Hangzhou 2001 plus Suzhou 2002 and 2004

A three part overview of our visits to these famous towns

Click to go straight to: Hangzhou 2001 / Suzhou 2002 / Suzhou 2004

Visitor number (since September 2002):

In the skies there is Heaven, and on Earth Suzhou & Hangzhou - or so the saying goes...

Hangzhou (October 2001)

The end of October was rapidly approaching as was my birthday, as birthdays are wont to do in our middle ages. Also approaching was our third wedding anniversary, which I had actually remembered, as husbands are usually not so wont to do. We were weighing up our options about what to do when a staff day trip to Hangzhou came up. We concluded that was as good as option for merriment as any, maybe apart from Zurich or the Maldives, so we packed an extra overnight bag and were off. The trip there was uneventful and we even managed to not to have to stick our heads out the window and vomit - as we noticed seemed to be a small but growing trend from other buses we passed.

Once in Hangzhou we were set down in in an area famous for restaurants. It's just that they didn't bother to tell us that or maybe just point one of them out. So along with many of the other lo wai we settled for a morning coffee and snack at McDonalds. I guess they are probably just as famous as any restaurant in China these days.

One thing that struck me during the day (yet again) was the volume wherever you went. One woman in front of McDonalds was shouting into her mobile. If I knew enough Chinese I would have told her that with that voice she didn't actually need a mobile phone. Then there was the tour guide standing one metre from his group yet still finding the use of a megaphone necessary.

Escaping the desperately pushy toilet users and noise, albeit temporarily, we made our way out to the West Lake. This is just one of the famous 23 or so 'West Lakes' in China but apparently this is THE MOST famous West Lake. We wanted to take a boat out to an island in the lake but all the local boat drivers (or boat with servant as the noticeboard said) seemed to be ripping us off by asking a double hike. Little did we realise till later on that these tiny boats are powered by hand and not by electric motor. No wonder they complained when we said it would only take 10 minutes to get there!

Giving up the lake as a write-off we were herded back on the bus and headed to the silk factory. This ended up as a basic exercise in consumerism. Here we were treated to some modelling of famous silk clothing - all available in the gift store at exorbitant prices of course. Nothing for fat old men like me of course, just for the nymph like female figures that had been paraded in front of us. I was able to get something much cheaper made up later at the Shanghai fabric market anyway. We took a shine to a nice bed cover until we found out it was RMB1,230 as compared to the 'accidental' tag of RMB150

Last stop for the day was Ying Lin temple. Drizzle and cloud cover continued to be constant themes as the day wore on. After negotiating our way through the mazes of gift shops we got on a cable car to the top to be greeted with a fabulous view of...cloud and fog. Another long walk down followed and John and Ticha cursed and complained about me being too active, as they usually do. We took the wrong trail down and got slugged a RMB20 entrance fee into some grottoes which we didn't really want to see but were okay I guess. Then they wanted another RMB15 to get into the temple itself - which we decided to eschew this time. We were glad to finally get back on the bus.

All in all not a real enjoyable time thus far. Hence no pictures - but keep going, you'll find some soon.

The tour group dropped us off at a local restaurant then we spent an hour or so tramping around for a hotel. We finally settled on the Dragon Hotel - a very fine choice indeed as it worked out. After settling into our well appointed room we partook of the fantastic buffet in the restaurant before heading out for some shopping at the local mall. We came back exhausted and slept well. We should've gone for the buffet again in the morning but thought we'd better give our midriffs a break.

Before checking out we got the hotel to book some train tickets for us. Only 50RMB each - but with a 25RMB booking fee! Not really sure where to spend the day we set off through a nearby reserve and discovered Yellow Dragon Park. What a find that was.

Beijing Opera in the Park

Inside the park we were were treated to veritable plethora of sights and entertainment. A Beijing Opera, some very talented local folk musicians (who cost us 35RMB in requests) and a range of interesting temples and scenery.




Isn't this corny?

Being a celebration of our wedding anniversary we even forked out 45RMB for a 'love lock'. We put a message of love inside a lock and can come back to check it anytime - the 45RMB including future free entry into the park.




Locking away our thoughts of love....

After seeing all we could see there we headed up over the mountain to Jie Fie Temple by the lakeside. It was a very steep walk down and we were glad not to be coming the other way up (which we would've if we'd stayed by the lake as first planned).

Heading through a village on the path down from Yellow Dragon Park

Jie Fie Temple honours an ancient mandarin of a long disappeared dynasty who was wrongly accused and executed. Later he was pardoned and the statues of his now reviled accusers were the subject of much spitting upon by visitors to the temple - until the government put a recent stop to it. It must be the only place in China where they've put an effective end to the expelling of phlegm. After aiming a handful of jiao and fen at the mouth of a fish statue for good luck - and missing every time - we grabbed a taxi and headed back to the hotel to pick up our stuff.

