There is a Chinese saying ‘Above is heaven, below is Suzhou and Hangzhou’ (Shàngmiàn shì tiāntáng, xiàmiàn shì sū háng 上面是天堂,下面是苏杭). I like Suzhou, but I am not sure it is heavenly. Anyway, we are off to Hangzhou on Thursday, so perhaps we will be able to see whether there is any truth in saying at all.
The photo is of the pagoda in the Pan Men Garden in Suzhou. If you look very closely, you will see it has been overrun by Kennedies.
We returned from the excitement of Beijing to our chilly apartment in Wuxi; everywhere was still shut for the Spring Festival holidays and to top it all, we both caught colds. So, we decided we deserved a short break in a comfortable hotel in Suzhou.
We managed to find a special rate at the Pan Pacific hotel. This hotel appealed to us especially as the bathrooms had a separate shower and bathtub. We agreed that if the weather was bad, we could just take it turns to soak in the tub.
At the train station, I was pleased to be able to conduct the transaction entirely in Chinese. It might not sound like much, but 6 months ago, I didn’t really speak any Chinese at all. Now, I was able to ask for tickets departing on one day and coming back on another, at a specific time and on a specific type of train. I might never be fluent, but it is good to be understood.
Suzhou is on the Nanjing – Shanghai line and the ‘G’ trains are fast and efficient, travelling at up to 300 km/h. The system is also much more organised than in the UK. Each passenger has a seat allocated in a specific carriage. All passengers wait in the main station until about 10 min before departure time, then they are allowed onto the platform. Along the platform, there are numbers indicating which compartment stops where. This does away with the confusion about which end of the train you need (the trains are pretty long). Also, a note to Virgin Trains, they only feel the need to have one first class carriage, thus allowing more room for standard class.
The Pan Pacific hotel is at the southern end of Suzhou city centre. It is a relatively low rise hotel, built in traditional style. Our room was lovely with a balcony overlooking a fish pond. From the balcony we could see the pagoda in the Pan Men garden adjacent to hotel. Staying at the hotel allowed us free entry into the garden, so, as the sun was shining, we set off to explore.
Pan Men is a large garden in classical style. We climbed to the top of the pagoda, from where we had a panoramic view of the city. We then took a river boat trip. The wooden boats looked a bit like punts. Ours was powered by a stern looking oarswoman who started singing to us as we set off. Once we were out of sight of the ticket office, she suggested we might like to give her a tip in appreciation of her talents. She looked quite capable of casting us both overboard, so we thought it was best to comply.
That evening, we had a nice meal at a large restaurant nearby. Our meal was spoilt, slightly, by lots of chain smokers at the other tables (I nicknamed one of them ‘Smoky-Joe’ as he would start another cigarette as soon as he finished the previous one). There were even quite a few women smoking, which is unusual in China. I still find it hard to get used to the number of smokers here and how acceptable it is to smoke anywhere. I had forgotten how in the past after going to the pub in the UK, your clothes and jacket would stink the next day. Tobacco is really cheap here, to I don’t think it is something likely to change in the near future.
The next day we got a bus to the centre of the city and went to the Mingtown Cafe on Pingjiang Road for
an American breakfast. This kept us going long enough to walk up and down this lovely canal-side road with its interesting little shops and views. We then went south to look at the Twin Pagodas. Apparently, they were built by some grateful students in appreciation of their teacher. I could see John was getting some ideas, so we walked on to the Garden of the Master of the Nets.
Suzhou is understandably famous for its formal gardens. The Master of the Nets is one of the smaller ones, but is fascinating with its little rooms and pathways around a central pond. We had walked enough by now, so caught a taxi back to the hotel. We had dinner at the hotel and spent a lovely evening watching films in our nice warm room.
This morning, we woke up late, enjoyed a substantial breakfast and felt ready to return to Wuxi.