Despite having to fly home next week, rather than take the train, I have certainly found enough varieties of rail rides to keep me happy. I even found a show on Knowledge Network about the narrow gauge India Hill Railway – very interesting. However, sitting on a train is far more fun. With that in mind my daughter asked us if we would like to go on the Great Train Robbery that starts next door to the massive St. Jacob’s Market.
Once again two buses, altogether about an hour, this time stopping before the village of St. Jacob’s. The parking lot is huge, on both sides of the market, not many horse and carriages as I though there would be. The Mennonites who do not have booths at the market most likely avoid the place or do their market shopping closer to the 7:00am opening when everything is fresh. (I really have no idea how many still use horse and buggy. We did see some in St. Jacob’s the previous day and one on the main road near the market) We arrived at 10:00, everyone else was in need of breakfast and I certainly did not say no to more coffee. Breakfast was served on real plates! Cutlery was plastic. We then spent 3 1/2 hours checking out all on offer indoors and outdoors but could easily have spent much longer. Of course there were beautiful quilts and all sorts of cured sausages in addition to delicious looking baked goods and bread. I finally gave in and had a pretzel. My only wish was for really good mustard rather than the packaged stuff.
Knowing we would have to carry everything we tried to take care with purchases. We returned with raspberries – somewhat squished by the time we put them in the fridge, lots and lots of cherries – my D discovered after 10 years of marriage her husband does not like cherries! Peaches, a large all beef summer sausage that will go home with us if we can resist opening it, spicy apple jam and strawberry jam, alpaca wool and new, heavy duty water bottles. We dallied over beans, tomatoes, strawberries, more baked goods, flowers and so much more. Our bags were very heavy. We were there long enough I needed lunch so I grabbed a baked vegetable samosa. They even served naked samosas as a GF choice.
Just some of our purchases! Everything would not fit on the table
Well sated, and burdened down with our purchases we headed for the train. The Waterloo Central Railway offers all sorts of fun throughout the year with their themed trips. I counter 19 on their website – if I visit in December I might do the Polar Express. The Mennonite Excursion to Elmira includes a farm wagon ride and a chance for a visit to a farm for lunch and a chat. I realize this is marketing to tourists but why not? If it helps to keep everything running without too much damage to culture and environment I am in favour. Back to our trip. Despite arriving early, as requested, I did not have a chance to take any photos of the engine or cars, the platform was too narrow and busy. I am quite sure we were not being pulled by the steam locomotive used for some of their trips. Slated as a one hour trip we felt lucky to have an hour & 20 minutes of rocking and rolling. I happen to enjoy the swing of trains although the cars used seem to sway far more than modern ones. Even the words often used for train travel have a dance rhythm.
The whole Robbery is hammed up by conductor and sheriff with jokey comments to fit into conversation with passengers. We kept hearing about the valuable valuables that were being carried to Elmira – then brought through each car as proof. We later discovered that one of the young men playing a role was on his first day – he did an excellent job. Also while out of character he mentioned he has a degree in Theology. Before these sidetracked bits of information we were kept entertained by fields of corn gently swaying, cows grazing, horses neighing (I assume) and stopping traffic at various crossings. We passed by decommissioned cars and engines, one had the 1867-1967 logo on it from Canada’s centennial – I had hoped to get a photo on our return, no luck. I have fond memories of those white symbols flashing by and stopped at the grain elevator in Prince Rupert.
Gold? What gold?
Of course the pinnacle of the hour was sighting kerchief garbed bandits riding in the distance, parallel to the train before galloping alongside us – and they were definitely moving swiftly. The train came to a standstill, the train robbers, all female by the way, boarded and quickly divided their booty of goodies to passengers. The conductor and sheriff were in hot pursuit. My companions quickly hid their portion of gold and my SIL seemed to be in cahoots with the bandits. Basically a fun way to while away 1 1/2 hours before heading back to Kitchener. My daughter who lives there and I had just enough energy left to walk to the Cherry Park Festival that was winding down its last hour – we shared a cup of cherry cheesecake ice-cream then called it day.
seeking witnesses and the stolen gold. Middle photo- caught!
In an effort to keep my mini-adventures interesting I often search for upcoming, preferably free, activities that could be interesting and provide some exercise. The Wentworth Villa Architectural Heritage Museum seemed like a perfect match. Two free tours were being offered on each weekend day over two weeks – maximum ten people per tour. I checked with my weekend adventurers who were definitely interested before registering the three of us through Eventbrite. Which nearly found me dropping the whole thing due to the ridiculous process for a free event. Too much information was requested, all three names, addresses, emails and phone numbers were requested (blood type optional) if we wanted confirmation and to print the tickets. Only after all this had been provided did we discover we did not have to print anything, nor were we asked our names on the day we attended.
