Suzhou, the Vienna of China, a place for scholars, artists and gardens. This is where Marco Polo was said to have spent much of his time in China. I was returning for one reason only – I wanted to visit the relatively new Suzhou Museum. However, I need to backtrack a little to my departure from Shanghai and my arrival in Suzhou. Many visitors can now make this a day trip but I chose to stay in Suzhou for two nights. With good intentions I headed to the subway to catch my train.
I made it down the first set of stairs (stairs play a major role for anyone travelling in China) before I turned around to take the escalator up and flag down a taxi. That fare, to the nearest train station – there are three stations – was 21.00CNY. My train ticket to Suzhou was 39.50 plus 6.00 processing fee. The cost of visiting any of the major world cities can eat up a budget just in taxi fare. However, saving my back and knees from injury caused by a heavy backpack made it worth the expense. I made the decision to try to keep taxi travel for when I am heading in or out of a city with my bags. It also helps that food is still very inexpensive if eating like the locals.
Being the well prepared individual I like to think I am I had the address and phone number for my next accommodation to give to a taxi driver. I am now fully convinced taxi drivers in China just do not like me. It is as though I have a radar that sends out a message to give me a difficult time. They invariably have to pull over, point with exaggerated gestures at the address (and map if there is one) asking if I know where the place is, sigh out loud with an exclaimed aiya, then head off muttering away about cray foreigners. This driver was not too bad, he did get me to the place in one piece and I kept my thoughts quiet. There it was, a blue door. (Actually a tempered glass door with a blue metal frame)
Then the following happened.
Darkened forbidding hallway – Doorbell unanswered – Modern technology call.
I have no idea why I am wanting to think in a simplified haiku form – perhaps a need for less chaos? I had the number for the hostel, I had my new Chinese number – no real need to panic. Finally divested of my bags and unable to check in for 3-4 hrs I walked, in a drizzle, to the Suzhou Museum. There is more to this tale. I had forgotten how grossly people here underestimate distance – plus the fact I thought the man at the hostel was stressing blocks, not km. However, although it felt like 5km a look at my tracker showed it was indeed about 3km. So this time it was not out of range.
I wanted to see this museum after watching a documentary about the architect and his dream for the museum. It is a simple design, fits into the area and invites the outdoor & indoor environments to be enjoyed. Designed by I.M. Pei, (he designed the Pyramide du Louvre) and opened in 2006, the museum is a simple design that blends in with its ancient neighbours. Although it was drizzling, then pouring, the outdoor elements – small areas with rockery and bamboo, pomegranate and other trees – make viewing the artifacts a pleasant pastime. Adding the Lotus Pond was a stroke of genius. There is a giant wisteria where visitors can sit outside the nearby tearoom. It was too wet the day I was there. I did not make it to the Lotus Pond until the following day, soothes the soul. As did the small thatched scholar’s studio, a Song Dynasty pavilion that had me wondering if I could hide out in such a place for a while. The standard artifacts abound along with ‘local finds’. I even found sustenance at the tea shop – if a thick slice of sweetened, cold, cheese ‘toast’ can be called a good choice. Weird stuff served in China. The coffee was decent. I was also able to recharge my phone battery to 40% – it seems to be sapped far too rapidly. It was a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon despite many others having the same idea. It is also free and accesses the various structures of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Not exactly a walk in the park day so this a perfect way to finish up my visit.
Although I could have walked back it was still raining quite heavily so I flagged down a taxi to head back to the hostel. I had been given a key card for access – I certainly would not have left all my bags otherwise – so I headed up the stairs to meet the owner who had said she would be three hours or so. Claire, her English name, is a very nice person, her English is very good, her rapport with guests is great. So what was the problem? It seemed that when I called her she was st the Public Securoty Bureau where she was informed she could not have foreign guests for probably a month. (Every five years the PRC holds a National Congress during which delegates gather, posts are made, as are various decisions. I have no idea how this affects a small hostel in Suzhou, particularly when the most important date is not until October 18.) Was I willing to let her find another place for me or wait until late evening in the hope I could just remain. I found out the next day that other guests had to be moved. I stayed. I stayed two nights, nothing like inadvertently thwarting the government – certainly not my intention!
