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Sunshine in Suzhou

Panmen Garden

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.

Boatwoman

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.

Twin Pagodas

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

Garden of the Master of the Nets

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.

Cat statue (catue?)

 

Beijing hutong on ice

Me in Beijing

We landed in Beijing at about 2pm this afternoon. Our flight was a little delayed, but not so much that it mattered. When checking in at Wuxi airport we saw a sign apologising for a flight that was delayed due to ‘company plan’. We were pleased that our airline didn’t plan too much of a delay for us.

We were glad we had arranged an airport pick up, because our hotel is in the middle of Beijing’s hutongs and I am sure it would have been a struggle to find it by ourselves. However, it is well worth finding. We are staying at the Orchid Hotel, a boutique hotel, sympathetically converted from an old building. Our bedroom is off the central courtyard. It is small, but has everything we need, including heating and cats. The hotel is great, it has a really cool feel to it and the owners are really happy to help with restaurant recommendations and other advice.

The temperature in Beijing is about -2°C, but we were expecting this so we have stocked up on warm

Orchid hotel

clothes. This afternoon we kept warm by walking up the steep stairs to the top of the Drum Tower. From the top we had a great view across the hutongs and beyond. The hutongs are traditional style Chinese low-rise buildings. In the distance we could see the skyscrapers of newer parts of the city, but they seemed a world away. After a while, some people started beating the enormous drums in the tower. Historicaly, the drums would have been used to mark standard time for the city.

After tentatively heading back down the steep staircase, we went in  search of the lake we had seen in the distance. The lake was completely frozen and there are booths around it where you can hire ice skates or small ice bikes. It was fun to watch people sliding around and we have vowed to try it ourselves before we leave.

John wrapped up

For dinner we went to a nearby Yunan restaurant called Hanay (as recommended by our hotelier). Yunan is a province in South West China bordering Laos, Vietnam and Burma. The food was delicious; quite spicy, but just right to warm us up. Our waitress spoke excellent English. She told me the green pu’er teaI was drinking was known to aid weight loss and would make me need to ‘answer the call of nature’ about three times tomorrow. Tomorrow we are going to the Great Wall, so I am now concerned about whether the facilities will be sufficient.

Drummers in the tower

Bicycle bu hao

John bought a second-hand bicycle shortly after arriving in Wuxi and he loves zooming about on it. It uses it everyday to get to and from work; on days he isn’t working he suffers bicycle withdrawal symptoms (restlessness, involuntary leg movements etc.)

John is now convinced that I need my own bicycle. Really, I am very happy travelling by bus. I have a transportation card so most journeys cost about 1.2 RMB (12p) and the buses are pretty reliable. However, for the sake of marital harmony the other day I agreed to get a bike.

I wanted a second hand bike, so it wouldn’t look too attractive to would-be thieves, but we can’t find the used bicycle market in Wuxi. We know there is one, but due to all the building work ongoing for the new Metro system, when we follow directions given to us by ‘people in the know’ we just end up at a hole in the ground.

In the end, we went to a market attached to a branch of Carrefour in the city centre. There was a range of bike and e-bikes on offer, so after careful consideration we decided on the cheapest one in the shop. The sales assistant told us this bike was “bu hao (not good)”. I cynically assumed she just wanted us to buy a  more expensive one, so I insisted we would take the cheap bike.

After a tentative start, my bike riding skills came back to me (it’s a bit like riding a bike..) and we set off in the direction of the park next to Lake Li. Travelling over the bridge I realised my pedal had fallen off. A piece of plastic that should hold it on had broken, so I had to pedal in a lop-sided way. I thought we could probably get it fixed at one of the many road-side bicycle repair places.

We travelled a bit further before I realised the front brake was broken. My new bike was falling apart! We were quite some way from home, so decided to cut our losses and abandon the bike by the side of the road. Someone would no doubt pick it up, patch it up and perhaps sell it on to another unsuspecting dupe.

As I boarded the bus for the journey home, I thought that my cheap bike was an expensive lesson in paying attention when the sales assistant says ‘bu hao’.

Guangzhou – city of good food

Shamian Island

John and I have just returned from a brilliant weekend in Guangzhou to celebrate New Year. We stayed at the Victory Hotel on Shamian Island. Shamian Island is the old British/ French quarter of Guangzhou. Most of the buildings are in a European style and more than 100 years old. Shamian Island feels like a calm oasis in the middle of one of the biggest industrial cities in the world. Walking around the streets you can really feel what it would have been like all those years ago.

We had arranged an airport pick up with the hotel and by the time we got there, through the Friday afternoon rush hour, it was tea-time, so we set out to explore. We ended up at the Orient Express, a French style restaurant with some tables in old train carriages. The food was pretty good (I think John made the best choice with steak and chips, but my salade lyonnaise was also tasty). After dinner we walked to the Voyage 12 wine bar and had beer and cocktails. The weather was still so pleasant, we were able to drink them outside.

