Suzhou

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. 

The view outside from within the tearoom.

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. 

Mainly taken for my scholar daughter – a scholar’s study.
This is an exquisite porcelain dish – either for decorative use only or possibly fruit.

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. 

My idea of a perfect place for reflection.
One of the wisteria winding around the outdoor area. It must be stunning when the flowers are in bloom. The trunks of some of these twine round and up eaves.
Cheese toast Chinese style.

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. 

Aesthetics?
Uh oh, look what is opening up near the museum and gardens.

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. 

Noodles, a boiled egg, some sort of mushroom, vegetables and little spongy cakes – green tea, Lotus, and two others I did not like. They were not meant as a dessert.

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.

When I was a teenager we lived in a house painted these colours!
Once renovations are complete visitors will be allowed inside again although most likely not to upper floors.
Capturing a good image was difficult with no easy access.

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.

Like the history of China, time may have clawed at the pagoda yet it remains.
Trying to capture the beauty in a photo.
A final look back from the bottom of the steps.

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.

Pomegranate tree at the Suzhou Museum – until that day I had never seen them growing.

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! 

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Cranky Kitty

This is Mozzy. He plays a major factor in my decisions of where, and for how long, to travel. This photo is of him in a wary stance as well as his usual cranky expression that always seems to come through in photos. He is deservedly cranky after a week of daily trips to the vet where he valiantly fought a battle each and every day with the techs and one or two vets. When I took the photo he had been warily watching me whenever I approached the bedroom or came too close to the bed. I did tell him I was not planning to scoop him up to be thrust into the carrier – not until Monday. 

Meanwhile, I am rejigging plans for travel. New York might be off, not so much the money side of things. The daughter I am taking with me is beginning a new nursing position that will include lots of extra training on new equipment. She already has clinic experience, but this will be teaching individuals how to use equipment at home. So, we will most likely put things on hold. 

Which is fine. There is a major seat sale, ends Sunday, from Vancouver to Shanghai through Air China. At this fare I could probably add in Thailand and Cambodia. I am vying for a two week ecotour 60th birthday present that includes working with elephants and children – not at the same time! These decisions bring me back to my cranky kitty, he might be even crankier. 

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/cranky/”>Cranky</a&gt;

Looking Back

I must admit that the Facebook Memories is extremely useful. I ended up reading entries from my first blog. Although not strictly travel related, although it is about travelling to places, it does provide some insight to why I am where I now am in life. Still moving, still exploring, still searching. Perhaps closing in on 60 years has brought some wistfulness. With some edits I am sharing some of those entries. Having not finished reading the entries I am not sure how many times I added photos. The following entry explains that. 

Go East Old Woman 

Sunday, 6 November 2011

What to do with my mother and my cat

Fortunately I do have family – they should be able to help out my not yet 76 year old mother. Bigger problem – telling her, clearly versus beating around the bush – that I have, once again, accepted a job in China. This time is different, I will be going alone, and she no longer has my father here.

However, what else is a 54 year old woman with no job in sight to do? I came up with the answer one day walking or driving, might even have been biking – although that less likely. Write a travel book about going through China, with eye catching photograpsh and catchy snatches. Call it, Go East Old Woman; surely some would get it. Problem with that is I do not even own a camera – cell phones do not count – nor the skills to take even passable pictures. I also do not have the means to pay for getting to China let alone traversing around without direction. Then there is Mozzy.

Final Notes: transportation, communication, budget and…

These days travelling to the other side of the world is relatively simple to arrange, then take off. A quick look online to find the least expensive flight, book with a debit or credit card and hit send. Alright, that is how it is supposed to happen. It usually is that simple, until it is not. This post is about the airlines I liked and did not, baggage, (yes, even the emotional kind) bus and train travel, where to stay, or not, and how I reached across the waters for help, or I was reached. All of my bookings were started with expedia.ca, just not necessarily completed through them.