To ensure a good walk I drove to my sister’s house to put in what we thought would a pleasant 45 minutes. A miscalculation meant we had time to spare to walk further down Fort St. then back up. Fort Street has been known as Antique Road since at least the 1970s. Sadly, most of the quirky stores have since closed their doors as interest in all things old started to wane some years ago. There are now only 2-3 stores left. Wentworth Villa, further up Fort Street, had been one of those quirky shops. I had even visited it once many years ago.
The pink paint was not the original colour; it was chosen to showcase the exterior workmanship.
Central hall. Visitors rarely went beyond the door to the private areas of the home. However, aesthetically pleasing stained glass does give a glimpse of the lovely banister on the stairs beyond. (There are only two stained glass windows, the other is in the attic! No easy access had the renovators think it was there purely for looks.
Only two families ever owned and lived in the Villa. Built in 1863 for Captain Ella, his wife Martha, who would eventually have seven children, and Martha’s aunt. Despite the grandeur quarters would have been quite cramped! Some of the family lived in the house until the 1930s. By the 1940s the home was a bit run down, back taxes were owed and Wentworth Villa was purchased by Faith Grant and her husband – paying 25 years of back taxes. Renovated, with plenty of living space, the antique store next door, and the Grant family were soon relocated to Wentworth Villa. Over time the only changes to house were an extension and paint. It was an antique store until 2012. Sold in 2011 to developers it seemed likely the once grand home where Fort St. met Cadboro Bay Rd. (Over time Fort St. was extended and Cadboro Rd. starts at the border of what is now Oak Bay) was slated to be converted into high end suites. Yet another piece of Victoria’s history lost to the almighty dollar.
The door from the other side.
Note the wood floor in the next room is covered – these are floorboards that are laid across the foundation before the walls go up. Floors were often left unstained in the centre of the room as rugs were used to cover that area.
Fortune must shine on the home as it was sold in 2012 with the purpose of renovating it to become a jewel of the Wentworth Villa Architectural Heritage Museum. We were taken through the house by Stefan, one of the extremely knowledgeable members. Although he did not say, I was under the impression he is one of the main people involved in ensuring all the work is completed as closely to the original structure as possible. This meant sifting through family photos from the Ella family, one of whom serves on the board, newspaper articles, and of course the fantastic B.C. Archives. After threes years the house has been fully restored and available for visitors.
As soon as I saw this I asked which cemetery it was stolen from. (I had learned of what happened to many missing stones) Ross Bay, the oldest cemetery in Victoria. Our guide said their renovators were quite surprised to discover tombstones used as paving stones. There are others, none as intact as this one. With names and dates in hand, researchers discovered the story of this, and other, individuals whose stones were found. Their stories are included in the history information boards.
Although we have many heritage designated homes in Victoria only four are open to the public. Emily Carr House, and Ross Bay Villa, and Ellice Point House have all been carefully restored, two with the furnishings of the original owners, one refurbished to appear as it would have been when first built. The plan for Wentworth Villa is to refurbish one room in the style of the Ella family. As their mandate is to show as a Museum of Architecture many of the renovated rooms have, or will have, models and information of various homes of architectural interest. In addition to these there is extensive information mounted on the walls about the process to renovate, the families and history of Wentworth Villa.
Royal Doulton sewer pipes. Ships from England used these pipes as ballast then sold them upon arrival to Victoria as no longer needed.
The architects and renovators could not find any blueprints or reason for why there is an arch from this room to the next. Nor did the very small space in between appear to have any functional use.
One of the finials removes while the roof was being repaired; when the initials carved on it were discovered the decision to make a replica to replace it was made and put the original on display.
Of course, all of this work is expensive, visitors will soon be charged to, and the extension put in by the Grants has been renovated as an intimate, acoustically sound, concert space. I checked out the seats – comfortable! The intention is to invite a variety of musical artists from Vancouver Island to perform. Concert goers will get quite a hit to the wallet though, $40.00 seemed to be the main ticket rate. Not terribly expensive if one considers the cost of movies these days. Our one hour tour stretched to nearly two – the passion of our guide was infectious as well as extensive! His mention of a few other familiar homes was interesting – one of which my daughter had lived in. Check out their growing website, http://www.wentworthvilla.com
bottom of one of the posts holding the house up.
