So this past weekend I went to Suzhou with Charlotte. I booked us a hostel and she got the train tickets.
We had a little trouble meeting up since she had taken line 1 and I had taken line 4 and I didn't realize they emptied out on separate sides of the street. Eventually we found each other and got to the train. After navigating the train station by myself at night to get to Nanjing, it was super easy to figure things out this time. The train ride to Suzhou was short (about a half hour) and uneventful other than a small boy across the aisle from us that was ADORABLE. His mother was trying to encourage him to call us either "auntie" or "older sister". For those who don't know, it's considered polite in China to call strangers by family terms.
The hostel's website said that there were a few different ways to get to there, but the only way to get dropped off at the front door was to take a pedicab. So we found a pedicab right outside the train station. I told the driver the name of the street. Then I told him the name of streets near the street. Slowly a crowd started to form. The driver started looking at a map. One person who could speak about 5 words of English thought he could help...which he couldn't. I was about the call the hostel when the driver exclaimed in triumph that he had found it on the map. Off we went.
I felt bad for the driver. If I had known how far away the street was I would have gotten us a motorized pedicab instead of push pedal bike cab. It's no secret that I'm a big person, plus we both had overnight bags. A couple of times the driver had to get off and push his bike up a hill. After a sort while we arrived at the right street and we discovered why a taxi couldn't have dropped us off at the door. The hostel was in the middle of a maze of alleyways that followed along a network of canals. Now I see why Suzhou is called the "Venice of the East".
This was my first time staying at a hostel and I loved it. It cost about $26 for one night. We had a private room with two beds and a private bathroom. The hostel was set up like an old fashioned Chinese house with open courtyards and such. Our doors opened right up into a rock garden. It was beautiful! When we arrived we dropped off our bags and then decided to rent bikes from the hostel (2kuai per hour! That's like...20 cents...)
Our first stop after we rented our bikes was a dumpling shop where we got lunch. I got beef dumplings and shrimp dumplings. Then we looked for an electronic store since Charlotte's camera was broken and she wanted to buy a new one. Then we couldn't decide where to go. We saw the top of a temple shaped building in the distance so we decided to bike towards it. Eventually we found them. We ended up at the "Twin Pagodas". We walked around and took pictures. Slightly further down the street was a beautiful Buddhist temple. We weren't allowed to take pictures there but it was beautiful and calm and smelled like incense. After that we wandered some more and found some signs leading to tourist locations. We decided to go to the "Master of the Nets Garden" since Charlotte's Lonely Planet book said it often had cultural performances of dance or theater.
We found the alleyway which led to the garden so we pushed our bikes down and checked out street vendors. I bought a couple things that I will put up pictures of later. We arrived at the garden and walked around. It was beautiful and definitely worth visiting, but sadly there was no performance going on that day.
After that we went back to the hostel and returned the bikes. We rested in our room for a short while and then headed out to find a place to eat dinner. Charlotte is a vegetarian so it's hard sometimes to find places where she can find a good variety of choices...especially in China! After stopping at a few places to check the menus we decided on a strange Fusion restaurant that was shaped like a big square and resting over a shallow pool full of rocks. I'm describing it oddly and sadly I didn't get a picture. It was down a different alley close to our hostel. Before dinner we decided to go to a cafe across the street for a snack and a drink. We got some TsingDao beer and french fries.
My dinner was delicious...sadly Charlotte was not so lucky. I ordered fried noodles and roast duck. The roast duck was done Beijing style with pancakes to wrap the meat, duck sauce and onions. It was really good! The noodles were cooked Shanghai style and only once or twice did I eat an unnoticed pepper and get a mouthful of spicy. Charlotte got a salad and pasta. She specified to the waiter that she wanted her pasta without meat. I know he understood because she ordered first and then when I ordered the noodles he worriedly pointed out that the noodles had meat in them. Then we explained that SHE didn't eat meat but I did. Her pasta took 15 minutes longer than the rest of the food and when it finally came, it had meat in it. After we complained it took another 10 minutes or so. When she finally got to eat it...she didn't even like it. AHH!
After dinner we decided to try and find the night market mentioned in her book. We took a taxi to Shilu (Stone Road) and wandered around looking at stuff/shopping until it started to rain pretty badly. When we finally got a taxi in the rain we realized we didn't know what to say to the cab driver. He couldn't take us right to the hostel and I couldn't remember the name of the main street outside of the alleyways. Luckily Charlotte remembered the name of the big shopping street that was near the entrance of the alleyways. UNluckily, the cab driver dropped us off at the wrong end of the shopping street and we couldn't figure out how to explain to him to go around. We got out and walked down the shopping street, then across the street, then through the twisting alleyways all the way back to hostel. In the rain. Ah well.
The next morning we woke up to more rain. We checked out of the hostel around 10 and went to the cafe we had gone to on Saturday night. We got some breakfast. I had a latte that was pretty rancid (I don't know how but I think they burnt the steamed milk) and then I ordered the "American Breakfast" which was pretty good, if cold. I only miss a few small food things from home, since Shanghai is so diverse I can get most things I want here. One of the things I miss? GOOD BACON. Ahh well.
After breakfast the rain had nearly stopped. Charlotte said she wanted to go back to the street where the night market was. She saw some things she thought looked interesting. We went back and wandered and wandered and wandered. We took tons of pictures. We found a big sloping bridge and also a piece of the old city wall with a large gate. For those who don't know, many of China's major cities were walled in a long time ago. Xi'an's city wall is the most complete wall that has survived. Suzhou only had a little piece.
We found more alleyways with shops so we walked down and did some more shopping. We decided we would walk to the end and find a taxi and get to the train station. The problem? The alleyway wouldn't end! If we had turned around and walked back the way we came when we decided we were done, we probably would have been back to the road and in a taxi in about 10 minutes. Instead we walked for another 45 minutes or so. We kept telling ourselves "it has to end eventually" so we just kept walking...and walking...and walking. And then it started raining again. And harder. And we kept walking. We walked under a bridge. We kept hearing cars or seeing cards but not seeing a street. People peeked their heads out of doorways to stare at us. We walked past chickens in cages. There were guys gutting and cleaning fish. We heard voices talking and tvs and radios. We walked in the rain through mud and fruit peels and fish guts and feathers. Finally, just when we were starting to get really worried that there was no way we were going to get out in time and we were going to miss our train...we got out and back to a road. We grabbed the first taxi we saw and made it to the train station soggy, relieved and with about 15 minutes to spare. Ahh.
All in all, I really had a really good time. I know I talk a lot about the bad things in this entry but it's easy to go on and on about getting lost in an alleyway, but harder to describe how much I loved being there in the first place. I really do love China and I forget sometimes how much or even why.
Then I find myself in a quiet Buddhist temple with the scent of incense floating past, barely audible chanting in the air, and a monk walking past in silent cloth shoes with prayer beads around his wrist. And a calm settles on my shoulders and my mind.
Or walking down those alleyways with the feeling of LIFE all around you. You can breath it and taste it and feel it in your bones. There's laughter and family and music and food and a thousand different smells. It's an orchestra of life and just being there makes me want to add my voice to the choir.
Or biking down the streets and alleyways. Making suicidal dashes across big streets. Squeezing between buses and the curb. Narrowly avoiding death at every turn from taxis and trucks and other bike riders, and laughing at the sheer joy of it. The cacophony of horns and beeps and bells and squealing brakes and yelling voices.
I don't know why this entry ended so...poetic? Ahh well. I had a great time in Suzhou and I hope I can go back. It was nice to have a reminder of how much I like China and why I'm here in the first place. I took a BUNCH of pictures and video so you should expect those soon.