Canton Tower

We had a good nights sleep in our nice, comfy hotel bed. It was so good to have a soft mattress. In China, mattresses tend to range from rock-hard to punishment-hard. You can even buy bamboo mattress toppers in case you a worried about too much comfort. Therefore a Western style mattress was a proper luxury. We followed this up with even more luxury – bacon for breakfast from the extensive buffet.

Now, we were all ready for some climbing. Guangzhou is currently home to the tallest man-made structure in China, the Canton Tower. I say currently, because it only opened in 2010 and other cities in China will no doubt see this as a challenge. We took the elevator all the way to the bubble tram at 450m (we decided against the stairs). The bubble tram is a bit like a Ferris wheel on its side circling the edge of the observation deck. There are the most amazing views of Guangzhou, although a bit hazy from the air pollution. The air quality in Guangzhou is pretty bad from all the factories and traffic.

After all this climbing, we were ready for lunch. We took a taxi back to the centre of the city and after a few false leads, ended up on the second floor of the Da Tong restaurant. At nearly 2pm, it was late for lunch, by Chinese standards, but the restaurant was still quite busy – always a good sign. We were delighted when they said they had an English menu, but when we came to order most of the dishes listed weren’t available, it seems the translated menu was a bit out of date. Never mind, through a combination of our limited Chinese and good luck we managed to order some delicious dim sum and pot of tea for two.

The tea was some of the best I have had in China. It was green tea with a real depth of flavour. I am sure this was enhanced by the special way the tea was brewed. Each tea served in the restaurant seemed to have its own style of china pot. Our

John sitting outside the Rose Garden

waitress brought it to us on a tray sitting over a bowl to catch any drips or overflow. On the tray was the tiny tea pot with tea leaves in it, a china jug and two tiny drinking cups. The waitress poured boiling water into the tea pot until it overflowed, then put the lid on, gave it a bit of a shake then poured it through a strainer into the jug which she used to the serve the tea. She left us with a kettle of boiling water so we could refill our jug as needed, but she seemed to take pride in making sure she always kept the jug filled herself.

After lunch we walked back to Shamian Island where we wandered around in the afternoon sunshine and had some fruit juice sitting outside the Rose Garden cafe. There were lots of people out and about enjoying the weather. After being in Wuxi for so long, it was strange to see so many foreigners everywhere. However, it is also really popular with local people. The surroundings are so lovely they often get used as a backdrop for wedding photos, so we saw quite a few young couples in full wedding gear being posed by photographers.

View of Guangzhou from river cruise

In the evening, we had booked to go on a cruise on the Pearl River. We bought the cheapest tickets (no dinner or anything included) and at first we were a bit disappointed when we saw our seats were in the middle of the room. However, we were able to leave our seats and stand on the deck outside. The view of the buildings against the night sky was amazing. The cruise took us as far as the Canton Tower which was lit with constantly changing colours. It was a spectacular sight and well worth the trip.

It was about 8.30pm when we left the boat, so time for tea (isn’t it always nearly some mealtime or other). On the way to the pier we had noticed a restaurant called Hong Xing, so we decided to walk

Choosing from the seafood menu

back there to eat. The restaurant specialised in seafood, Guangzhou style. The entrance was full of fish tanks containing every kind of fish or shellfish you can think of. There were oysters as big as your head and lobsters bigger than a cat. To order, your waitress walked around the tanks and noted down your preference. We were a bit restrained and decided to order the conventional way, which means we did miss out on the water beetles and snakes. However, we did get some excellent food, in a similar style to Chinese food at home, but 10 times better.

The goose with yellow plum sauce had obviously been roasted for a long time and was really juicy, my favourite though was a dish of green beans, beef and salmon. The beef was really tender, but the beans were crunchy and had soaked up the sauce – mmm. I must stop writing about food, I end up drooling on my keyboard. The meal was washed down with some more tea and came to £10 per head altogether. What a bargain.

Water beetles

Some more walking was needed after dinner, so we set off along the river bank towards our hotel; a walk of about a mile and a half. Lots of people were out and about and the riverbank felt a bit like a seaside promenade. Roller skates are available to hire and we were amused to see groups of young people zooming about in trains. Some were obviously more used to skating than others.

Tree

Back on the Island (which by now felt like home), we thought we had better go to a bar as it was New Year’s Eve and all. However, after one beer we realised there was still a long way to go until midnight and we would rather be tucked up in our comfy bed. So we went back to our hotel and watched the celebrations on the telly. New Years Eve isn’t really a big deal in China as the Spring Festival is just around the corner, so the fireworks were a bit muted. I think in a couple of weeks we will find out what fireworks can sound like.

The next morning we were up early for breakfast (a light one for me this time) and then to catch our flight back to Wuxi. Wuxi certainly feels chilly after Guangzhou.

Christmas is coming in Wuxi

Sarah, Laura and John at WIC Christmas party

Christmas is not an official holiday in China (John will only has one day off work). Despite this, many of the shops in the city are playing Christmassy songs, sometimes these are familiar tunes with Chinese words, and the staff have to wear Santa hats. In Starbucks, the staff T-shirt says ‘Let’s Merry’ on the back, good advice I think.

