Day 24 - Suzhou

Monday, September 17th, 2007

Some people reading this might wonder how we decide what to do each day. Having a tour makes this a bit simpler as we just go with the tour (deciding on the tour was a long process anyway, but that is not the point here). Today we had the whole day to ourselves, so how did we decide what to do with it? Well, the most important information comes from the tour guides. Yesterday our guide gave us some good ideas. We also noted a few things while we were travelling around yesterday and marked them for possible visiting. Obviously, there is also the extensive reading of material that we have both done in advance of this trip. I think we have something like 8 tour books between us as well as untold numbers of tourist brochures that we leaf through at home as well as those we pick up when travelling (I am always looking out for them). Before we left on the trip we had a good idea what we would like to do each day but at the end of the day before we review these plans and revise as we want. In this way we make the most effective use of our time rather than running around on the day trying to figure out what to do as the clock clicks down the hours.

In this case, we wanted to visit Suzhou. This sounded like a very interesting place to visit. A canal city just outside of Shanghai. It was not going to be easy to visit, we had been told.

The breakfast was very nice. Probably one of the better buffet breakfasts we have had on this trip. Even a few more Chinese dishes. It looks like the Chinese outnumber the foreign visitors at the hotel which is good news for the food, if you ask me.

The first order of business was to get a train ticket to Suzhou. Tricky. Finding the English speaking ticket seller at the row of ticket windows in the station we asked for a return ticket but were advised to purchase a one way ticket as the options available from him for the return from Suzhou were limited (evidently he could not reserve us tickets for all of the trains returning from Suzhou – and I thought British Rail was confusing!). We were given coach-class 9reserved) tickets but the train only stopped a few times on the one-hour journey. Our coach was very crowded and but our seats, though numerically side by side, the seats themselves were on opposite sides of the carriage. We shared our row with some workers. A ticket inspector came along the cabin and re-adjusted all of the luggage being stored in the overhead racks causing a few angry exchanges from some of the passengers. She seemed very determined to make sure that everything was just so. Ah, the dramas. The soap opera continued with a disagreement between several gentleman in the group of workers we were sitting with. Voices were raised and a few harsh words (I assume) were spoken. Oh dear. Nice scenery…er…well, interesting scenery. The city quickly passed us by and we were once again into the wet rice fields around the city. Suzhou was but a short distance away and we disembarked without any further incident.

All of the station signs here are in both Chinese characters but also “pinyin” (English pronunciation of the Chinese words). We have been told that most Chinese children now learn “pinyin” before they learn the Chinese characters as it is phonetic – It helps them to say the words correctly. The characters really don't contain a lot of hints as to how the word is to be said.

Suzhou station is to the north of the city centre on the other side of a canal. We wanted to take a cruise on the canals which we understood we could to from the far side of the canal. A bit of a problem that. To the south of the station (between us and the canal) is a large amount of construction work with tall walls preventing anyone from crossing – exactly what we wanted to do. This was a puzzle that could wait. We visited the ticket booth to pick up our ticket to return to Shanghai later in the day. That was a bit more entertaining than in Shanghai since this gentleman spoke no English at all but we did get our point across and secured our tickets. Thank goodness. Now, the problem of the impassable route into town.

Wandering past the big Kentucky Fried Chicken (!) we eventually followed some people as they crossed the rather busy road with drivers seemingly unconcerned with any trivialities such as rules of the road (mother almost got run over at this point). Turned out the people crossing the road were waiting for buses but there were more people a bit further down the road…Passing through a break in the construction wall along a pathway to cross the river. Hurrah!

Well, perhaps we should not have got too excited. Arriving at the other side we headed over to where I knew the tours operated from (according to a map in one of our many guidebooks) only to walk around in circles trying to figure out where they were. All that appeared to be on offer were people standing under the shade of umbrellas with postcards pinned up onto a board. Walking around in confusion a bit longer a person approached us (caution mode on!) and asked us (in English) if we wanted a tour. We hesitatingly said “yes” and he directed us to one of the “postcard boards” which turned out to be pictures from various tours on offer! At this point we should have pondered what was on display a bit further but we were just so happy to have figured things out we selected a few things at random and money changed hands (looking at the tickets later I noticed that the prices we paid were exactly the prices on the tickets and the prices we saw on display at the attractions so, thankfully, we were not taken advantage of). I was a bit annoyed that a lady we had “talked” to at the tour place had not been able to understand what we wanted to do but, ho, hey, we figured it out in the end. And, as it turned out, it was a very interesting and, I think, enjoyable visit.

