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The Band, the Black Market and the Billionaire

“Do you miss Tony?” I asked, as our van hummed over the bustling streets of Shanghai. “Oh yeah,” replied the bearded American expat to my left, “There’s definitely a void. I don’t know if we’ll ever fill it.”

“No,” I decided. “He’ll go down like Kurt Cobain.”

“Maybe one day we’ll get a Dave Grohl. Maybe that’s you.”

The Band

With that, Uproxx writer-at-large Zach Johnston nodded into a tranquil silence, instantly snapping asleep in a way that only a seasoned traveler can. Johnston is a veteran of the world, he’s sailed from Thailand across the Horn of Africa, hiding in a dark, sleepless silence from pirates at nine knots. He’s spent time in a Congolese jail and trekked through the Sumatran jungle under the watchful eye of some of the last wild orangutans. 

A wizard of the word and a master of the campfire fairytale, Johnston may prove to be the Dave Grohl to Anthony Bourdain’s Cobain. Together with writer and photographer Matt Payne, writer Amelia Mularz and travel coordinator Laura Bonfiglio, we’d come to China on a mission to explore beyond Shanghai—a mission to the ancient city of Suzhou. 

By Chinese terms, Suzhou is a modest city of about 10 million, less than half of the size of sprawling Shanghai and its 24 million inhabitants located just a short train ride away. But unlike Shanghai, which began its boom within the last two centuries thanks to international trade; Suzhou has been one of the most influential cities in China for more than 2,500 years. The bones of Suzhou feel ancient. Its gates opened while the first bricks of Rome were being laid, and its streets are only recently beginning to creek under the footsteps of western travelers. Aside from an Italian trader named Polo, Suzhou has remained relatively unexplored by the west for centuries. 

Suzhou’s most ancient areas are famous for a Venice-like network of canals whose banks are lined by casual bars and restaurants. 

It’s the kind of place that Tony would have loved. The kind of place where locals still turn their cameras on tourists, so rare are western faces in the city’s most remote areas. 

Johnston is the bass player of our makeshift band, the soft spoken hum steadily moving our song forward. Mularz provides the vocals in a bright, blonde accent two parts Illinois and one part L.A. Payne is a renegade rockstar in his own right, a brash Oklahoman rancher on lead guitar prone to wander on a long solo with a lens for a whammy bar. Bonfiglio mans the cans, a Boca-bred drummer blending the beats of her adopted home in Brooklyn with a South Florida smoothness.

And that puts me on keys, an inessential part of the group that blends into the background, taking the spotlight only when the heavy hitters need to break for a ballad.

The Black Market

More than a year after the tragic loss of Anthony Bourdain to suicide, our band is mounted in rickshaws, bouncing over cracked sidewalks, weaving in and out of a bike lane scattered with electric mopeds and luxury cars, signs of cleaner and more affluent modern China. A neon blue Porsche slowly nosed its way ahead of our pedal-powered chariot as a human in a six foot tall panda costume waves excitedly at local tourists. Bonfiglio and I—cans and keys—are in the midst of a caravan barreling through the center of Suzhou in the most stereotypically Chinese way possible. 

It is frantic. It is cliche. It is amazing. Though admittedly, rickshaws in Asia ferry tourists around Chinese cities the way carriages do in America.

Minutes later, we skirt under the feet of a bizarre spectacle, jumping off just in time to stroll through the heart of it. Tropical birds of all kinds in cages above the narrow street. Bottles full of cicadas, tubs of turtles and fish, and at least one critically endangered species of Mexican salamander, lined the passageways of a Suzhou street market. Under one tarp, a table lined with miniature sculptures of Mao, Lenin and Marx invites guests to take home a piece of history.

“We’re definitely closer to a pangolin than we’ve ever been,” quips Payne, the freelance photographer who’s spent months in the African bush and logged bylines in National Geographic. “Look at that axolotl,” adds Johnston. “Where would you even acquire one?” I wondered aloud. Somehow, this sparsely populated market did not feel touristy. It was just another neighborhood market on another neighborhood street that—if not for the unique collection of artifacts—could have been any neighborhood in the world.

“It’s all here,” I joke. “This has got to be the black market, the one we’ve always heard about.”

I might not have been far from the truth. And yet, our walk through the market was little more than an introduction to Suzhou, a minor note in a symphony of exploration that would last for most of the next week.

By the time Bonfiglio and I sit down for a beer on the shoulder of the city’s canals, we are fully engrossed in the snare of Suzhou’s history.

The city is a true spectacle, part living museum and part playhouse. In Suzhou, you can sip a Tsingtao overlooking the same waters that silk traders en route to Marco Polo plied just a short walk from a maniacal alley of colorful carnival games like darts and balloon pop. You can ride the rollercoaster of marvel and madness by slowly soaking in a sunset over the water before de willing your way into winning a life-sized stuffed Pokémon. Then, you can wind down in a medieval tea house under the golden sculpture of the god of kitchens—all of this, in the blood red glow of lantern light. 

At least, that’s the scene in Tongli, one of the many water town districts comprising the most historic sections of Suzhou. “This is my favorite place,” Bonfiglio waxes, as the rest of the band plops down at a nearby plastic table to soak in the scene. “I’ve been here three times since March.”