Right hand side of the photo is where these posts were in the ground.
After our walk and two hours at the Villa we were all very hungry. With the house on the outskirts of Fairfield we headed down to Cook St. Village, to me the heart of Fairfield,where there are many choices of eateries, a few I have been fortunate to have already tried. Knowing there would be choices my daughter could have we headed to Bubby’s Kitchen. This place seems to be always busy. We were quickly seated at the end of the communal table (I think these are a great idea) and handed breakfast and lunch menus. My sister was disappointed to be told her choice of smoked salmon croissant had run out of croissants and found her half order Westcoast Benny on a tea biscuit expensive and not as tasty as she had hoped. I had the Falafel Naan Wrap. With French fries at the insistence of my sister – she wanted to share them. I was very pleased with the choice, after our server made the suggestion when I could not decide between that and another dish. Only ate half – carried the rest in a recyclable box for my dinner later. (No recollection of what my daughter had, just that she also took home leftovers)
Those boxes became a nuisance at times. I proposed we head to the ocean at the end of the street before veering off to Moss St. in the hope of seeing the cheery blossoms in full bloom. Moss Street is the best place for visitors in Victoria during cherry blossom season. They were still not in full show mode. Then to Rockland Ave where there are many grand old homes as well as the Lt. Governor’s House. We took a short stroll through the public park inside before wending our way back to the street. We had planned to find one house mentioned during our tour, too bad we recalled the street incorrectly. No matter, we were in very familiar territory, the weather was only slightly chilly and windy, and we were feeling hearty.
Keeping a watchful eye on everything.
On the way I discovered a little wonderland on the edges of one home. Such a delightful sight.
By the time we returned to my car we had walked nearly 14km! (I faithfully wore my knee brace until back at the car – it only helps a very little) No wonder I was tired. My daughter and I put in another 2km shopping before heading home. Another stress free, very little driving, adventure.
It was fortunate I had enough sense to record some of how awestruck I was by these magnificent, ancient carvings as, even after going through my very few photos and my notes, I cannot adequately describe what was coursing through my senses. As for pictures, they barely do justice to the majesty of the workmanship – I put my phone and camera away to just enjoy the legacy left behind after the carvers, monks, adherents, royalty and commoners had turned to dust. I spent seven hours marvelling, discussing, pondering, searching, with a young man from the Netherlands I had met at my hostel. It was nice to spend time with someone just as inquisitive as I am about the history of a place. A bonus was how quickly he could look up the meaning of a character – sometimes writing it on his phone with his finger (I need an app for that).
Longmen Grottoes (pinyin: longmen shiku – Dragon’s Gate Grottoes. a.k.a. Longmen Caves) were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. The majority of the 1400 caves with 100,000 statues, plus steles and pagodas, are along the western bank of the Yi River. By the time we had finished the western bank my new friend and I were worn out. An excellent excuse to return another year.
My first glimpse of the Longmen Grottoes and I knew I was in for at least a few hours of viewing marvellous carvings, with their mystery and magic, there was a feel to the air of just how ancient the area is and how revered it once was. The care, the belief, the fortitude of the craftsmen who carved these astonishing statues in their manmade caves out of the sandstone cliffs vibrates. (I am not prone to sensations of a mystical, religious or ghosts of the ancestors nature)
These are artifacts that deserve, and must, to be retained for as long as time can make it possible. There are many, many defaced figures, missing limbs; however, perhaps, in the 21st C. it gives pause for us to understand how fortunate we are to be where we are and how much we have advanced. These figures were chiselled by hand with great care. No electricity, nothing motorized. The smooth cheeks on many of the figures made me want to reach out to touch them. How was this accomplished? My young friend and I discussed this and came up with, from our very limited knowledge of art, the possibility that sand may have been used as the medium – much like sand paper – to rub the cheeks, smooth the brow, encourage the slight curve of a smile, or enhance the intense draw of the eye to the future unfolding before each statue. It is amazing what those stone eyes can make us ponder. From a distance one of the extremely tall, intimidating, powerful, stone guards watches over the area, and yes, his eyes do seem to follow you. Once we made it up the stairs and were at his feet, looking up – you know you will never be at his level – physically or spiritually – I remain still unable to adequately put into writing how the realm of gods can affect the realm of disbelief. As always, and it was absolutely necessary here, I looked up, way up. To my delight and curiosity I discovered a small opening close to the ceiling – with its own, bricked ceiling. Definitely put there for a reason although anywhere close to what we bantered back and forth. My friend and I were so curious (ah, to be young) that he did a search on his phone. It was a resting place, or hideaway for the immortals who embodied the statues! So much better than a place for the tools of the trade that carved the magnificent figures.