Still a bit nervous about the whole thing we were shown into a small bus. We were a bit more comfortable to see we were not the only ones on the rather ramshackle vehicle which then took us to a depot in the centre of town. It was not exactly the nicest area of town with a number of shacks around the periphery as well as a number of other coaches lined up. We were taken from this coach and put onto another bus where over the next half hour a number of other people joined us. The guide is a very young man who speaks not a word of English but has a good singing voice – as he would demonstrate throughout the tour (as well as attempting to sell us his CDs).

The first thing we did was return to where we had bought our tickets only a short time earlier – Near the train station by the canal. We were shown onto a small, old, wooden boat barely seating our small group (about 20 people). When we were looking at visiting Suzhou we had realised that it would be best to have a tour on the canals for which the town is well known. The boat pushed off on the rather wide canal and headed west. At the time I knew that this was away from the city itself…Interesting. I know now that we were headed towards the Suzhou New District.

Bridge Over the Canal

The canal was quite boring at first with only trees and parks alongside but as the canal veered southwards we came across a number of wonderful looking modern houses and buildings alongside the canal – Classical Chinese architecture with the typical tile roofs and steps leading down to the canal. Turning onto another branch to the west all of a sudden we were in a very narrow canal with much older buildings towering around us – Plaster cracked and flaking off with the occasional clothes line and narrow alleys leading down to the water. Trees grow out from the shore over top of the canal as we passed by with a number of old steeply arched bridges passing over us. The crumbling bricks of the walls, the ornate grills over the windows and normal high rise buildings really made us feel as this is a real city – People live here, it is not a museum.

Canals in Suzhou

The water, by the way, is quite clean everywhere which is surprising considering the amount of traffic (both tourist and commercial) on it. Of course we were being told all about what we were seeing – In Mandarin. Our guide appears to be very much liked by the other tourists in our group. He is also very kind to us as he knows we cannot speak Mandarin so makes sure we keep up with the group…

Tour Boat

We left our boat and climbed up the bank to get on board our bus again. This time our destination was a silk factory (which makes it two silk factories in two days, something of a record perhaps…). This was much along the lines of what we had seen yesterday so no great surprises there.

Spreading Silk Cocoons to Make a Duvet (SW)

Initial Cocoon Spreading (SW)

They did have some mulberry bushes (which the worms eat) out in the courtyard that mother appreciated.

Mother and I did pick up a few more things in the attached shop. Clothing. I picked up a few silk shirts with the classical Chinese clasps on the front (mother picked up a nice jacket). A bit of a departure for me but I think they look nice. We are spending a bit of money but it is still far cheaper than such things back in the UK or Canada.

We were a bit late arriving at the restaurant (having been trying on clothes and the like) so we only had a quick drink of Coca-Cola before heading back into the bus. Our guide had very helpfully pointed at our watch to indicate when we were supposed to meet him back there.

The bus stopped outside an interesting temple but we did not visit it. Instead, our guide took us down a back street. Mother and I were not sure where we were going but everyone seemed happy enough so we ambled along.

Back Alley

Our destination was only a short distance away. A temple (reading in my helpful guide here, it is the “Han Shan Temple”). We were immediately shown into a room with a number of chairs arranged in rows where very shortly thereafter two charming young ladies came in and played for a few minutes on some old Chinese stringed instruments (along with a bit of singing). Another enjoyable musical interlude. Great.

Musical Interlude (SW)

We were shown into the temple complex itself. Quite amazing. It is a series of buildings around, over and above the canal which twists and turns it's way throughout the complex. Really interesting.

Canals in the Temple

Climbing up the side of an extremely steep bridge (“Maple Bridge” it says in my guidebook) we climbed back down onto the far side of the canal along with everyone else. The architecture is amazing. People were busy taking pictures at various locations – It seemed to be the thing to do here. Our guide took a bit of interest in us, taking my camera and posing us in the requisite locations for some pictures. He appears to have an interesting either (a) photography, (b) making sure we have the pictures to show we are having a good time or © is having a laugh. Perhaps all three? It was amusing as he moved us into the correct pose – Move an arm there, sit up straight, shift to the right, etc (all with hand gestures, of course).

