China Trip Day Five: Suzhou

We arrived to a very rainy Shanghai late in the evening and were met by a research assistant that works with Art’s sister. “Alice” welcomed us with a great beautiful smile and extra umbrellas. Having her meet us at the airport was a godsend since she knew exactly where we would be staying and could tell the driver where to go. Unfortunately, they did get into an argument at the end of the trip because she felt he took us the long way to get there. It took us a while to figure out what they were arguing about but it all got resolved in the end. We would be staying for the next 8 days of the trip at graduate student housing on the campus of East China University of Science and Technology. I will describe the accommodations in another post but staying there was an adventure itself.

Art and I arrived exhausted, wet and knowing that we had to get up early the next morning to take a day trip to Suzhou, known as the Venice of the East. So we quickly unpacked and went to bed. We are not normally early risers so we knew just waking up refreshed would be a challenge.

We set out early in the morning to meet our “guide” for the day. “Walter” is a professor of History at another university in Shanghai and the husband of one of the senior administrators at the University we were staying at for the week. He volunteered to take us around Suzhou for the day (us being Art, myself, Susan – Art’s sister and Larry, her husband). Walter was a gracious and patient host and met us down the block from where we were staying. It was rush hour on a Monday in Shanghai and the area was buzzing with traffic and people setting about their workday. Because there were too many of us to fit in a cab we were each given a Shanghai transportation system SmartCard (these turned out to be extremely useful for the rest of the stay in Shanghai) so we could easily board the local bus to the train station. The bus was packed and we got off with just about everyone else to go to the train (or really subway). We then rode the relatively new subway system to our final destination, one of the Shanghai railway stations located in different parts of the city. We realized that the station you use depends largely on where you are going and the type of train you are using. We would be taking a fairly “mature” train to Suzhou, which would be about a 45-minute ride away.

Our small group arrived to a rainy Suzhou and were beset by many people offering tours and taxis. Walter did an excellent job of fending off a lot of people and honing in on someone who could meet our needs for the day at the right price. We ended up with a van driver who shuttled the five of us around to the different sites that were planned for the day. But first we all really needed to stop and eat breakfast – shrimp noodle soup. Not the typical breakfast fare from our standpoint but it did the trick and was delicious.

Entrance to Bao'en Temple

Suzhou was considered one of Marco Polo’s favorite stops in his travels through China and the silk markets here are famous for their quality and variety. We saw plenty of shops offering silk items as we were driving around the city but today we would be focused more on the historical aspects of the city rather than shopping.

Our first stop was Beisi Pagoda located at Bao’en Temple. We were greeted by a huge Buddha and even though it was raining we could observe the majesty of the 9-story Pagoda before us. The current design of the pagoda structure was made between the years 1131 and 1162, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). We spent about an hour walking in and around the pagoda and then moved on our next stop.

Beisi Pagoda

We piled into the van and headed to the main canal or river. Given this was a rainy day, we didn’t have too much competition for getting a boat to take us around. We were sheltered from the rain from within the cabin but got to view the back alleys and architecture of Suzhou from the canal. It was a fairly short ride about a half hour but it was worth seeing some of the old buildings and neighborhoods from a different vantage point.

View from canal

After the canal boat ride it was time for lunch. We, unfortunately, did not get the name of the place that we stopped but it turned out to be an excellent pick on Walter’s part. We shared quite a few dishes including rice, fish and pigeon. It was all delicious.

After piling into the van again fully stuffed from lunch (could be one of the reasons I gained 5 pounds on this trip) we headed to the Hanshan Temple or literally “Cold Mountain Temple.” Walter explained that this site was considered a must see on a Chinese person’s itinerary. He didn’t really elaborate on this but according to Wikipedia, Hanshan Temple is famous because of the poem “A Night Mooring by Maple Bridge” by Tang Dynasty poet, Zhang Ji. The poem describes the melancholy scene of a dejected traveller, moored at night at Fengqiao, hearing the bells of Hanshan Temple. This place was filled with many different people and beautiful statues. The smell of incense burning was strong in the damp air and this place was far more lush and colorful than our first stop.

Hanshan Temple

Offerings at Hanshan Temple

This splendid stop was followed by the piece de resistance of the trip. The Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) is listed in the book, “1000 Places to See Before You Die,” is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and it was definitely worth the trip. Photos could not do the place justice. The winding pathways all provided unique and beautiful views of flowers, pools of water and sculpture that were all meant to please the eye. The rain started to subside at that point as well so we could walk around without the need of an umbrella for an unimpeded view of the place.