Tourists are encouraged to get up close, up the concrete stairs, with railings, along wide, easy to maneuver to appreciate the craftsmanship of over 1500 years ago, with the relics far enough out of reach of accidental, or sadly, purposeful damage.
Visiting the caves is fairly easy – unless provided with a bus number to one of the least numbers of trips. While waiting for probably 40 minutes, on a somewhat chilly morning – I had been in the south until now – I introduced tea eggs and ‘oil’ drum baked sweet potatoes to Tristan. These kept us going until lunchtime when I finally succumbed to hunger and ate both of the granola bars I had packed for emergencies. As for the bus, we decided to walk to the nearby train station, found a bus idling by with its driver looking for passengers. I think once we boarded others were encouraged to also hop on as it soon filled and we were off. Only a 15 minute ride away.
The tour the next day reminded me, once again, how much I do not enjoy tours. We were picked up across from the hostel, and stopped to pick up other passengers also going on the tour. Our guide seemed horrified she would have to be in charge of two foreigners and eventually asked if there was anyone on the bus who could look after us. Or something along those lines. The poor fellow had his work cut out because we tended to not follow the group like sheep. I do not know why he volunteered, his English was worse than my Chinese!
First stop, Shaolin Temple and Kungfu School of China, 1 1/2 hours out of Luoyang. Yikes! As we scurried after our guide, once we had arrived, I felt like I should start to Baa – I think I managed to refrain. It was difficult to enjoy anything because we kept being rushed hither and thither. One of the supposed highlights is to watch a performance put on by students. A rather slick operation getting everyone inside and seated for the short show then out again for the next crush. I tried to be impressed.
For some reason I took very few photos of the White Horse Temple. I can only think it was most likely due to all the driving to get anywhere. A lunch stop in the middle of nowhere provided a chance for a quiet, cobbled together picnic – those granola bars do come in handy – before heading for the last stop of the day. It was quite busy and once again less seeing anything of significance (much the same happened at the Wu She School) and standing around waiting.
We did not get back to Luoyang until dark – descends early and suddenly – and were then hustled into a smaller van before finally getting into a car and eventually a public bus to the train station. We were tired, hungry and happy.
Of course the highlight of my time in Luoyang was the Longmen Grottoes; however, meeting a new friend, sharing meals and hanging out at yet another apartment turned into a hostel were all part of why I enjoyed my time there. In all I spent three nights, the first simply a matter of having arrived too late to do any exploring, and the only item on my list that I missed seeing was the Luoyang Museum after spending a whole day at the grottoes. A quick calculation indicated I had spent barely 1000CNY = under 200CAD including half the train fare from Guilin. Somehow I was managing to stay on budget! My next destination was Xi’an – home of the Terracotta Warriors.
I was dealing with four currencies in one day – very confusing. The VND is in ridiculously high notes – 500.000VND = 30CAD. At least my just shy of 500CNY can be put away for 20 days. I will have to be vigilant about spending, too easy to get confused and end up paying too much for something. The fact USD/CAD/EUROS & even CNY could be used at the airport – besides exchanging – surprised me. I squirrelled my money to brave the streets of Saigon to find dinner. I hoped to do some tours while in Saigon as there was no way I had enough time to work out how to get anywhere on my own.
When I first went to China in 1996 I could not believe how many bicycles there were, to be replaced by motor scooters then cars over two decades – all making for some crazy driving. Move forward 21 years to Vietnam and it is motor scooters – except the streets are insane! The noise is deafening, people jostle for a foot or wheel hold, horns toot, people shout out to passing riders to stop for a bite, parents are fetching children from school, the after school vendors are on their scooters (ready to push off if any authority shows up – happens in China too). Everyone has a place to with pedestrians at the bottom of priorities. Perhaps simply because they must not be going far if walking?
I somehow managed to walk to the wet market several blocks down – I had no idea where I was heading – and even tried out some street food. The French influence means some pretty tasty, crusty bread is found at many stalls. One place drew my attention when a crust had just been opened and was being filled with something interesting. The fellow holding it was also quite entertaining while he tried to entice me to try some. It worked. For 20,000VND I had dinner – bread filled with nicely done tofu, a long slice of cucumber marinating in something (most likely to keep it fresh), some pickled goodies, slightly cooked sprouts and a dash of hot sauce. No pictures, no pandas allowed out to share, too dangerous with all those scooters. Probably some fumes mixed in the meal. Picked up some milk to make coffee, then called it a night other than arranging for a full day City tour the next day.