Mother and I by a Bridge

The temple is very interesting and incredibly beautiful. It was intriguing to see some commercial canal boats pass right by the outskirts of the temple while we were there – Yes, it is a commercial city still. We spent a few minutes throwing coins into a big cauldron full of water with a large bronze fish in the bottom with it's mouth open – Obviously the goal is to get the coin in the mouth – Another ideal photo opportunity for our photographer who had us pose again…

Mother and I Making a Wish

Wishing Cauldron (SW)

We had lost many of our group but we stuck with our guide as he chatted away and pointed out the sights. “Ah-huh”, “yeah”, “wow, that looks neat”, etc. Did not catch a word he said, of course.

Temple Painting

We had noticed the small boats operating on the canal in the temple itself but had initially passed by them but a bit later our guide took us to a boat so we could experience the temple from the water. I love being on the water and it gave us a completely new perspective on the place. Quite elegant stonework and a very contemplative place (despite the numbers of tourists).

Mother Looking Out the Window

The boat took us back to rejoin our bus outside of the temple. We exited the boat by climbing across another moored on the shore to climb up the bank to the street.

Next stop was a pearl factory. We were taken into one of the “pitch” rooms and given a talk for about 15 minutes about the fantastic beauty products they offer. All in Mandarin, of course. We smiled and nodded our heads where appropriate. Mother tried a bit of the facial cream but I am not a bit fan (my radiance comes from within…). We were shuffled off down the hall into the display room with as much pearls as you can think of for sale (necklaces, strings, rings, single pearls, encrusted statues, etc). At this point it was getting close to the time we really wanted to be at the train station so we showed our train ticket to our guide. He immediately ushered us out of the factory and hailed a cab for us on the street. He would have paid for it as well if we had not repeatedly insisted that we pay for it ourselves. A true gentleman and fantastic guide. Shame we could not really tell him that except to say thank-you (in Mandarin – the extent of my Mandarin unfortunately). The taxi driver had to wend his way through the various one-way streets of the city heading into the city centre before he could once again head out to the north to the train station. We were quite early but I am a bit paranoid about being late. We did have time to have something to eat which was a good idea since we had missed have anything to eat at the silk factory (perhaps we could have munched on some mulberry…?).

There are a number of small restaurants around the train station (as well as the not-so-small KFC I mentioned earlier) so we visited a fast food place that served dumplings. All sorts of dumplings. Oh, and they had pictures on the menus (remember: this is important for our culinary experience…if you can't speak the language at least you can grunt and point at pretty pictures). Not knowing exactly how many dumplings we would get we ordered a few things and found a seat to wait their arrival. Actually quite tasty (steamed pork dumplings with a bit of dipping sauce) and not expensive at all. Had a bit of steamed vegetables on the side (at least I know how to say that in Cantonese which seemed to work for us here).

Waiting for the Train in Suzhou (SW)

The return trip to Shanghai was less eventful than the trip in though the train was once again pretty crowded. The short walk to the hotel resulted in our collapsing for a few minutes. Mother checked her e-mail at the small office centre just inside the main entrance to the hotel while I picked up the train tickets for our travel tomorrow (already we are talking about leaving Shanghai – we only got here yesterday!).

I was keen to see one of the technical marvels of Shanghai. It is part of the Chinese government's effort to promote the city: The “maglev”. This is a train that magnetically levitates above the track (hence the term…) and travels VERY fast (since there is no friction with the ground, only the air). Believe it or not this is the only commercially operating “maglev” train the world and it operates from Longyang Road Station in Pudong (just a few stops on the subway past the Oriental Tower) to the airport. We were not interested in visiting the airport but I was very keen on trying out the train!

The subways in Shanghai are reasonably easy to figure out with fares based upon the distance you want to travel. We used one of the computers to select our destination (in English) then we would have put in our money only to find that the damn machine would not accept our money! We visited a kind gentleman at a ticket booth who issued us with a card to get through the machines. It is good to see that these cards are reusable, indeed, ours were barely legible. The trains themselves are clean and the stations very simply laid out. There are quite a few lines around the city (far more than the two in Beijing) that quickly get you to where you want to be. In our case we transferred at People's Square from (imaginatively named) line 1 to (equally imaginative) line 2 to follow that pretty much to the end. Leaving the subway we entered into the very modern station for the “maglev”. Of course, it is quite expensive for the relatively short journey (even more so since we were actually returning right away!).

Mother Waiting in the Maglev Station

The station platform has a high ceiling with two tracks on which the trains arrive. The train arrives very quietly a lot like a plane – and it looks like it to. A nice looking thing, even more modern than the bullet trains we have seen in Japan. The train itself is comfortable though I would not call the seats or furnishings luxurious.