To the train station and our taxi driver treated us to his best impersonation of a jet boat driver as My wife and I busily reconnected with our spiritual side. What was that about 'Heaven'? Once onboard and moving toward Shanghai it was back to decibel-land with a particularly naughty kid plus various mobile phones and their bizarre ringing tones. My wife and I had been booked separate seats but some of the locals happily shuffled themselves for the lo wai.

Reliable information is that Shinjuku in Japan is the busiest train station in the world. Well, I've been to Shinjuku lots of time and it had nothing on Shanghai station that day. Unbelievable! We crushed our way through the crowds to the metro line, stopped at Xia Jiao for Aji-sen noodles (one of our favourites) and were glad when the taxi finally dropped us off at our apartment. An anniversary and birthday celebration to remember. Not Heaven, but very worthwhile...

Suzhou (April 2002)

School staff trips generally tend to start early'ish in the morning. So it was with this one, and it found us scrambling down the road as the bus was leaving. Fortunately John had held up the bus getting a paper and so proved to be our saviour. Suzhou is famous for quite a few things, including the place where Marco Polo stayed for a number of years. Quite a few historians now dispute Marco's story, claiming it contains more lies than a Liberal Party election launch by John Howard. Another thing Suzhou is famous for are pearls, and so it was that we made our way to the 'pearl' district. Along the way we had to navigate the 'furniture' district first. Some parts of the old communist command economy refuse to die it seems.

Suzhou Pearl Market

Pearl buying is definitely a chick thing it seems. I decided to go for a walk up the street to see what else I could find, which just happened to be (wait for it)... more pearl shops, and on it went. I gave up, went back to the bus, and sat outside waiting for it all to end. I guess My wife enjoyed the experience and did find some fabulous bargains so it was worth it.

According to my sources there has NEVER been an S.I.S. trip where the driver has NOT got lost. And so it happened again, and quite early on in the piece. The drivers stopped a guy on a motorcycle and bribed him a few yuan to lead us to where we wanted to go. This turned out to be a scenic tour STRAIGHT PAST several popular tourist sites (such as Tiger Hill), just to show us what we would be missing I presume, and down many cramped tiny backstreets. Finally we arrived THERE, although I'm not sure what it was or what it was called. It appeared to be an old village that was being knocked down and reproduced for the tourist masses. It contained on the day of our visiting, 1) a very dirty creek (like most of China I guess), 2) an old mansion of some type, 3) an average temple, and 4) a small reproduction village. Not being bothered to walk back we took a pedal taxi who said the fee was 4RMB. That turned out to be EACH with a surcharge for being 'too heavy'. Knock me down with a feather, couldn't see that scam coming could we...?

Heading down the backstreets of Suzhou

Gates to the 'old' village

From there it was a long drive to Lake Taihu, the place of many shattered dreams judging by the number of closed and unfinished resorts we passed along the way. The last stop was the Nine Dragons Cave and tower which was the only place all day that everyone agreed on as worthwhile. However we were only given 30 minutes and had to imitate Cathy Freeman on a sprint through to see everything. As the buses wended home we got off in Suzhou and made our to the Sheraton for the night.

It seems we may be slowly coming up in the world. It is not that long ago that I would choose the cheapest, dumpiest place in town, but I guess that's part of the dim dark days of being a solo backpacker. So now we were staying at the best hotel in town, as we were also to do the next week in Yichang on our way to the Three Gorges. The place was fantastic. It had beautiful gardens, lovely rooms, plus sumptuous buffets for both dinner and breakfast. It also had both Japanese and Australian TV channels which kept us up till late. It's funny how you will watch some things that you wouldn't normally at home... There was one English language program on NHK that was absolutely hilarious - except it wasn't meant to be. Breakfast by the window overlooking the gardens was lovely, even though we had to listen to the computer geek at the next table telling some poor Chinese guy his life story. I think he probably said only six words in response the whole 'conversation'. Needless to say we got so comfortable that we did not leave till later in the morning, around 11am.

We were waylaid on our way to the tourist haunts by a gaggle of DVD shops, including one that sold a large variety of foreign and arthouse movies for only 8RMB. We never added up the total but we easily blew at least 500RMB all up. We also stopped by a couple of great bookstores. At one I picked up several "Xenophobe's guide to ....", which I have laughed my way through. I read the one on the Americans on the train home, but lost the English one (only half way through too) on our Three Gorges trip. Honestly I don't know how they could have translated the subtleties into Chinese.

