next came some weight loss pills. Not right now, thank you.
A bottle of something to drink, but the writing was Chinese, so I had no idea what it was. More head shaking.
A diaphragm. (Aren’t these measured to fit?)
An IUD! (My lord! How on earth would you put that in yourself?)
I drew a uterus with drops coming down and pull something red out of my bag. A woman handed me a blue box containing a tall slim bottle that said ‘to stop excessive bleeding’ in English. At least we were on the right track.
Finally, I pulled some tissues out of my bag and folded them into the shape of a sanitary pad and gestured between my legs. Eureka! But with a series of gestures they let me know they didn’t sell them. A woman gently guided me to the door and pointed to a supermarket two blocks further. Feeling extremely foolish, I headed down the street.
Once there, I was overwhelmed by the selection. I thought we had too much choice here – there must have been a hundred brands on offer. I spotted the familiar Libra logo, snatched up a packet and paid.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped into the chemist and happily showed the ladies there that I had succeeded in my mission. They cheered. Back in the room, I immediately went to use my prized purchase. I opened it up – and they were tiny! Itty bitty, full thickness pads about half the length of a western pad! I quietly used two and hoped for the best.
For a look at photos of Hangzhou, along with commentary, click here.