Suzhou is 100km west of Shanghai in the Jiangsu province. Approx. 40 minutes with the train from the Main Train Station. Ticket costs Y25 = €2,5, a little over $3. Trains leave every half hour, but most get sold out, as the train continues to other parts of the country. Jing, our new driver (communication complications with the first one, Yao, were not as problematic as his driving which had Patrick arriving at his destinations, his face a strange green hue) arranged for my ticket to Suzhou. There weren’t any seats left on the train Brian and Jeanie were taking, but I decided to brave it anyway as a throw-back to the days of sitting on my backpack in the smoky, sweat-filled corridors of continental Euro-Cities and the like. Only this time, it wasn’t smoky, the bathrooms smelled of flowers, and the AC had everyone feeling very cool and content.
By the time we exited the train, we had devised a plan: Jeanie and Brian would go check into their hotel at the southwest end of the city, and I would go buy my return ticket and visit the Silk Museum in the meantime. I chuckled when I saw the line for the taxi until Brian wisely hinted that the ticket line may be just as long, if not longer. Lines, no, masses of people wanting the same thing, are part of everyday life here. Queuing, however, remains a phenomenon to most. I unfortunately managed to pick the only line-like formation that merged into another, so it took very long until I was basically pushed to the counter by a nice Chinese guy uttering the words “follow my girlfriend.” Minutes before, I had asked the girlfriend in my broken Chinese if this was the right line to buy a ticket to Shanghai. “3pm” was the only part of her reply I understood, but as she didn’t react further, I assumed the next available train was at 3pm. Before the Chinese couple informed me that there weren’t any tickets left for the trains between 3-8pm, I was practicing saying “is there an evening train to Shanghai” over and over, my finger still propping that page of my dictionary. The boyfriend already had one ticket for the 7pm train, so I bought 2 tickets for the 8pm and we swapped (they of course paid me for the extra ticket). I could return to Shanghai earlier and they could travel together. Everyone was happy.
Now about Suzhou itself, my trusted Lonely Planet had warned me that it is not impressive on arrival, so I should have been prepared. However, by deciding to walk to the museum (what looked like a short distance on the map), I had to take multiple detours through dusty construction sites and areas smelling of rotting garbage. Suzhou, population 1,170,000, is MUCH larger than I thought. It is most famous for its plethora of gardens and for its silk industry, which dates back to the Song dynasty (960–1279).
I was the only visitor in the silk museum – either I once again beat the swarm of tourist groups or it is highly unpopular. I was impressed only by the the silk worms (live) and their cocoons, and the many historical costumes that were on display. There was also a room with the traditional silk weaving instruments, however the women had just started threading, so the mechanics were left to my very non-technical imagination.
From there, I crossed the street to our meeting point: the tea house at the North Temple. Little did I know that the tea house was in an obscure location and would never be found by Brian and Jeanie. As I was waiting there, however, I befriended a Chinese girl named Victoria, or Lin Qiao. She was Shanghainese and had just moved to Suzhou to teach English at a language school. Qiao, meaning something close to “brav” in German (good and studious in English), accompanied us for the rest of the day, helping us understand signs, take the bus, order our lunch, and have a great time.
After waiting for each other at different spots, I finally reunited with Jeanie and Brian – and the garden portion of our trip began. We visited three gardens in total, all completely different from each other (see photo gallery). It is said that Suzhou once had over 100 private and public gardens – only several of which have been preserved and restored. Unlike in the West, landscaping here is about representing nature in its asymmetrical beauty. Flowers, rocks, water, pavilions, ornaments are all used in a way that goes beyond architecture, it reflects Taoist philosophy and hence Chinese culture. See, for example, the sun and moon that were decoratively placed in the oasis-like Panren Scenic Area. Or the Lotus flower which in Buddhism represents “purity of body, speech, and mind, floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire.”
Those interested in my cross-cultural remarks, here is something for you. Jeanie and I kept taking pictures of flowers, windows, rocks, in short – inanimate objects. Often we would wait for humans to leave the scene before taking the shot. Poor Qiao kept asking me if I wanted to get in the picture. It wasn’t clear to her why we would take pictures of things without a human posing with it. On a side note, if you have noticed Chinese posing with what we know as the peace sign “V,” it means “victory” here. You use it to show you are happy.
My feet aching (Jeanie diagnosed tendonitis – I read all about it today – Selmin, if you are reading this, you were right about the ice), I took train, metro and taxi to return home at about 8:30pm. I feel I have now mastered short-distance train travel in China. Metro is easy peasy (next time, I have to finally get one of those neat debit cards that you can also use to pay in taxis). And taxis are also no major problem anymore (sometimes finding one is). I at least know my neighborhood well. And people are generally so helpful if you are trying. I’m going to go with that principle and venture bus travel as well – find this experience very soon on a blog near you.