2001 plus Suzhou 2002 and 2004
part overview of our visits to these famous towns
to go straight to: Hangzhou 2001 / Suzhou
2002 / Suzhou 2004
number (since September 2002):
In the skies there
is Heaven, and on Earth Suzhou & Hangzhou - or so the saying goes...
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.
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).
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)
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.
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
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
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
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)
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.
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
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.