I really enjoyed the time I spent in Xi’an , and was starting to feel quite at home exploring the areas within the city walls, trying the different food styles. It seemed sometimes from the conversation in the hostel that many of the westerners staying were taking refuge from the foreignness of the exterior, and had lurid stories of the strange food and experiences. Xi’an is a modern city but it was the beginning of the silk road so has a real mix of cultures and cuisine. Maybe it was all to much for them to absorb .
Booking a berth on a sleeper train was a straightforward affair as despite priming myself with all the right language I was quite deflated when it turned out the woman in the ticket in the office spoke perfect English. I discovered it pays to book early as there are a lot of people coming through Xi’an from further in the interior so the trains are well patronised. I had planned to be a little bit adventurous and go hard sleeper, but was in unable to book one so fortunately had to go Soft sleeper. 16 hours on a train was a novelty for me, still suffering from the flu I was glad to be able to do it in comfort. When you go soft sleeper, you get to wait in the comfortable soft seat lounge at the station and are spared the scramble for the platform. Thank goodness as it turned into quite a long wait.
Finally we were permitted to go on to the platform to the train.
I only just settled into the berth and was idly staring at the platform and wondering if I should go out and buy some more food when I was greeted by and extraordinary spectacle. Two travellers who turned out to be Mexican waving fists full of RMB at the Guard as they wanted to upgrade from the hard sleepers they had originally booked. It seemed they were getting the last train out of some disaster and more and more money appeared. ”We have money!” they declared.
Their English wasn’t that great and the guard had none so I found myself in the roll of incompetent interpreter. Despite the traveller’s hysteria, the guard was unfussed and found them room on the car, having to shift a few of the other passengers around so they could be in the same compartment. She said to me there was no need for any trouble, it happened all the time. As long as they could pay the extra charge it just took a little patience to work something out. Sadly I couldn’t make the most of the opportunity to extend the conversation. But I was relieved I hadn’t found myself in the same situation.
The train was fairly uneventful. The compartment had four berths but was spacious and comfortable. There was plenty of room for luggage above the door. I shared with two others, but for the most part of the journey we all slept. I got up a couple of times to walk the length of the carriage, to see the bleary eyed guard sitting in her office. At some point she retired and another guard took over duty. When the sun came up the train passed through dusty towns and villages , past power stations and farms. It was all very similar, but pretty in the early morning sun. At a very early hour the radio started, blaring out cross talk ( a form of spoken chinese comedy not dissimilar to English speaking comic duos) then at one point exercise suggestions , along with a count . Looking out into the hallway, I discovered many of the older passengers out there actually doing the exercises while admiring the view.
Eventually we arrived in Suzhou ( Venice of the east!) where I disembarked . I walked out of the platform and immediately into what seemed like a wall of touts and vendors. Clearly it was a slow day the way they converged on to the single foreigner disembarking the train. I bought a map and then started to look for a taxi. I had many offers for taxis from the crowd, but stuck to the plan and got a taxi from the rank, which was half the price I had been quoted by other non official taxis!.
I booked into the Suzhou Watertown hostel, a friendly, centrally situated hostel the dragon bus recommended. I settled in and then went for a walk to check the place out. Managing to read the map incorrectly, I got myself lost , but this was no bad thing! Rather than the streets prepared for tourists I managed to see a number of areas that were more the way people in Suzhou lived and worked around the canals, and the pretty whitewashed houses that lined them . Occasionally I would see a main street I should probably have followed but was finding it all so interesting.Suzhou is a major industrial area, but you wouldn’t know walking around the central district. I managed to make my way back along the busy main street, at that time dug up in many areas with a subway being installed.
The following day I planned to visit some of the gardens that Suzhou is so famous for. Unfortunately it was raining, but after borrowing an umbrella, and getting a better map and basic guidance from the hostel I set out to see as many as I could, along with the Museum and art gallery. I was only able to spend a couple of days in Suzhou and clearly this was insufficient. Highlights included the Humble administrator’s garden and the Suzhou museum, which had a stunning exhibition of bronzes from Baoji on display.
The time I spent in Suzhou was too short, there were to many things I missed due to the flu and weather. On the way to catch the train to Shanghai I ended up getting the scenic route by an avaricious taxi driver. Stuck in a small tourist area on the outskirts of Suzhou, which seemed like it might be quite pleasant in other circumstances, I finally worked out how to get the bus back to the railway station . Actually I can highly recommend this as a way to get to see quite a large area of Suzhou and an insight to the wider area of Suzhou and the way people live there. Fortunately I found a tourist office where they spoke a little bit of English, Mandarin didn’t seem to work too well in this area where the local dialect seemed to dominate.
Following the usual rail way customs and while waiting watching workers seemingly en masse welding the new Suzhou train station together and resembling a giant spider web of girders in the sky , I boarded the train to Shanghai , a relatively brief trip of only an hour on a high speed train . A very comfortable seat and hostesses that would not look too out of place in a thunderbirds film . Pulling into Shanghai at dusk was quite an experience and I was sharply reminded that we are definitely now in the 21stcentury with trains and cars apparently zooming through the sky. After disembarking I made my way – by subway – to the hostel .
Fortunately Shanghai’s subway is very easy and convenient to get around on, all the announcements were in English as well as Chinese, so it wasn’t hard to work out where to go. A couple of times I encountered the Shanghai dialect, a language in itself , so again mandarin was of little help.
The hostel I stayed at was a short subway ride from town . It was clean and well run with a large lounge with a bar. Unfortunately it was difficult to find anything other than Mcdonalds or KFC nearby, so the closer food options were a bit limited.
My time was cut short in Shanghai due to the earlier dodgy taxi ride in Suzhou . I really only spent a couple of days there. It was enough to see the city, walk down the bund to the old town and do a bit of shopping in the city centre. I didn’t get out to some of the water towns in the further out suburbs or over to Pudong to go to the top of the pearl tower. I went to the Museum only briefly. But it was a very interesting place for what it is , which is a money town as opposed to the cultural side of Beijing. The buildings along the Bund certainly give the impression that it has been that way for a long time .
A curious fact is that the old town used to be called China town, as the city was so international that is where the Chinese were forced to live up until the mid 1930’s, it also had walls around it to keep them in at night , long since torn down.
I left early the next morning by subway out to the Mag lev train , which took me from Shanghai in indecent haste at the speed of 400 kilometers per hour to the Airport. It was too soon to have to leave China, while I was exhausted I was considering how I might return some day soon .