A deep breathe and a look around reveal why Bonfiglio beat a deliberate path to this place. Tongli is pulled straight from a movie scene. 55 narrow, stone bridges criss-cross the canals of a district that, despite an alarming lack of cheese, feels every bit the “Venice of East.” All around, wooden gondolas ply their way silently around the canals, transporting groups of Chinese tourists from other provinces, venturing forth on fishing trips, or providing mobile mounts for the hosts of ebony cormorants perched on their gunwales. 

The act plays out in the fading glow of early evening as lanterns begin to awake for the night and cheap beers begin to whip our band into a frenzy. Betrothed to a tight itinerary for much of our trip (you’ll have to read about those events in more reputable outlets) we’ve finally found time to cut loose.

A freak show ensues as the entire group erupts from our cafe and ambles toward—well, we aren’t sure where. We venture over one bridge, then two. The third bridge leads into a well populated, much wider street where local tourists are busy buying trinkets of bone brushes and ocarinas. We oft for a darts booth just past a giant, caged goose and Payne proceeds to go Full Metal Jacket on the wall of balloons in order to secure the aforementioned plush Pokémon. 

The rest of us pepper a pallet of balloons with BB guns for coveted pukka shell bracelets. Although all of our shots are true, some pop and some don’t. Carnival games, it seems, are rigged no matter what part of the globe you’re on.

After a few minutes, the ruckus has caused a crowd of local tourists to pause and take videos of us. Likely, those videos were immediately uploaded to a social network unbeknownst to Americans. And by now, it’s entirely possible that the band is now famous in China.

The Billionaire

The next day, billionaire shipping mogul and quantum science entrepreneur Fred Tsao slides a glass of red wine onto a wide, wooden table near his subterranean wellness retreat and plops down beside me. The 62-year old Tsao is fresh off of an appearance on CNBC to discuss the Hong Kong situation, and a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he sought the advice of a local shaman for matters unknown. Tsao carries with him a palpable energy that almost radiates from his dark amber eyes.

Tsao is keen to discuss SANGHA retreat, the massive 1,000,000 square foot campus perched on the edge of a UNESCO heritage site in the middle of Suzhou’s industrial district. “Which is a terrible name,” he says. The result of three decades of planning by Tsao, SANGHA is fast developing a reputation as one of the world’s leading quantum-based wellness retreats. Though it contains a world-class spa and a five-star hotel, the retreat also houses a medical facility where leading physicians hand-plucked from around the world research the impact of quantum science on your body.

If it sounds like Star Trek, it’s true. “That is where we are headed,” Tsao comments. “When you see them do a complete body scan on Star Trek and see what’s wrong with you, that’s quantum and that’s where we are going.” Already, Tsao’s facility can detect what minerals are in your body and how healthy certain organs are with a scan requiring little more than a pair of headphones plugged into his machines.

There are few, if any, places like SANGHA in the world. 

Tsao, a University of Michigan graduate, explains that quantum science is just now beginning to quantify what ancient Chinese and Indian medicine has known for centuries. And, as if on cue, he calls out an ongoing experiment at our very dinner table.

“It’s group therapy,” he laughs. “You didn’t know it when I walked in, but I’ve been radiating energy for you the whole time we’ve been talking. Think about it, do you feel lighter or heavier since we’ve been sitting here together?”

The band nods in unison, “lighter.”

Hours later, as Johnston and Payne explored a temple outside of Tsao’s complex, Murlaz, Bonfiglio and I found ourselves in an immersion class, learning to feel the energy between two bodies. Make of it what you will, but as a tangible feeling coursed between our group, I couldn’t help but think back to Tsao’s laughter. 

In America, if you placed me in a room full of strangers and told me I could literally feel their energy, I would have told you that you’re crazy. But 7,500 miles from Memphis, beside a lake full of hairy crabs, there really did seem to be a magnetism between us all.

“It was amazing,” glowed Mularz “I could really feel it,” added Bonfiglio.

The energy could have something to do with Tsao, whose rumored to be a reincarnated monk. It could be a side affect of the bevy of crystals that seem to be embedded into the walls and buried beneath the very foundation of SANGHA retreat; or it could be something else.

Later, Payne would chime in. “It’s amazing how the power of multiplication works. How all of our creative powers are amplified when we are together, when any group of people comes together.”

Payne was talking about the Beatles, but he may as well have been in the room when our invisible energies began swirling.

It’s been two years since I first traveled to Asia. There, in Vietnam, my first impressions of international travel were framed by Anthony Bourdain. They were framed by the restaurants he visited and the trail of local people praising his visit to their place on the planet. Most of all, they were framed by the smiles on their faces. And now, though Tony is no longer with us, the spirit of his journeys still rings true.

“Moments like this are what it is about,” crackled Johnston, who’d managed to secure a whiskey bottle from Tsao’s personal stash. Across the room, Fred Tsao began to laugh. 

As our glasses clinked, everyone began to smile. I imagined I could feel the energy beaming off of Tsao—and in the very back of my mind, I imagined how much Tony would have loved this scene.

Written by

When my home was sold out from under me, I bought a tent and decided to live outside. Now, I'm a freelance writer for Travel Channel, INSIDER, Nat Geo, and Fodor's Travel and I'm on a never-ending quest to get out of my comfort zones and see the world.

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