I love taking the ferry from Swartz Bay (outside Victoria, BC) to Twassassen, a fabulous way to relax, enjoy the best, natural views in the world, and enter the madness of the rest of humankind. Then onward by bus and Skylink (the only way to travel any cheaper would be to walk or bike – still have to pay for the ferry) to the YVR Airport – which, by the way, was named the best international airport in the world by CAPA Centre for Aviation! I liked that this announcement was in the news the day I returned home.

Xiamen Air has only been flying out of Vancouver to China for maybe a year, which means it is not yet a popular choice, and that means the flights are not full. I had two seats to myself all the way to Xiamen. Another weather delay in Xiamen, then on our way to Shanghai. My only complaint was how disorganized staff were when it came to letting passengers know about the weather delay.

The return flight was a dream once I was aboard a plane. Checking in was not. I had to wait until four hours before departure, I was an agonizing 40 minutes early. The gate was in a separate room from all the others with no washroom. That meant handing over the boarding pass, leaving and trekking down the hall. There was also a storm brewing. Everyone was on tenterhooks worrying if we would leave on time. We did not. Fortunately, once on the plane the crew were great and kept everyone comfortable. I promptly fell asleep.

Once in Xiamen, my one bag already checked through to Vancouver, I joined the massive crush of people at security, Immigration, and Customs. A lengthy layover despite having been delayed in Shanghai, but through to the gate fairly quickly. One stupid couple thought they were being clever by having ‘her’ go through first, pull out her phone then take a photo of ‘him’ at the Immigration (or maybe it was Customs) counter. She was caught, chastised, and lucky to be told to go on her way. I was behind them. Never mess around at security, Customs or Immigration.

I roamed around the departure area, narrowly missing the gate change, then happily (me, happy on a plane and not yet drugged – go figure) boarded. My happiness became nearly giddy when the pilot affirmed all aboard and there was not anyone sitting in my row! Three seats to myself – I have never had that on a plane. A meal was served, water made readily available (read on dear passengers), I had blankets galore, three pillows and comfortable seats. An uneventful flight, I actually slept three to four hours without being disturbed. Breakfast was the only disappointment, very Chinese. Thank goodness congee was not included. Xiamen Air is on my radar for future travel.

China Eastern Airlines: a sudden change of plans meant I had to book a flight from Kunming, China to Chiang Mai, Thailand. My debit visa would not work despite making the reservation through expedia.ca. Fortunately my daughter, already in Thailand, has a credit card and offered to pay for my flight as a gift. Kunming has a beautiful airport. The photos I found do not do it justice. Inside and out, the architecture makes you want to soar. Watch out Vancouver. Checking in was easy, the flight did have some turbulence that freaked me out, the crew were great.

Thai Airlines: Chiang Rai to Phuket. Another problem with booking online, this time not even the credit card worked. Something to do with too close to departure. We did manage to retain the booking, called the airline office in Chiang Rai, provided all the pertinent information and were booked. Old style sometimes works best. All we had to do was be ready to provide proof of credit card with passport – ended up being not necessary. I did wonder if that means there is more credit card scamming than cardholders are aware of.

We arrived with lots of time to spare, I tend to worry about travel even if it is domestic. Very easy check-in, and, oh so lovely, we were offered goodies, coffee and tea! This was solely for Thai Air passengers. I have very little recollection of the rest of the flight, my daughter and I had an empty seat between us, then she changed to a row that was completely empty. A comfortable trip.

Thai Smile: Phuket to Bangkok. A less expensive offshoot of Thai Air, no tea and coffee. I had to wait an hour to check in whereas my daughter, on a different airline, was able to check in immediately despite her flight leaving after mine. I mentioned earlier how much I love taking the ferry from Vancouver Island, I was far from enamoured with the boat from Phi Phi Don to Phuket, then a mini-van to the airport.