The hostel is not great, it actually has some pretty significant problems, but I really did not want to be dragging my stuff about. When we heard the next day that some other places were completely shut down for the duration it is just as well I did not. So I stayed. I had a tour arranged for the following day and eventually headed to bed. Day two was very full, very noisy, completely out of my sphere of language skills, and fabulous most of the time. When the Chinese go on a tour they make sure they get their money’s worth.
We first visited one of the gardens close to the museum, all I can recall is that it was not the Humble Administrator’s Garden. We spent about 1 1/2 hours there. For such a relatively small space it had pools, pagodas, grottoes, a small version of the stone boat in the Summer Palace of Beijing, many varieties of plants, small structures serving as places of reflection, a library, and similar uses. I spent the whole time scrambling over rockery, viewing plants, enjoying the care taken to preserve the garden and just being in the moment.
After this everyone in my group visited the Humble Administor’s Garden while I headed back to the museum to view the Lotus Pond from outside. I was not aware there were extras to the tour package if anyone wanted them; this was fine by me because I had wanted to go back to the museum. (I also knew there were Western style toilets in the washroom) I revisited the pavilion – seems many others had decided to go that day also. The Lotus Pond is wonderful, calming, aesthetically pleasing.
And then we were off to have lunch. Another package extra I was not aware of until I was asked to pay 30CNY. Considering I had nothing else to eat I paid up. After lunch, a bit of a walk outside then to the bus I was suddenly dragged off by the tour guide who insisted I go with her. No explanation. I was rather worried until she brought me into a store that sells wearable and bedding silk. I said I really did not want to go shopping. This time I was not expected to – there was a gift of a silk scarf for each lady. No idea what I will do with it, it is not raw silk so I cannot even wear it when on the motorcycle.
A quick trip to the nearby , under major renovations, Beisi Temple, a confection of a pink and chocolate brown pagoda, this Buddhist temple was first built 1700 years ago. We could not see much with so much construction. Then we were then off to catch a canal ride because why go to Suzhou if you do not intend to get on the canal? It is at times like these that I see where planning anything in China is not easy – even for tour companies. We all dutifully lined up like lemmings heading to the precipice, single file with very little opportunity to turn back unless climbing over. It would be expected that a tour travels together – not when catching a boat up to Tiger Hill. Three of us, plus the guide, had to wait while everyone else piled on a canal boat to be gently lead upstream. Fortunately our extra, hot 15+ minutes wait was washed by a light rain, this after probably 20-30 minutes with everyone else.
While not exactly Star quality it was a chance to sit and enjoy the views while gently meandering up to our destination. We had one very close call when another boat did not give the right of way to our pilot which resulted in some angry shouting, shoving against the wall with a long pole against the wall of the canal and commiseration between passengers, poleman and pilot. I was expecting we would be caught in the low swells – we felt nothing, these boats are widebodied enough for waves to roll under without causing any rocking.
A pleasant half hour later and we were docking near the base of Tiger Hill. Tickets collected, numbers counted, we climbed into open, safari style vehicles to drive to the top of the hill. An amazing leaning, ancient pagoda greeted us. Rarely do I experience silence in China, a spare 2-3 seconds of collective breath of appreciation). Built during the Northern Song Dynasty (959-961) the pagoda has stood the test of time. All of my photos appear as though my camera was slightly tilted; however, the pagoda leans 3.59 degrees. A famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet, Su Shi said, ‘It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill.’ Which I never had until now. We spent enough time admiring the pagoda – I will just share photos here although they do not do justice – before heading down the stairs to catch our bus back to the city.
I was displeased when asked to take a taxi from the main stop rather than being dropped off where I had been picked up. So goes travel in China. Thank goodness I still had a bed despite there still being a ban on foreigners. I packed my bags, had a taxi ordered and turned in early for my 7:00am train to Nanjing.
Expenses: Brkfst 25; Day one lunch 40; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10 (I will never grow tired of these); Water 2; Lunch 30; Random fee 20; Taxi 22; no recollection of dinner the second night. Some expenses seem to have disappeared – too bad it did not show up in what I had left!