At last, a brand new spiffy bus! Jan and I city-bused and metroed to the bus station, bought our tickets to Suzhou and immediately boarded this fancy, clean-windowed bus. What a treat! When we got to Suzhou, the first three hotels we tried were full, but number four choice had a room. The guidebook had not been too enthusiastic about this hotel as it mentioned traffic noise on the busy street that went by the front. In trying to bargain the room rate down, I said that this room was on the noisy side of the building and therefore should be cheaper. So she gave us one on the opposite side of the building and wouldn’t budge on the price—I took it. What a dumb move on my part. This room was on the north and was very cold. We really were pretty chilly all night. So the next morning I sheepishly asked to move to the room that the clerk had originally showed us—on the South side of the hotel, and warm as toast. Well gee, Mom, nobody’s perfect!
As Jan and I strolled in the town that evening, I came to one of many ‘foot massage’ parlors. As my feet had been complaining to me, I decided to have a foot massage. It took a whole hour and I think was relaxing and therapeutic. It was done in the lobby of the business in full view of all the passersby!
We had laid out an itinerary of ‘sights’ to see which included a Silk Museum, two temples, two gardens and the city gate. The Silk Museum was closed for reconstruction but we enjoyed the other five things. Our transportation started with walking, then city buses, and then the last four sights by bicycle rickshaw.
These Suzhou Gardens (there are many but we saw two) are quite unique. They were created many centuries ago by artisans; they were ruined in various war altercations, but many have been restored rather recently.
They are a combination of buildings, rocks, plants and water with great care and attention given to these relationships. There are ponds, pools, bridges, walkways, streams, etc., all in and amongst beautiful natural rocks and a myriad of different plants—very few flowers. There are several beautiful buildings, some with antique furnishings. It was all so ‘Chinesy.’
The next day we hunted down a Tang Dynasty (7th to 10th C.) bridge called “Precious Belt Bridge.” The name comes from an official selling his precious belt to finance the construction of this bridge over the Grand Canal. My guidebook is missing details about the Grand Canal but I believe that it was constructed ages ago and was considered a great engineering feat.
The ‘hunt’ involved first taking a taxi, the taxi getting lost, the driver asking directions many times, me getting pissed, and finally coming to a dead end where the driver motioned for us to get out and look. We peered out between some iron bars and had a side view of this very long 53-arch bridge. Not very satisfactory. So we went back to where we started, dismissed the taxi and walked along the other side of the Grand Canal. After quite some time we spotted and hailed a bicycle rickshaw and asked him to take us there. He indicated that we would have to return to the other side (!). We motioned that we just wanted to ‘see it’ (hands curled around eyes like binoculars). He nodded and took us up the Canal a little farther. Yes, we could see it—barely—in the distance—certainly not photographable. Well, we Did See it! Later that day we found postcards of the bridge, which we will include in our photo albums.
We had a charming short ride on a small canal of Suzhou. The boat was hand paddled by a middle-aged woman with one big, long oar. She sang a folk song as she paddled. The boat was of wood, and very ‘Chinese’ with pretty woodwork. She made the two other Chinese passengers disembark at the end of the ride, but let us stay on for the return trip, which we were glad to do. Later she indicated (finger to lips—shussssh) that we could slip her a little extra money, which we did.
That evening we ate in a restaurant (Songhe Lou) that was supposedly 200 years old, and where the Emperor Qianlong is said to have eaten during the Qing Dynasty. Now it’s on a pedestrian street in a shopping mall—I suppose Emperor Qianlong got tired of shopping and popped in here. The one unique thing about the restaurant was the way they served the hot water for tea. It was in a bronze vessel with a long thin, straight spout at least three feet long. When the server tipped the vessel to fill our tiny teacups, the water landed at least four inches further out than the tip of the spout. He did it without spilling—that must have taken practice.
The next morning we went to the bus ticket office, which was next to the train station, to buy bus tickets to the small ancient canal town of Zhouzhang. On the city bus across town we met a young German couple that were going there also. We got our tickets, making sure the agent understood us by pointing to the Chinese characters in the book. (They did the same). When we went to board the bus, we were directed ‘this’ way and ‘that’ way until we were directed into the train station. The light began to dawn—that wasn’t the Bus ticket office where we bought our tickets, but the TRAIN ticket office! Never mind that it wasn’t in the train station and that there were lots of buses around there.