War Museum, how the hell does humanity still get so entangled to maim, torture, wrest away freedom, deny basic rights, fault religious and political beliefs, enough to kill each other? As my fellow morning seat mate said, I was crying on the inside. We did not have enough time for thoroughly learning about the atrocities of yet another crime against humanity.
While there My youngest daughter tried to call me. Her closest sister let me know then connected us with FB – seems she wishes she had met me in Saigon after all. I said to just come. Logistically it will most likely mean she will be a day behind me on the motorcycle tour. We are waiting on flights and an available driver and bike. (Update – it took a couple of days for her to organize everything so she would meet me in Hoi An after my tour)
Chinatown – sort of the same as any wet market, and wholesale goods in China. No idea why we were brought there other than perhaps to keep us amused for an hour. I think most of the participants were just confused and not too happy at the prospect of hanging around a maze of shops selling everything from spices, chili sauces, dried everything to whatever one might need in the home or office- plus items never even considered, let alone knowing what they were for, this form someone who has shopped in Chinese markets.
Pit stop for civet coffee. Of course this was the inevitable sales pitch to buy, buy, buy. At least the coffee served was free.
A short stop, about 20 minutes at the Chinese Temple to the goddess of the sea. Built in the 17th c. The idols were beautifully draped in finery. I was beginning to feel rushed. Lunch stop, I finally had Pho! Naturally this was an extra charge. It worked out because everyone could order what they wanted or go to one of many other small restaurants. They all seem to work together when it comes to large tour groups.
Another Pit stop, this time at one of several (I discovered this the next day)Handicapped Handicrafts tour/sales pitch. The sign says 100% of the proceeds goes to the care of the individuals doing the lacquer work but how do we know? The Reunification Museum – where the tanks crashed through the gates in 1975 which basically ended the war – has about 100 rooms but we only had an hour to rush through maybe half of them. I know it sounds crazy for someone interested in history but I chose to give it a miss and headed to Highland Coffee outside the gates where I had an iced coffee and stayed cool. The gardens did look lovely, but I could see hem from outside the wrought iron fence. When I asked a fellow passenger what she thought she said it was only alright and they were rushed. Happy with my decision. Perhaps I will return to Vietnam.
Notes Dame Cathedral, built in the 1880s, was on the list of places included in the tour – too bad they did not bother to mention, until we were there – that it has been closed past three years for major renovations. All we could do was peer through the fence and take photos from a distance. I would have loved to see inside. However, with the Central Saigon Post Office right across the street I might have managed some interesting pictures. The post office was built in 1886, busy times back then, with a definite French architectural influence from the time. This is a favourite stop for tourists to buy a postcard, buy a stamp and have it postmarked from Ho Chih Minh – I wonder if they mail the postcard to their address.
That ended my first full day. I foolishly booked a 5:30am early morning tour plus the Cu Chi Tunnels for the next day. It was time for bed.
Time for my early morning tour. I opened the door to don my sturdy, comfortable, Clarke’s sandals that used to be my mother’s….to discover they were not there. I looked inside, I checked my room, I checked all the rooms, although I knew full well I had left them on the door sill. Someone had stolen my shoes. So much for trying to live like the locals. I thought I was doing what everyone does by removing my shoes before entering a home. Seems they also bring in their footwear before retiring, I was furious and angry. I hoped the shoes would bring him nothing but misery – perhaps trip and break a leg; a possibility considering they were a size 8 whereas most women in Vietnam wear a couple of sizes smaller. Perhaps it was a man. So, that place will not be recommended.The poor guide who met me was unsure what to do with a sobbing woman the age of his grandmother when I informed him I did not know if I was up to a tour. All I wanted to do was pack and go home.
I persevered, we headed out to see the sun rising, feel a cooling breeze and watch the city wake up. Although my guide, whose name has now escaped me, suggested I turn around to watch the sunrise I chose to watch the reflection on the river and buildings in the centre of the city . Much prettier than the garbage and rat I saw scurrying nearby.