We were both unwell, I thought it was seasickness for me, but no, we had the nasty bug someone brought to Phi Phi. I still do not know how my daughter managed other than through my plying her with Gravol and cajoling her to just get through security. By the time I arrived in Phuket I was not smiling. At the airport we found a place to hide and nap for a couple of hours. Some lovely cleaning ladies helped me out when I was at my worse – throwing up into a bag of rubbish seemed better than all over the floor. One woman rubbed my back, another gave me paper towels, another walked me back to my daughter and even checked up on us a couple of times.

The crew on Thai Smile had left me a nice little paper carry bag with a bottle of water, wet wipe and sandwich while I slept. I liked that. Ate the sandwich the next day.

Air Asia: Bangkok to Shanghai. Never, ever again. Granted their fares are low, so much so that everything else is extra. Including booking with a credit card; which, by the way, is about the only way to book with them! When I had booked this flight a couple of weeks earlier my daughter, who had flown with them before, asked me if I had pre-booked my baggage. Of course I had no idea what she meant. No attempt to make a change was possible, not from China, Thailand, or Canada. I finally said I would deal with it at the airport and set aside about the equivalent of 30CAD to cover any possible possible charge for my backpack. All other THB was exchanged for RMB.

The following is why I arrive early at airports. Security check to enter the airport, more security before being allowed to go to the check-in counter. Second in line for checking in, after being informed we were in the wrong place. More lines opened up, no longer second in line -I was beginning to growl. Finally my turn, still second in my line, the person ahead of me took about 15 minutes – he was, at the time, the only other foreigner in any of the lines.

My turn, my passport checked, long pause, it was peered at, another agent spoken to, they both peered at me, then the computer started spitting out the boarding and baggage passes. My backpack weighed in between 8 – 9kg. Papers were placed on the counter along with my passport, I was home free…..Nope.

After everything was processed I was informed I had to pay over 1800THB, about 70CAD, for my bag. I was horrified. I explained the problem with my attempts over the past two weeks, and I did not have that much in THB. Of course they suggested a credit card. They would not accept my daughter giving her card information over the phone, although they would have accepted it if she caught a taxi to come in person. An hour away. Then I was told I could shift stuff from my backpack to my carry on despite all the signs saying ONE CARRY ON ONLY! Except I had a Swiss Army knife wrapped up inside one of my shoes, inside a shoe bag. Their suggestion was to “throw it”. Yelling at people in Thailand goes nowhere, so I burst into tears. The knife was my mother’s and always travels with me. They lowered the amount to 815THB – despite my saying I only had just over 500. Which was true, because they could not take CNY. Exchange that they said. Which meant leaving the secure area. The knife will stay at home from now on.

By this time I was furious and worried I would miss my flight. I left, tried one bank card, not successful, then the other – thank goodness it worked. I stashed my unwanted THB except for the 800, went through security again, had all my passes redone, went to another desk to pay my pound of flesh, collected my passes and stomped off for security, immigration and customs. I was in foul mood.

When I discovered the gate was a large holding room without a washroom I was not surprised. Yet another sign Air Asia will do anything to save a dollar. The flight was delayed due to stormy weather – this time thunder and lightening. Everyone was wound up.