We boarded the train and the German girl commented that the map didn’t show train tracks going to Zhouzhang. Sure enough, when I asked the train official (we were rolling by then) if this ticket was to Zhouzhang, he laughed and shook his head ‘no.’ The first stop was ‘our’ stop so we all got off. It occurred to me that since we had been traveling straight east, we were now about directly north of Zhouzhang. So perhaps the agent gave us tickets to the destination closest to Zhouzhang.
We checked for buses but there weren’t any going then, so we four hired a taxi that drove us the 25 minutes to Zhouzhang. Well, all’s well that ends well, but that’s a FIRST for me in independent travel!
As we were boarding the train, an old ski injury of Jan’s leg kicked up a fuss, so now we both walk slowly and limp a little! Talk about two LOLs—little old ladies!
The town of Zhouzhang is quaint with its ancient houses, bridges and canals. It is also well touristed with Chinese groups but very interesting. 60% of the houses are Qing, Ming, or Yuan dynasty houses, so very old and historic. We visited one old house that had over 100 rooms and seven courtyards.
The town’s specialty food is wan sati, the same pork cut as a picnic ham (shoulder) but not smoked. It is braised in a sweetened soy sauce. They are on display in shops all over town and also available in restaurants. I couldn’t leave the next noon without trying one. It was delicious, but rich, rich, rich!
We got a bus to Shanghai and then boarded the train to Beijing. This was a nice new train that had several accoutrements that the others didn’t have like toilet paper, soap, and paper towels. We had hard sleepers on the second tier so we had to do some climbing, but we managed. We left at 6:00 PM and arrived Beijing at 8:30 AM the next morning in rainy, cool, dark weather. We had selected a hotel (The Lusongyean) in the Hutong District, which are traditional old houses set in narrow lanes, quite near the Forbidden City. The hotel was built by a Mongolian general in the Qing Dynasty.
The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were the first ‘sights’ for us the next day, which was gloriously sunny although pretty cool. The Forbidden City was built in 1407-14 and was the home of the Emperors of China—many, many of them over the 500 years. Since it was all constructed of wood, it burned down four times, but luckily for us, it was always rebuilt to the original plans. The buildings, decorations, thrones, trees and rocks, relationships of the buildings, color and even the pebble sidewalks, all with pictures, were gorgeous.
That night we took a city bus, and then the metro to a special restaurant to eat Peking Duck. Pictures of celebrities greeted us—Arafat, Barbara and George Bush, Kohl, Castro and Linda Evans with Yanni, so we were in good (?) company. The set dinner was over the top—four kinds of duck appetizers plus venison, lemon abalone soup, a huge plate of giant prawns in fresh pineapple sauce, baby asparagus, egg rolls, and THEN: half a roast duck with the pancakes, plum sauce and scallions, followed by fruit for dessert. A bottle of Great Wall red wine completed this food orgy.
We had had to wait before being seated so we left the restaurant to walk a short ways to a historic theatre where we would buy Peking Opera tickets. When we asked directions we kept getting conflicting ones so we went on four wild goose chases, back and forth, working up a good appetite, anyway. We think we know where it is now, and will try again later.
The next day was another sunny day to take a public tour bus to see the Great Wall and Ming tombs. We walked on the Great Wall at two different spots. It was put together originally during the Qin Dynasty (200 BC) out of a lot of wall segments that had been constructed over time. Much was rebuilt during Ming times (14th – 17th C). As a defense mechanism it didn’t really work but it did serve as a terrific communication mechanism over its 2000 miles.
The tour bus also took us to two of the thirteen Ming tombs. They each consist of several buildings in a park-like setting plus an underground mausoleum. The museum displayed the treasures from tombs—crowns, jewelry, silks, jade, porcelain, etc. In the museum it gave names and dates for all of the 16 Ming emperors. I noticed that only the first one lived past 60 (64) and all the others died in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Life was tough then, even for emperors.
At 5:30 it began getting dark and we hadn’t seen the ‘Spirit Way’ yet—a well-publicized path lined with pares of stone animals and people. I had really looked forward to seeing that in China. I was horrified when it turned out that we wouldn’t see them—“it is closed now”! That’s like going to Egypt and not seeing the Sphinx! DISAPPOINTMENT!!
Well, I pulled myself together on the bus ride back to town. Then Jan and I consoled ourselves with some more roast duck and a bottle of wine at a modest restaurant.
We’re moving to another hotel today (no room in the inn, here) and will continue exploring Beijing.