Saigon has a massive population of over 20 million, very little space and few tall buildings to put them in. They do however have the Saigon River and many people live on the water selling a variety of goods. Most of these people come from further north, only going home during major holidays. Their children stay with grandparents to attend school. The one boat we were hoping to visit was not yet pulled into shore so we chatted about the lives of the people and some of the goods they sell. This one appeared to sell plants and, like nearly every other boat, coconuts. Each boat has living quarters and a small kitchen at the bow and lots of space for goods. They all had large, stylized eyes painted on the prow looking down to frighten away any evil spirits lurking in the water. Unlike many fishermen off the westcoast of BC when I was young up boat dwellers know how to swim – we discussed this and came to the conclusion that it is easier to climb out of a river than an ocean if you fall in. I should note that nowadays fishermen in Canada tend to know how to swim and have all sorts of flotation equipment.
My guide was sweet, he asked if I felt any better and could he give me a hug. He was an awkward 22 year old so I thought it was alright. I did indeed feel better. Our next stop was the wholesale flower market. Flowers, flowers and more flowers. Made the me think of the musical My Fair Lady where everyone is preparing to sell and buy flowers for the day. The market never closes, 24 hour flower power. Deliveries of flowers from the delta arrive in the early morning – usually by 4:00am – and flower shops from all over the city pick up their choices starting around 6:00am. Not only were there flowers to sell in large quantities though; some stalls had astonishingly large arrangements prepared, others were preparing fancy arrangements and everywhere was busy. I learned that a display including purple and white flowers are for funerals whereas ones with red flowers are for good luck. We stopped at a stall where roses and orchids are sold where my guide presented me with a red rose. I knew it was a gimmick but his sincerity washed that thought away.
The next stop was to a park for breakfast where people gather to hang their bird cages, sip coffee and eat breakfast while visiting. Hundreds of bamboo cages were hanging above the low tables where the birds could have fresh air and provide some rather pleasant birdsong. I would have though so many varieties of birds would create a cacophony of noise. It was actually rather pleasant. Of course we had coffee. I am becoming good at saying absolutely no sugar although I do get some stares of horror. Thick, heavily sweetened, condensed milk added to a Espresso shot is practically a national drink in Vietnam. In addition, a glass of iced green tea is often provided to help cut the bitterness. Coffee and Pho, not a bad was to end my early morning tour. We went past the two hours so had to hustle to my next tour – the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chih Minh.
The war in Vietnam was a tragedy, as is, in my opinion, any war. The politicians do not suffer the indignities or war. So, again, how often do we need reminding? The tunnels are about a 1 1/2 – 2 hour drive from the city centre. We made one stop at yet another Handicapped Handicrafts site – a chance to stretch my legs while avoiding the sales pitch.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were built and used by the Viet Cong from the 1940s, hidden in the jungle, as a way to escape the French during the Indochine war and eventually from American soldiers into the 1970s. The Viet Cong lived in the tunnels when absolutely necessary but otherwise had camps above ground also. Rather gruesome traps were built to prevent discovery, hidden air holes were drilled and hidden for staying underground for several days. Quick escapes into and out of the tunnels were built and camouflaged. I did try one of the tunnels, these are nasty places even now with low lights to guide visitors. I am only 5’2″ but had to stoop to pass through. It is impossible to carry a bag on your back and in some spots it is necessary to nearly crawl forward close to the ground – I did not make that attempt. Not a place to visit if claustrophobic.
When I finally made it back to my room there was still no sign of my sandals. They were truly gone. I went in search of dinner, got turned around at one point – not a good idea in a city maze – finally made it to my corner, bought my dinner then was stuck where I was when a major rainstorm hit. An hour passed, I ate my dinner, sat on a chair provided by a shopkeeper and watched as water poured from the sky, down the road and into ditches. We were nearly inundated. I finally made a dash for my corner again to be stopped by water that would most likely go half way to my knees. So I did the only sensible thing – I bought a pair of pink thongs (flip-flops).
Exciting last night in Saigon. I would be heading out in the morning on a ten day motorbike tour – I hoped for sun.
Vietnam visa 25USD; SIM 15CAD;Taxi 165,000VND;Room 1.9 mill (106CAD) includes brkfst; Lunch 51,000; Entrance fees 15,000; Tour 9USD; TAXI 62,000; Iced coffee 49,000; Dinner, water, milk 42,500; Morning tour 25USD; Tunnels 125,000? + 110,000+ lunch 70,000 Pho & bottle water; Dinner: bought two eggs 6000VND; one orange 12,000!; donair because caught in a rainstorm 17,000; thongs 39,000
Or, to make things easier, I spent about 75.00CAD per day.
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!