Humble Administrator's Garden

This was our last, and best, stop for the day and we headed back via train to a different train station in Shanghai – one located closer to where we were staying.
We ended the day with another unique experience. Walter treated us to a wonderful buffet at a vegetarian restaurant – Jen Dow Vegetarian. This was not your typical buffet venue. The place was decorated very elegantly and had lots of variety and creativity – even for a non-vegetarian like myself. But, the general consensus was that the ersatz sushi was decidedly too chewy and tough. Everything else was great and most especially the desserts.
Walter had provided us with a wonderful introduction to a different side of China, where we got to see temples, gardens and restaurants we may not have been able to easily see on our own or through the lens of a rehearsed tour guide.
Now back to our accommodations, which would be our home away from home for the rest of the week.

China Trip Day Four – The Summer Palace

Since this was our last day visiting Beijing we decided to order the room service breakfast rather than picking up a quick pastry from the bakery downstairs. We only had to order one breakfast since the offering was so huge. We both found items that we could eat in the spread of Danish Pastries, eggs, bacon, yogurt, fruit and more. That would hold us for a while because we were headed to the Summer Palace and we weren’t sure if we were going to have too much time to eat along the way.

Art and I checked out of our hotel and stored our bags there so we could pick them up on the way back to the airport later in the day. We decided to take a taxi since we were unsure how to navigate the subway and it was a Sunday so traffic wouldn’t be too bad. And, it wasn’t. But, this was going to be a hot, humid and hazy day in Beijing and the Summer Palace is a popular spot on the weekends. Located along the banks of a lake with steep hillsides and palace buildings perched along the shoreline, the place was teeming with foreign tourists and native Chinese alike.

Pagoda at Summer Palace

Lake at Summer Palace

Unlike the pay as you go approach at the Forbidden City, you can opt to pay for the extra fees for special exhibits at the entrance and your ticket is punched every time you visit a particular exhibit or building. The Dragon Boats cruising across the lake were a popular option but we decided to focus on the buildings and exhibits since we did have to get to our flight in time.

We picked up a beautiful map that helped us somewhat but this was a big park and it was easy to get lost. And, although we did visit most of the exhibits on our ticket I think we only scratched the surface of this huge expanse.

Although the Summer Palace expanse was just as crowded as the Forbidden City was the day before the atmosphere was a little more relaxed.  Less pushing and shoving to things and an interesting assortment of food and snack vendors dotted along the pathways of the park.  Cucumber on a stick seemed to be a popular item along with occasional ice pop along the way.  We were still full from breakfast so we just watched other people eating. 

Dragon Boat

The exhibits here also seemed to be a little better organized and better kept than the ones located at the Forbidden City.   Overall, we had a wonderful time walking along the lake and checking out the buildings along the way.

Unfortunately, our taxi ride back to the hotel was less pleasant.  We were essentially scammed into getting a higher priced cab with a meter that was rigged to turnover the meter at a much higher rate than the normal taxi – so the ride back cost double the normal fare.  Of course, the driver didn’t point out the difference in the taxi (claiming we were in a luxury cab with leather seats and air conditioning) until we were well on our way in the middle of the highway in a part of the city we weren’t familiar with.  The seats were not leather (more like textured vinyl) and our previous cab had air conditioning so that wasn’t anything special.  When he decided to drop us off a block away from our hotel I pointed out that it was because he was probably too ashamed to drop us in front.  My father was a cabbie in NYC in the ’60s so I was quick to point out that what he was doing was not something a cabbie with ethics would do.  He didn’t argue when we didn’t pay him the full fare.  This was really the only negative experience we had with scamming in China so we weren’t going to let this episode ruin our trip.

The rest of our day would be taken up getting to the airport, getting through security (not much worse than the US domestic experience) and waiting for a delayed flight.  The flight delay was due to the weather so we just checked out our e-mail and ate at a Chinese diner type place in the terminal.  I’ve been asked several times if flying in China using Chinese airlines was safe and it certainly didn’t seem any less safe than some of the trips I’ve taken in the US.  But we flew on Air China (a free flight using United Miles), which is a large airline on a larger plane so the experience was no less comfortable than normal.
Our next stop was Shanghai in the pouring rain.  A different city with a different vibe than Beijing.