Having heard the city of Suzhou dubbed the “Venice of the East” and been told off for not having yet paid a visit despite its proximity to Shanghai, Sean and I decided to go on a sunny Friday before winter set in to see what it was all about.
Shanghai Railway Station
We got to the Station at quarter to ten, hoping to get 25rmb “hard-seats” (i.e. second class tickets) on the 10:06 train leaving Shanghai. We ended up getting 31rmb soft-seat tickets for the 10:16 train along with a verbal lashing from an impatient ticket seller. (I asked one too many times for hard seats that were apparently unavailable. His response: Hurry up and stop being cheap, you’re with a foreigner, and it’s a difference of 5 freaking kuai.)
Morning in Suzhou
Once outside the Suzhou Railway Station, we were immediately accosted by two ladies pushing their 15rmb/day bus that would take us to all the sights, with discounted admission to boot. I said no thanks and kept walking; they followed. (As with the stereotypical college alpha male, no in this situation meant maybe, and let me think about it meant yes.) Now we’ve received and successfully rejected these solicitations numerous times before, but these ladies were relentless. I was beginning to think man, I guess it is a pretty good deal…until Sean reminded me of the likelihood of spending the day in jade factories. They finally gave up when we began crossing a big road.
We visited the Humble Administrator’s Garden (拙政园), first constructed in the 1500’s and the largest of the classical gardens for which Suzhou is famous. It was beautiful, relaxing, and quite sparsely populated (probably due to the hefty 50rmb admission). We strolled leisurely around, enjoying the greenery and open space, stopping every few minutes like an elderly couple to rest on a bench/in a pagoda.
Afterwards, we wandered along the quiet canals in that part of town and weaved through old one-story housing compounds where some women played mahjong in the courtyards. Unlike the most of old houses we’ve seen in Beijing and Shanghai, these didn’t sport crumbling brick walls or look in peril of being bulldozed next week.
Lunch was soup noodles, xiekehuang (蟹壳黄), and soup dumplings (汤包) at a little restaurant on dongbeijie. The xiekehuang were crispy and flavourful, but the dumplings, which came out cold, were a huge letdown—especially since the lady taking our order had endorsed them. We sent them back, but they just resteamed them; the skin came back hard, the soup non-existent, and they were overall inedible. After 3 months in the supposed birthplace of xiaolongbao, we maintain that New York Chinatown still holds the tastiest (and value-for-money) soup dumplings.
After lunch, we walked over to the East Garden (东园), which had a big lake dotted with paddleboats. Sean suggested getting into one of those so we could paddle out and just sit in the middle of the lake, maybe take a nap. Romantic and more or less effortless. But we were rejected at the ticket booth, as we had gotten there too late (literally 1 minute behind this dude that managed to rent one). Oh well, our legs were probably too tired to pedal anyway.
So we moved on to the zoo, whose admission was included in the East Garden ticket. For 20rmb (3USD), we obviously weren’t expecting Animal Sanctuary of the World, but we definitely weren’t prepared for its uncanny resemblance to a mental asylum (as I imagine it). Tiny cages, piles of poop, rusted bars, animals that looked like they’d given up on life, and some that looked worse for wear than the beggars outside the train station…
The squirrel monkeys were the cutest things EVER, though. I could’ve watched them forever. Look:
The grossest thing? Two giant black snakes that were spooning (ok, kind of cute, maybe) and in the process of shedding their skin. The curled-up sheets of dry, scaly old skin sent chills down my spine. I know it’s natural, but it was also utterly disgusting.
Horrible living conditions aside, the most outrageous thing about this zoo was the amount of crap (i.e. human food) people were feeding the animals. Several cages were littered with food wrappers, and at one of them we witnessed a kid crawl through an outer wooden fence and hand a monkey, which had stuck its hands through the metal inner fence, some sort of cake with half a wrapper still on. The worst part was that there were two zoo employees in uniform standing there, WATCHING. They were amused! No wonder the animals were all crazy.
Suzhou Railway Station
I haven’t quite figured out the causal direction, but working at a railway station must either have a foolproof way of turning a person into a grouch, or require in its job description a terrible personality and unwillingness to help. We got to Suzhou Station at 5pm and soon realized we’d gotten in line for the most unhappy 20-something female employee I’ve ever seen. No smile, no eye contact, her chapped lips barely moving as she mumbled at the customers ahead of us. In a contest of unpleasantness, she would’ve kicked the average Philly SEPTA employee’s ass.
Anyway, we found out that the next train with seats wasn’t until 6:52, and it was a K—older, slower—train at that (we’d only ever been on the new D trains so far). Since it was cold outside, we decided to head into the neighboring two-story KFC for some warmth and grease. We shared a meal of fries (no waffle fries?? preposterous!), popcorn chicken, and a chicken drumstick featured on recent commercials, which was surprisingly about as good as I’d expected. KFC is damn expensive, though. It also has quite the ironic tray lining, which reads “Healthy blood pressure, healthy living.” I’m sure KFC is all for that…
Apart from a half-hour delay reminiscent of Amtrak service, the train ride back was probably the most entertaining part of the day. Total old-school, with steep steps leading you from the platform up to the cabin, a noisy car full of tired travelers…but that’s where the predictable ended. Some noteworthy sights during the cramped one-hour ride:
– A purple bag tied up with string started moving about on the overhead shelf. We discussed worst case scenarios;
– The uniformed conductors, rather than spending their time checking tickets, paraded up and down the aisle selling—get this—wind-up flashlights. Yes, flashlights, for 10kuai only, perfect for kids and the elderly, no battery needed! About 2 minutes later, they threw in a special: buy one get one free. I was tempted. Sean was reminded of Chinese DVD hawkers on the NYC subway;
– A conductor with loosened tie and untucked shirt came around to mop the filthy floor. Very professional, but I’d probably have done the same. The woman across from us in the aisle seat proceeded to spit on the freshly mopped (but still dirty) floor and rub her spittle around under her boot as if she were putting out a cigarette.
– As we were pulling into Shanghai, the conductors switched gears, briefly promoting a wind-up, light-up, musical top (yes, those things that spin). Priceless.
I guess because it was near the end of a (too-)long train ride, it looked like no one gave a shit about anything anymore. We could only sit and appreciate the scene.
A fun day all in all. We’ll be back to explore the rest of the city, but will probably be buying round-trip tickets in advance next time.