Maglev Train Arriving (SW)

The train follows a road pretty much all of the way to the airport as we speed by the traffic at 301 km/hr. Evidently during the day the speed is 431 km/hr. I was disappointed we did not get going this fast but even at 301 km/hr it was pretty impressive with the lights of the cars streaming by the window.

Yep, very fast! (SW)

Arriving at the airport we got out of the train to have a look at the impressive terminal. A lot of work seems to have been done here on providing good transport to the airport with both the “maglev” and the large road that we followed from the city. There was not a lot to see so we hurried back onto catch the same train we had come out on for it's return trip into the city. It was more incredible going into the city at night than it was leaving as we quickly approached the modern skyscrapers around the Oriental Pearl tower in Pudong. Quite incredible.

Speaking of the Oriental Pearl tower this was one of our objectives for our visit having been told that there were very good views of the city from it's observation decks. It was also night so we could see so much more of the city (and so pretty!). The tower was only a few stops back on the subway though a bit confusing leaving the subway station finding the tower but then we just looked up…

We did not have a lot of time so I quickly purchased our tickets (expensive!) and we passed through the gates. Wow. A series of colourfully lit steps lead up to the base of the tower. The base itself has a shopping centre beneath and the entrance itself is colourful and quite impressive. Of course the tower is amazing: Three large circular legs meet a central tube that contains the elevator. The central tube continues up with a series of globes at various altitudes: 350 m, 263 m and 90 m. At each level there are various facilities such as restaurants and viewing platforms.

Oriental Pearl Tower at Night

We were immediately shown onto a normal elevator (sadly, no windows on the trip up) and whisked up to 263 m where we then got onto another elevator to the top level at 350 m (we had purchased tickets all the way to the top, of course – no problems with heights for us!). The view is spectacular and much of our visit was spent trying to get pictures without our cameras trying to use their flash! Against the glass of the observation deck this was not terribly good…Nice white pictures…

The city spread out before us like a vast sea of Christmas lights in inky darkness. We could see the tourist boats, also garishly lit, plying their trade along the river but the city stretched as far as we could see. It is amazing to see the buildings all around it in Pudong. When we first entered in the tower there are a series of pictures taken a few years apart showing the tower and the area around it starting with the year it was built. The area is unrecognisable now. When it was completed in 1995 there were literally no tall buildings around it. Now there are at least 15 or 16 incredibly tall office buildings all crowded around it. They say that at least 1 (if not 2) are completed in the area every year. At the top of the tower we were looking down on these towers – but not looking down a long distance. I have probably said this before but this was really a Science Fiction sight.

Pudong at Night

Pudong at Night (lower level)

We made our way down to the successively lower levels. It was great also to be able to actually go outside on a walkway around the globes to get a much more immediate sense of how high you were and to hear/smell the city around you (also provided better opportunities for pictures). I have not mentioned the tourist souvenirs on offer, do I need to? Actually, it was very well done with the focus on the view and the spectacular nature of the building.

It was getting late and the tower was closing up so the queues to get onto the lifts (elevators) were quite long. We enjoyed the view for a few minutes longer before getting hand signals from an employee that it was time to leave. The final elevator to the shopping concourse below the tower was the most spectacular of all of the elevators as it was the one in the central column of the tower and had glass walls. Nice.

I was surprised to see that the Shanghai History Museum was still open when we arrived at the bottom (as it was supposed to close at the same time as the tower). I had read about the museum and heard it was very good. As well, we had a free ticket to the museum included in our admission to the tower. Thanking our luck, we went in. The museum consists of a number of artefacts including full-scale dioramas showing the history of the city (including the notorious opium dens of the 1800s). We did not have a lot of time to enjoy it though. An employee came up obviously a bit upset that we had been allowed in and he basically hurried us through the entire length of the museum. We visited the whole place (almost running at times) in about 15 minutes. We did manage to stop a few times and look and take pictures but otherwise he was continuing to urge us onwards (I am sure he wanted to go home after a busy day). The dioramas are incredible. I particularly liked the old street scenes, the one of an old, crowded, drinking house and another showing the Bund area. Quite detailed.

Shanghai History Museum

Bar Scene (SW)

Even the subway was beginning to close down for the evening (at 10:00?) but we did manage to make it back to the train station and the hotel.

Catching the Subway (SW)

My, are we tired!

Our Hotel Room

Thought you might be interested…

Toilet and Sink

Quite a nice room, actually. Compared to Xi'an…



Day 25 - Shanghai Departure

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