The Confucion Temple does not really register on most tourist guides but we found inside a wonderful little curio and antique market. One friendly local wanted to try out his English and walked with us as looked around. We bought a couple of antique locks at one stall and disaster almost struck at that time. I was getting the money out when one lock fell from my hand. It was almost like the slo-mo that you see in movies when something bad is about to happen. I saw the lock tumbling and twirling, then BANG, it crashed into some small Chinese bowls on the table. We picked up the top one and saw the large chip taken out of the side. Our new friend promptly declared it a fake anyway and the vendor was happy with a 5RMB pay-off. Along with other nearby vendors we all stood around laughing at my clumsiness. Just glad it wasn't a Ming Dynasty or something. Without our new friend it quite possibly could have been.

Vendors on a slow day at the Confucion Temple market

The Can Lang Gardens (on the left, below) and the Tai Chi beginner (on the right, below)

From there we looked at the Can Lang Gardens (which were very nice) and the Master of the Nets Garden (which were quite average). Our last stop were the Twin Pagodas - which was worthwhile. We chuckled over the man trying to do tai-chi with a sword as he read the instruction book. Obviously a rank beginner. I'm not sure about the concept of finding inner peace whilst you're hanging onto a dirty great weapon though. Sounds like something the Yanks would attempt. We went past the Temple of Mystery, so called I guess because it was closed. With the sun going down we declared the tourist part of our weekend closed and that the rest of Suzhou's attractions would have to wait for another time.

After dinner at an average Japanese restaurant we descended on the train station, or should I say, madhouse. Pushing noisy lines stretched out the doors of the ticket office, making it quite obvious that were not going to get on a train anytime soon. We decided to give in to one of the hovering touts (who we had rejected earlier) who sold us tickets at a 50% premium. With this we had just enough money to get us back to our place from Shanghai station via taxi, until we got ripped off buying water inside the station. EDITOR'S NOTE: Don't buy water from the concession lady near the waiting room in Suzhou station.

Entering the station we were forced to get our bags x-rayed. Not bad security I guess, apart from the fact that no-one was actually watching the x-ray screen...With our train delayed by an hour we parlayed into the waiting room for the elderly, handicapped and pregnant, and tried to change our tickets to no avail. We were allowed to stay in the waiting room by the attendant rather than join the crowd outside and were amused by the fact that it only seemed to contain snoring and smoking men. Not both together at the same time of course. We then tried to sneak onto the earlier train but were turned back. Finally our train arrived and we fought the usual scrum of elbows, bags and knees as the masses squeezed through the doors. In Shanghai station we were taken back by the group of around fifty or so kneeling on the platform and being guarded by soldiers. Our guess was that they were illegal immigrants from outside of Shanghai being sent back to whence they had come. We scraped together enough loose coins for a taxi and even had 11RMB left over at the end. We'll be back to Suzhou some day to get some more DVD's....and maybe see the other sights too....

Suzhou - A Reprise (April 2004)

Just to make sure that I left with a perfect record the driver on the next school trip to Suzhou got lost too. Not the other two buses - just the one we were on. Suzhou struck us this time as a dirty polluted Chinese town that was hardly Heaven. The two sights we did see (Humble Administrators Garden and Tiger Hill) were quite nice, though not really enjoyable when accompanied by milling thousands of the unwashed proletariat. And it seemed every third one (see picture) wanted to meet Youki, touch Youki, be photographed with Youki or chastise us for not dressing her warmly enough or letting her go without socks (despite the temperature being in the mid-20's). We spent lunchtime in the main shopping area of Suzhou, that was fairly average. The most bizarre aspect was My wife finding a boiled egg in the bottom of her iced coffee at lunch. This must obviously be some distinct local delicacy, or cock-up, depending on your viewpoint. We missed out on the Lion Garden in the afternoon because of the late arrival. We jumped off the bus at the end of the day and spent the night at the Gloria Plaza Hotel. Just trying to book this place was a nightmare taking several hours and in the end the effort was hardly worth it. The next day we wandered aimlessly with no real plan in mind. Of course along the way we did manage to collect a number of DVD's but were generally able to resist the lure. The best part, as we usually find, is being off the main tourist drags and in the back streets. At one stage Youki had lost one of her socks so we dispensed with the other. One lady pointed out to us that she should be wearing socks. By the time the usual crowd had gathered we came up with the good excuse that she had lost one. So one of the first lady's neighbours walked back down the street a little and came back with an obviously well-used pair (but washed nonetheless) that she placed on Youki's feet (see picture). A very nice gesture from a complete stranger - even though we were not really fussed and the Chinese obssession with overdressing children is sometimes difficult to come to terms with. We were not prepared to face the crush of the train station again in the afternoon and managed to negotiate a fare to Shanghai with one of the few modern and clean taxis in Suzhou. Su Rong (REG: E49659) is very safe and professional and can be contacted on 0512-62188501 or 13962110313 if you're looking to travel Suzhou-Shanghai (or vice-versa I presume). He drove through the large industrial estate on the way out of Shanghai and in a bizzare paradox it was far cleaner than the city itself. We are very sure we have now seen everything we'd like to see in Suzhou and are unlikely to darken it's door again.