Suzhou, runways and restaurants

Trip Start Jan 17, 2010
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of China  , Jiangsu,
Saturday, July 3, 2010

Well I'm writing this again on my phone, this time from the confines of a Spring aeroplane - China's most budget of budget airlines - which has sat defiantly at the boarding gate for some 2 and a half hours since we boarded. We'd been on the plane only 2 minutes before Shanghai was hit by an almighty storm, and although it subsided 2 hours ago, our delightful Spring airlines (which is becoming more like a sticky, stinky stuck
-on-the-London-tube summer by the minute) plane seems to be slipping lower and lower down the take-off pecking order. Our co-passengers are getting restless whilst we remain in blissful ignorance of the latest update of doom. An uncultured revolution might be on the cards if we're here much longer.

On the upside we've had a few lovely days in and around the city of Suzhou. For some reason I thought we were escaping Shanghai for the relative quiet of some parochial backwater, before discovering that Suzhou is a city of some 6 million inhabitants. Nevertheless it did have a quieter pace about it than Shanghai, and the people a friendlier glint in their eyes - which still had a tendency to follow us wherever we went.

People are getting seriously tetchy on this plane now, by the way. One man, previously asleep but now revitalised by his noodle and dog surprise, is fairly laying into the cabin crew. The tension is rising, people edging closer and closer to the front of the plane, massing in a Chinese 'queue' to take their turn to vent their rage. 3 hours have now passed without news.

Anyway. Suzhou is a old canal city, its strapline of 'the Venice of the East' is a little far-fetched, but it has some lovely gardens, quaint warren-like old Chinese neighbourhoods and plenty of crumbling bridges and pagodas. This of course, is interwoven with the fabric of a modern, rapidly growing Chinese city,  with a KFC on every corner - I counted 5 on one street (indeed I think the street was renamed KFC Street, it had a little golf buggy ferrying people between KFC  branches) - and the skeletons of huge partially built high-rise apartments round every corner.

We spent our first day relaxing in the intriguingly named Garden of the Master of Nets, a peaceful, ancient and beautiful traditional garden belonging to a former official-cum-fisherman. The sun came out, the lotus flowers opened in the ponds, and we felt a little better about the whole China experience.

Incidentally, mutiny appears to have been averted and we're due to take off in an hour apparently. I'm trying to contain my wee-urge though, as the prospect of using a plane loo which has suffered 4 hours of uninterrupted use has made me develop a strain of toilet phobia.

What made us feel better still about China was the fantastic culinary experience we had on our first evening. Our guidebook pinpointed a solitary vegetarian restaurant some 3 or so kilometres out of town, near an old temple. Like eager beavers we hailed a taxi and made our way there, using our surprisingly successful new writing Chinese technique to overcome the language barrier. With a vague motioning in the direction of a dirty looking motel emptying itself of the last remnants of a tour group onto a waiting bus, our taxi driver set us down in a dimly lit and frankly unpromising area he claimed was in the vicinity of our veggie joint. We wandered the streets for 1/2 an hour to no avail, roaming past boarded up shops and dark lanes, closed after the last tourists of the day, or never open in the first place, who could tell. No sign of Hanshan Si Vegetarian Restaurant. Having asked a few people, received a few shrugs, and flashed our sacred 'I am a veggie' Chinese sign (penned for us by a kind chap in Singapore) , we stumbled across a back alley playing host to a simple eatery. We asked for the veggie place. Three local women suddenly appeared, grabbed their shawls and after some debate, decided on the location. The three of them then walked us the ten or so minutes, through the old town streets and to, miraculously, the Restaurant of our choice, the only light still glowing in an otherwise silent, dark, cobbled street. The five of us arrived at the doorway to find some non-to-welcoming waiters about to end their shifts, and shutting up shop for the night. Indignant at their attitude towards us, our three maternal guides marched into the kitchen and dragged out the owner, demanding that she open up and serve us. I'm kind of guessing that this is what was said, as the poor woman looked in a right pickle, but her resolve remained despite the pressure and the place stayed shut.

