Travelogue China 2: Suzhou

26-27 August 2014

Monday morning started even earlier than the previous few, reason being that we had to catch the bullet train from Beijing to Suzhou and, as Mr Lee impressed upon us several times, the train waits for nobody!

So there we were, bleary-eyed but well fed, on the bus at 06h50 to cross town from our hotel’s position in the north-east to the station in the south west. As dumb luck would have it, the traffic was on our side and we got to the station with an hour to kill. Rather an hour too soon than an hour too late though.

Mr Lee had prepared us for the getting on and off the train which, in well-oiled-machine Chinese style, was a mere 2 minute window. That’s just 2 minutes at each station for passengers to alight and board! And the train never runs late and never waits for anyone! Miraculously, we Sloth Africans managed to pull it together and get the lot of us and our ever-increasing flock of luggage on board with time to spare.

The train is very comfortable with 15 or so rows of seats in each carriage, 3 to the left and 2 to the right of the aisle. There is a little dedicated luggage space in the front of each carriage and deceptively accommodating shelving overhead, which was more than ample for our carriage’s needs (thankfully our co-passengers were travelling light!). The seats reclined far enough to allow for easy napping and, mercifully, both the toilets that served our carriage had seats and toilet paper. The entire train was pristinely clean and a cleaner still did regular rounds, offering use of her bin bag to clear our garbage and swishing about sweeping as the train hurtled along smoothly and silently at over 300 kilometers per hour.

In 5 hours we covered the 1,400km journey south, to the relaxing part of the tour.

Already the pace had slowed as once we checked into our hotel, the Pan Pacific, we had free time right until dinner. What a relief – the pace had been quite hectic in Beijing!

Our hotel was again top class; quite different to Traders which was a big modern block, Pan Pacific was a beautiful sprawling mega-villa laced around ponds and gardens. An absolute maze on the inside, with our drop-off (and future meeting point) on the 1st floor, our room on the 2nd floor and the lobby seemingly nonsensically on the 3rd floor.

With 2 hours to kill until dinner we popped out the meeting point entrance to see who our neighbours were. No joy from across the road – a greengrocer and dodgy (closed) pub called BlackJack – so we tried heading right.

A bizarre assortment of very functional shops; the only one of any interest was Holiland bakery. Lured in by the pretty cakes and secured by the soft-serve machine, we endured the cacophony of shoppers and store attendants as well as the painstakingly slow-moving queue – thanks to the cashier also being the packer and the store policy requiring each item to be individually packed in little baggies that stuck to each other and resisted opening – for one reason. Fresh sugar cones.

There was an attendant dedicated to the soft-serve machine, armed with a waffle-maker that she was using to make fresh sugar cones. She had a pre-made batter, thin and runny like a pancake batter, that she was spooning onto the heated waffle iron and spreading thinly. A few seconds of cooking and she’d wrap the toasty flat result tightly around a conical wooden mould. Voila! Fresh sugar cone! It felt the time had stood still… she did it soooo slowly… but it was worth it. The product was a still-warm cone that tasted a bit like Boudoir biscuit, with silky soft ice-cream poured inside and twisted to a peak on top. Yum!

We ambled back to hotel and had a lovely sit before having to meet for dinner.

Quite used to the format now, the only adjustment was to being a smaller group now that splinter groups had gone elsewhere. Being just 13 people (which we were assured was not a bad thing in China as their unlucky number is 4 because it had some connotation with death, which is pretty unlucky) we now fitted around a single table and in the small private dining room at our restaurant which, like all the others, shall remain nameless as the signage was all in Chinese only.

Another lovely meal – getting the hang of chopsticks, getting adept at dishing off a constantly swivelling lazy suzie, getting used to one glass of Coke / beer per meal, getting accustomed to no salt / pepper / serviettes, getting to know the company. Having a feast and having a laugh. All good.

We finally got to have the first bit of a lie-in this holiday, only having to wake up at 8 in order to make our 9.30 meeting time.

The plan for the day was a city tour of Suzhou (pronounced “sue-joe”), which is known as the Chinese Venice because it has over 1,400 canals. It is considered to be a smaller city, with a mere 15 million population so had Mr Lee more relaxed, saying that “it nosso busy so don’t have to walk like sticky rice.”

The bus took us to the famous Lingering Gardens. One of 4 most famous gardens in China, it was built in 1593 and belonged to a series of owners since then, accumulating cultivated gardens, quaint buildings and scenic pathways between interesting relics.

There are exhibits of classic calligraphy and paintings of the national flowers – plum (Summer), chrysanthemum (Autumn), lotus (Winter), Chinese rose (Spring) – which can be seen in the gardens. As we walked into the garden, we were greeted by the lotus flowers in bloom on the pond. They are much bigger than expected with great big round leaves. Stark contrast to the controlled miniatures in abundance in the bonsai garden.

