Big and weird breakfast ( pizza, stir-fried vegetables, even curry!). Decided to leave miserable, wet, cold Shanghai and go to miserable, wet, cold Suzhou instead. Got to South Shanghai station ticket counter 10 (the one where they can speak a little English), and found out we needed passports to board the high speed trains. We caught a cab back to the Astor House hotel again, grabbed our passports, and were back again at the Railway station. Nothing would deter us from getting the hell out of here. We got the tickets at 1:50pm. The train left at 2pm. We needed to sprint to the main entrance to make it, dodging hordes of people (there are always hordes of people in China. Everywhere). We’d bought a first class ticket, right in front of the loudest snorer in China, who was turning in a truly first class snoring performance, so we moved to the front of the carriage, where the decibels weren’t quite as damaging to the eardrums.
Suzhou station was full of touts, even on this decidedly wretched day. We decided to go with a gentleman who spoke a tiny bit of English. Tiny is a hell of a lot more than most here. He led us to his van, an unmarked grey van, as dreary as the day. A horrible, rainy day. He took us to some beautiful gardens, called the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which cheered us a little. They were lovely, especially the pavilions among the lotus ponds. A lot of impressive wood carvings were here too inside a workshop, including an amazing one of a peacock which I would have bought had I the money or the patience to haul it around for the rest of the trip. After, we went to another canal for a private boat tour. We had the whole barge for ourselves. We headed up and down the canal, passing under elegant bridges. It was beautiful, despite the terrible weather. The hot Chinese tea we were served went down an absolute treat. ‘Venice of the East’ they called it once….and for once an Asian city making the claim of comparison to romantic old cities of the West was justified.
We stopped in a little tea shop by the canal and had the local speciality tea which came with a little wooden tea set. They ‘washed the tea set’ with the first of the tea, then we could drink it. Ordered some chicken curry, Vero ordered black pepper steak. Delicious on this cold, wet day. Walked by the canal, down the ancient Pingjiang street and Shantang Street which only the most foolhardy of people like ourselves
were on this day, and back to the van. It was dark now, and the night afforded beautiful views of the canal and the hanging red lanterns at the side of it. Suzhou seemed a place trapped in a timeless romance of a bygone era. We took the train back Shanghai, which seems to be trapped between the modern and the traditional. From the station, we took a taxi back to the hotel.
Tonight we headed out to a different part of town, an area with lots of tiny bars nestled in a network of alleys, but the brutal weather had kept many indoors, or perhaps they were waiting for Friday. We traipsed up and down the alleyways but to no avail. Not even the Indian restaurant which proudly proclaimed ‘Chef from Mumbai!’ in the window tempted me. I popped into a convenience store to get some directions to another area, and walked the route we’d been drawn up. Another wild goose chase perhaps…..perhaps not. It was a dark suburban area we found ourselves in, posh apartments, gated from the street, lined the roads here. We found a small area with a few bars and popped into one of them for a beer – this place brewed its own stuff. Beer served as dinner tonight. After a good pint and a chat we left, aiming to walk to the same spot we’d been to the night before. The driving rain and biting cold beat us into submission though, so we gave up and got a taxi to a small club with a band playing a mix of English and Chinese songs. I wasn’t in the mood, so we left after I’d finished a quick brandy. It was a largely fruitless and disappointing evening, but Suzhou had been far from that, and I long to visit again one day. When it’s sunny and warm.