Friday, September 18, 2015

Suzhou, China

On August 24 we made our way from Shanghai to Suzhou.

The high-speed train ride was supposed to be quick and easy (about half an hour) but unfortunately this did not go well.

[Prepare for an overabundance of details...]

As we exit the metro and walk toward the Shanghai Railway Station, it starts raining so we get wet. We walk into the hall where ticket machines are located, wait in line, and when it's our turn we realize the machine's language is set to Chinese with no option to set it to English. We decide to try another machine. It has a button to change the language, but it has no effect. Grr... We walk to a separate hall with more ticket machines. We find one where we can change the language to English. Success! But as we go through the steps to purchase the tickets, we realize the machine requires a Chinese electronic ID to be scanned/swiped. Bummer! Even though the hall is crowded with travelers, there seems to be no employees to help us out.

We walk to yet another hall where most people with tickets are lining up to get on the trains. We don't have tickets, but we hope to find help there. We ask an employee where to buy tickets. She understands us but does not speak English, and seems to point toward one of the halls where we came from.

We walk back there, still in the rain, lugging our bags with us. We see that there is a very small counter in the corner of the hall, now manned by one person. He speaks a bit of broken English and explains we have to walk to go to the building across the street to buy tickets.

We get outside again, take an underground passage to cross a street, and arrive at a separate building where, indeed, multiple ticket counters are located. People seem to be buying tickets in cash. Thinking we were a bit short on cash, and unsure if we could use a credit card or not, I go to find an ATM.

It takes me 30 minutes to eventually come back with cash, because there was no ATM nearby, and I had to try 3 different ones until one of them let me withdraw cash. Finally, with some cash in hand, we buy our tickets for the "next train to Suzhou" (haha, more on this later). We walk back through the rain to the hall to board trains. Our train is in an hour and a half, so we wait in the waiting hall.

About 10-15 minutes before our train is scheduled to arrive, we get up and wait in line at the turnstiles to go on the platform. Lauren scans her ticket at the turnstile, but it flashes red and doesn't let her in. An employee checks her tickets and point out the ticket is for tomorrow's train. The person at the ticket counter made an error and got us the wrong tickets!

There is no way we are getting on this train. I eventually find a service desk in the station where I explain my situation. They tell me they cannot exchange the tickets, and that I have to go back to the ticket counters across the stret.

I go back to the ticket counters, wait, exchange tickets, and walk back through security. The next train doesn't leave for another hour plus.

We get on the train and finally arrive in Suzhou. The trip between the two railway station should have taken a bit more than half an hour, but ended up taking 4 or 5 hours.

By this point, we are both tired and decide there is no way we are going to keep with our initial plan of spending only 1 night in Suzhou, then taking another train to Nanjing. So we extend our 1-night stay to a 3-night stay in Suzhou to skip Nanjing completely.

[The summary: a 30 min trip can take multiple hours with some bad luck, so we're going to try to avoid staying at one place for just one night]

On our first day in Suzhou, we went to the Pingjiang Lu pedestrian to walk along the canals:

A little Engrish here and there always makes me smile - the new word of the day is "unrecycle":

Once past the touristy part of these canals, we end up in a really poor neighborhood:

Along the way we see a "Dr. Fish" place where you can have little fish eat the dead skin off of your feet. I am very ticklish so I couldn't do it, but Lauren did:

And yes, she is wearing purple, fuzzy, clip on antlers. [Edit Oct 8: this sort of headwear has apparently become a new fad in China, see this New York Times article.]

Next day we visited the Garden Museum, the Humble Administrator's Garden, and the Suzhou Museum, which is a beautiful modern building. I learned it was designed by renowned Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei:

Garden Museum.
Humble Administrator's Garden.
Suzhou Museum. Small, free, and impressively zen despite all the people.
Leaving the Suzhou Museum, we took a pedicab over to Shantang Street. The poor driver was pedaling a fixed gear bike in a really hot day, and seemed truly exhausted!

Shantang Street, the "number one ancient street in China", is another nice alleyway with many little old shops and restaurants:

Our last day was spent travelling all the way from Suzhou to Shanghai Pudong airport. We took the regular high-speed train from Suzhou to Shanghai (this time it was absolutely painless), then the Shanghai Maglev Train from Suzhou to the airport.

Riding the maglev train was quite an experience! Even though the track is designed to be very smooth, its top speed of 431 km/h / 268 mph is so fast that the train cabins shake more than I think they would :) The journey time is 7 minutes 20 seconds. In taxi it would take 30 minutes with no traffic.

Next stop: Australia!

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