Wandering around gardens is not normally our sort of thing, so we did a once-round and buffered the extra time by going to the shop stalls across the road and buying some real bargain souvenirs.

Next up was the embroidery factory. This was no ordinary embroidery! The Masters (and there are only 4 of them) are able to do double-sided embroidery, meaning they can embroider the picture on the top (and I’m talking better-than-photo quality stuff) AND simultaneously create a (different) embroidery on the reverse side! Really amazing stuff!

We got to watch a Master at work. This old lady is 75 years old and has been working at the same factory every day for more than half a century and she only embroiders fish. All day, every day for 57 years and just fish. They are spectacular! She does the most realistic vibrant fish using the finest of stitching (splitting a single thread into 1/24 so you can barely see it), an expert deft hand and a mirror on her lap to monitor the back picture. Unbelievable. Comes at a pretty price too – since it can take years to finish a detailed piece, it can fetch Y500,000 (ZAR 875,000) or more.

From there we went on the Grand Canal tour. This canal runs all the way from Beijing and through Suzhou, with a total length of 1,800km (9x Suez and 20x Panama Canal). Construction was started in 221BC, intending the canal be for military use and merchant trading (silk and tea). It is the second longest, only behind the Yangzhou River; but it’s far from the deepest being mostly only 2 metres deep in Suzhou, nor the fastest since boats may only go at 20kmph.

The canal tour took us through the oldest parts of Suzhou, where the houses back onto the canal and there are steps from their back doors right into the water. Mr Lee got the boat to stop so that we could jump off and nip down an alleyway into the “high street” to see the hustle-bustle of the narrow, noisy, smelly market.

Mr Lee also pointed out Shantang street (“mountain water” street) as a good place to come in the evening for dinner (for once not included in the package). The area had previously been the city’s red light district, but now all that remained of its dodgy history was the red Chinese lanterns, which are now emblazoned with street names in lieu of conventional signage.

The deal was sealed. We returned to the hotel intent on having a rest and then heading back to Shantang for the evening. We got a little sidetracked though since the maids wanted to clean our room shortly after we arrived back (they seem to clean perpetually, not concerned about what time they do what rooms), so we went for a walk in the opposite direction as the previous night.

The walk (or possibly a debilitating luckless visit to a shoe store) sapped mom’s last energy, so she bowed out of the plan and I went ahead and shared a cab to Shantang with our groupmate as planned.

As always, the city looked very different by night and the journey into town seemed much quicker by cab. The cab fare was cheap too, at Y15 (ZAR 26), which like many other coutries makes it viable to outsource transport, not like at home where the cab fare is more than the night out!

We were deposited at the gate to Shantang, since being ancient and very much pre-car it’s a pedestrian-only precinct. It was so pretty with a big glowing arch entrance and a view down the lively street with all the shops open and marked with red Chinese lanterns.

We’d been given a recommended restaurant by Mr Lee, which our hotel concierge had written in Chinese on a hotel business card to help us to find it. It became a sort of treasure hunt looking for “tent-stroke-kappie-square” which is how we remembered what the first (of four!) characters of the restaurant’s name looked like. We wandered down the first of the side roads – a narrower version of the entrance road, now parallel to the canal – and found the restaurant! It was really busy and the hostess managed to communicate that there was a half hour wait. No mind, lots to see and do, so we said we’d come back.

We took a wander down the canal and over a bridge to circle back on the other side. We encountered a lively looking pub, so decided to stop in for a beer to pass the time waiting for the restaurant. We ordered Tsingtaos and listened to the locals warble on the karaoke. Perusing the menu, it looked really good so we decided to go back to our restaurant and check their menu before deciding where to eat.

The original restaurant was ready for us when we returned, but a brief flip through the menu showed that, while the food looked good, it was much the same as the lunches and dinners we’d been having, so we decided to go back to the pub to have a beer and a snack and repeat the process to make a bit of a pub crawl out of dinner.

It was a good call and we enjoyed delicious chicken pops and wokfried pepper beef at the pub. Then the challenge began. We walked around and about, up one street and down the other and couldn’t find another pub! Try as we might, there simply wasn’t another option.

We were not so desperate as to try a karaoke house, easily located by the wailing and caterwalling coming from them. Strange format, the karaoke houses have small roadlevel reception areas and the hostesses escort you to your own private lounge, dark and kitted with comfy couches around the walls, all facing a large screen and all with easy access to microphones. Even assuming they have some sort of soundproofing, the participants are so enthusiastically loud and proud that the result is cacophonic!

We did get to see the whole of the downtown area though and did stop to enjoy street food at some of the many vendors. The highlight was the mini lobsters although, admittedly, I did think they were cockroaches at first glance!

The streets were a hive of activity – and all very very clean. We wandered around, looking at shops and street vendors, buying the odd beer at the local 711 equivalent, and ended up walking all the way back to the hotel, ending on a 23,000 step day!