With a series of universal gestures meaning something like 'don't worry we'll get you some food', they marched us back to the first eatery in which we'd found them, called out the rotund, rosy cheeked, but most importantly obliging owner, and set a menu before us. Chinese is not my strong point as far as languages go (my skills are limited to a magnificent French accent betrayed by a paltry vocabulary), so for one of only a handful of times on our trip, the Lonely Planet Guidebook earned its corn. With much pointing, gesturing, cross referencing and no little amusement at our attempted pronunciations, we managed to order a few things, with little idea of what they were. After a few minutes, during which one of the women revealed herself to us as fellow veggie, and treated our own dietary choices with an unexpected reverent zeal (repeatedly bowing towards us, hands clasped together in the respectful Asian gesture), the first in a long line of huge piles of delicious food appeared. We gorged ourselves senseless before heading home as our friendly hosts - literally the sweetshop owner, the chemist and the proprietor of the booze shop - waved us off in our taxi. That they sent the taxi off 2km in the opposite of our desired direction was a minor glitch in an otherwise unexpectedly eventful, but delightful evening.

Our plane has now taken off, 4 hours later than scheduled, we're an hour into the flight and it's me who is now brewing a rage. Not content with putting the schedules of an entire plane load of people back four hours, one of the flight stewards is in the process of a shopping-channel style presentation of various potential in-flight purchases, taking place inches from my face. From rubber planes to Spring airlines medal sets, he's meticulously extolling the virtues of each product over the tanoid, one hand on the mike, the other expertly manoeuvring the branded towel, or whatever. Call me mean-spirited, but an hour is a bit long for the poor chap to flog a dead horse to tired, disinterested, frustrated audience intent on sleeping. The children on board seem to have revolted in any case, voicing their displeasure by incessantly pressing the attendant bell.

On our second day in the region we decided to head for the more rural area of Luzhi, an historic canal town of quaint bridges, old boatwomen, voluptuous gardens and maze-like backstreets and alleys, where a more traditional way of life played out. It was also the spiritual home, so it seemed, to Chinese tourisms answer to Mr Benn - over fifty weird and wonderful dressing up shops, giving Chinese tourists the opportunity to be snapped in amateur photoshoots wearing outlandish dresses and bizarre accessories (think samurai swords) in quaint surroundings. It was quite surreal to turn a corner and encounter a fair dame posing to sniff an acer tree, coyly semi-shielded by her parasol, clad in a gaudy ball gown. Escaping down the back alleys whisked us a million miles away from the chaos and crowds of the big cities though, and we had a blissful day of pottering around.

With half an hour to go until landing it seems I was completely wrong, and in an unexpected outpouring of consumerism Spring Airline replica silk scarves and shaving kits are being snapped up left right and centre by eager passengers. Or maybe they plan to torture the poor sod who delivered the hour long presentation.

The rest of our time in Suzhou was spent climbing. By now the dreary smog and rains of Shanghai were a distant memory, and we were blessed with scorching sunshine and blistering (37 degrees) temperatures. So we climbed the tallest Pagoda in southern China, for some stunning views, and Tianping Shan, a beautiful craggy hill-cum-mountain to the west of town. In between we visited the fantastic Suzhou museum, containing millennia old artefacts from more dynasties than you could shake a stick at. By the end we nearly knew our Mings from Qings. It helped to put our trip into some kind of context.

We've landed now in Xi'an. Four hours behind schedule but no matter, we had given today over to travel anyway. As we ride the bus through the neon-clad broad sweeping streets of yet another Chinese city, we have to remind ourselves that we're really in China. Only closer inspection of the bright signs that flash at you serves as a reminder to this fact - written as they are, in mystical Chinese code. Despite the warmth and kindness we found in the people of Suzhou, I think we really need to escape to the country soon. Which, after taking in the Terracotta Army, is our plan for a few days here, before we move on to Beijing.

With Love (and less than 2 weeks left!) from us both

Jo, Xi'an
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