We have been planning various Christmas celebrations to keep us in the right frame of mind. Our quest for turkey has ended in a booking for Christmas Day at Taste Bistro, a restaurant in the New District owned by a New Zealander. We went for Sunday lunch the other day with Steve and Sarah (for research purposes, you understand) and the food is excellent. Christmas Day lunch is a buffet, including the all important fire chicken (火鸡肉).

Our first Christmas do was last Saturday at the Kempinski hotel in Wuxi. I have joined the Wuxi International Club, a really nice group of expats from all over the World, and this was their party. There was a delicious hot buffet, a raffle and a band. In fact, it was exactly like an ACUMED party, right down to the interesting dancing!

It was strange that the guests came from all over the World: China, America, Canada, Taiwan, Denmark, Japan, Austria, Spain, UK, etc. United Nations-style. The band was also a bit odd. They were young, multi-national and very talented, but their choice of music seemed odd for a party, consisting mainly Pink Floyd, Patti Smith and all your prog-rock favourites. I suppose that explained the interesting dance moves.

Coming up with have house parties with John’s colleagues (with silly games including the present game) and John’s work do at the Havana bar in Wuxi. I am sure we will be sick of Christmas by the time we get to 26th December – which is the way it should be. We are off to Guangzhou for New Year’s Eve, so that should be a good contrast.

I have a job

The title says it all really! It’s been 6 months since I left ACUMED (wow, time flies), but it seems that I am now about to be employed again.

My new job title is ‘Orientation Consultant’ and I will be helping new expats settle in to Wuxi. I think it will suit me really well for a number of reasons:

  • I will only be working on an occasional basis, so I will still be able to make time to look after any visitors we get.
  • I will get to meet the new foreigners who come to Wuxi. It’s always very interesting to find out where people come from and what they do.
  • I will get to nosy around all the different styles of apartments with them. Brilliant!

The company is based in Shanghai and is well-established. I had an interview at the end of last month and the interviewer seems really nice. There is a training day next week in Shanghai, but then it might be a while until they need me to do anything. I am very excited though.

Wuxi market

This morning, John and I took the No 81 bus to Nanchan Si to visit Wuxi fresh fruit, vegetable, meat and fish market. I had been there once before with Grace, but I knew John would find it interesting. He has posted loads of cool pictures on his blog:

http://wuxifrisbee.tumblr.com/

It was pretty busy, but not too crazy. It is the most amazing market, basically if it can be eaten, you can buy it there!

Beijing duck – yum

Preparing the Beijing duck

On Wednesday evening, John and I went with Mark and Yi Ling to a Beijing (Peking) Duck restaurant in Wuxi’s Canal Park area. The restaurant was really busy, unsurprising really because the food was delicious.

As well as the whole roast duck we ordered some vegetables and sour soup which were pretty good, but the duck was the star. The whole roasted duck is brought to your table by a chef who carves it for you. And, yes, it is served with pancakes, spring onion and plum sauce. It was a bit pricey (£7 per head including drinks), but well worth it.

We are off to Beijing in January, so it will be interesting to see how authentic the Wuxi restaurant is.

Autumn in Wuxi

The view from our balcony this morning. You can just see the cranes in the background.

The last couple of days have been lovely, crisp Autumn days. It has been cold enough that you need to wear a jacket or jumper when outside, but perfect weather for wandering about.

On Sunday, John and I wandered down to the city centre to find the street where all the tailors shops are. We managed to find it and we are quite excited about the idea of getting some trousers for John. If that works out well, I might even have something made for me – but I will let John be the guinea pig.

Also on Sunday, we visited a restaurant called Provance. We are hoping that they will be able to help in our quest for Christmas turkey. We met the head chef, who was really helpful and apparently knows John’s boss well. Maybe we will get a discount! He has promised to email menus to us, so we are keeping our fingers crossed.

During our walk, we went through an open air street market selling clothes, scarves and general gifty things. John bought a dancing donkey as a prize for a school photographic competition. I forgot to get a photo of it, but when it dances it looks and sounds a bit like Lady Gaga. As we are used to shopping in the UK, it is hard haggling. John managed to get the stall holder down from 39 yuan to 35 (about £3.50) for the donkey, but the stall holder accepted a bit too quickly. Then the next customer started at 30 yuan. Boo!

Hunting for turkey in Wuxi

(that’s ‘turkey’ as in oversized chicken, not the country).

I have offered to help John find a venue for his department’s Christmas dinner. There will probably be around 25 people altogether, with a full range of nationalities. Unsurprisingly, Christmas isn’t a holiday at John’s school, so we want to try to have a really nice do to stop everyone getting too homesick.

I have been in touch with a few of the hotels in Wuxi, as well as a western-style restaurant in the city. We are keeping hopeful about the turkey, but suspect crackers might be too much to ask for!