By the time we boarded it was past bedtime for everyone. This time I had to share a row with two other passengers until one of them moved. I slept most of the trip. Until I was thirsty. I had not filled my water bottle after security as there not any places near to the gate. Final disgusting insult to passengers. An 8oz, bottle of water was 50THB! (It might have been 80THB) I paid it, not happily, the airline is basically hijacking passengers. I will never travel on Air Asia again. There is no saving after the extortion for baggage, food and water. I am only grateful we were not stuck on the plane waiting to take off – they probably charge for airsickness bags.
Trains and buses. I found both of these modes of transportation easy to buy tickets for in both countries, despite my worry for my first train trip on National Day. Do not let lack of language skills deter travel plans. Instructions can be written down or use a mobile device to take a photo of a map and route. There is usually someone willing to help, or assistants at many stations. In Chiang Mai there are Tourist Police at the bus stations, and I assume, train stations who can provide help. Make it an adventure.
Accommodation varied from not so great to wonderful, with prices, other than the one upscale place in Chiang Mai, roughly the same. Once averaged out I paid 37CAD per night. Sharing of course cuts the price down, as does staying in dorms – which I do not ever plan to do. Only once did I want to cancel after arriving, People’s Square Youth Hostel was smelly and mouldy, but that was the end of my trip and in the area I am familiar with as well as being close to the metro and everywhere else I wanted to visit.
Communication. In China be prepared for far less access to the internet than usual. Even with VPN. In Thailand access at airports was frustrating, your phone number is necessary for access information to be sent as a text – the catch is that it seems only a Thai number works. On Phi Phi Don everywhere has wifi, many of they cafes have the codes on their receipt. Or, take a photo – I learned this in Kunming, beats running back and forth when memory fails.

I finally decided I did not need Facebook as I had What’sApp and eventually paid for a package for international calls and texts on my mobile phone. Unfortunately actual internet service can be extremely spotty depending where you are, just like at home. I always tell family I will let someone know where I am, and they usually know which city I am in as well as my accommodation. Let family know these things when possible. With modern technology there is no excuse not to. Also less worry. Even if you are running away.

Home….time to plan my next adventure.

After a week jet lag was finally gone, my cat loved me again and I started to think what to pack for another adventure. For now, winter clothes for a one month stay in Ontario. Perhaps a few days in Quebec Ciry or New York. Very different weather wise – winter; culture – Canadian, eh; visiting family – Christmas. Then who knows? Tibet, North Korea, more of China, are all on my list. Australia has been added now that my youngest is there. The latter will be only if we can come to an agreement about travelling and staying together.

Show Me the Money

Did I go over my budget? Yes. Even with my youngest paying for my flight from Kunming to Chiang Mai. There were extra flights, and other modes of transportation while I was in Thailand. The south of Thailand is expensive, paying an astronomical fee for my very light bag added to going over, as did leaving Jiuzhaigou a day early. I could have told my daughter I would take her up on her offer to pay for half of my ‘booze cruise’, but I had so much fun and I did have two monetary gifts from two of her sisters to do something special – I do not think any of us considered jumping into the ocean from the back of a speedboat would be my choice.

I believe I balanced out at 100CAD per day in Kunming, well worth every fen (1/6th of a penny)

The strangest cost was 2CNY for using a squat toilet in a private home. Better than a 1CNY facility any day.

It was difficult trying to keep track of money in Thailand because my daughter and I kept taking turns to pay for things. My first day I probably spent 1000THB, under 40CAD. I did not have to pay for the room. I paid for our cooking lesson and she paid for our nice hotel. However, by the time we made it to Koh Phi Phi, and were there our second night, I had difficulty getting a handle on this island of wanton spending. I did manage to snag a breakfast of fish congee and teepee fried, churro style, bread for 60THB, then spent far too much for coffee. Shame on me as I still had coffee in my room. I made up for that by eating most of my daughter’s breakfast (my lunchtime), we did not know she was getting sick other than feeling worn out.

Two more mornings and I had found sticky rice with chicken very near us, for the cheap price of 30THB. I always say eat where the locals eat, preferably where it is busy. I had a beachside view, watched local children playing in the water, boats being readied for the tourists and even had a young cat try to steal my breakfast. He did not get anywhere near it.

I did have to take money out of my bank account while in Bangkok; after being sick we were not up to going far so ate at the hostel. I did not see much of Bangkok, favouring photos from the rooftop restaurant. Perhaps another trip.

Final tally, perhaps 200-300CAD over my budget. That is satisfactory, not even surprising. All I have to do now is decide if I should budget differently for future trips or try to keep within my 3000CAD for a month of travel – including airfare. I am even thinking I might have to stay in dorms. Ah, the lengths we go to for travel.