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Published: November 16th 2014
We were up early next morning to catch the MRT to the train station to spend the day in Suzhou. The train was fast - it reached speeds of 270 klms an hour and forty minutes later we arrived in Suzhou. Once we left the enormous train station we got totally lost - we realised that the train station was new and therefore the directions to the old town in our guide book were useless. Suzhou is an enormous city - it is now the city in the centre of the Yangtze River Delta Economic zone - and the skyline was massed with cranes and half completed highrises. Once a haven for scholars, artists and silk manufacture there seemed little evidence of this from where we stood. However a motor cycle taxi took us to the old town where most of the historical gardens and temples are situated. It was busy with tour buses and touts and to escape them we followed the crowds into the Humble Administrator's Garden, one of the classical Chinese gardens Suzhou is renowned for.
It is the largest of all the gardens in the city at 5.2 hectares and we followed the paths around the
many small lakes and visited the pavilions, most of which now are tea houses or museums. One of the pavilions surprisingly had blue glass panels in the windows. We discovered the bonsai gardens - and were in awe of the beautiful ancient trees (700 of them) within. The gardens were built originally in 1131 but have been continually since then. Many of the bonsai trees were a hundred years old - you could certainly see their age in their trunks. In 1997 the gardens were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Though we were very pleased to have seen it but had no desire to visit any more of Suzhou's historic gardens.
Instead we wandered the lovely tree lined streets - it all looked very similar to the French Concession area in Shanghai and explored the courtyards and many small museums, surprisingly all free of charge. I loved the food stalls there - the snacks on sale were unlike any we had seen elsewhere. Tiny sweets and savouries that were shaped like pigs, fish and flowers.
Later in the afternoon we caught a motorbike taxi to the Suzhou Silk Museum - we may well have been their
final visitors as the museum was closing next day for major renovations. It needed it as it was showing it's age. I spent some time watching a group of women weaving intricate brocade silks. It was the first time we have seen silk weaving done when a man had to stand high on top of the massive looms holding and moving the heavy realms of coloured silk threads the women were using below him. When we left it was raining and as we couldn't get a taxi we walked back, dodging the puddles and drips, to the canal area of Pingjiang Lu. As the sun set we explored the many tiny shops - most were selling silk scarves, pottery or bamboo products. Some of the silk products were stunning - the colours and patterns are glorious, as are their price tags...
Probably because of the rain the area didn't really come alive after dark so after eating dinner we decided to go back to Shanghai. Easier said then done though as taxis wouldn't stop for us. We walked into a really long modern pedestrian street, lined with department stores and fashion shops, and after walking the length of the
mall a taxi eventually took pity on us and drove us to the train station. All the tickets had been sold for the next two hours (trains leave every 10 minutes or so) so we had a very long wait in the train station before we eventually caught the train. The station was too far away and the night too wet for us to consider heading back to the shopping street to pass the time. It was still raining in Shanghai on our return and we were pleased to arrive, damp, at our hotel.
When we taught in China in 2005 we befriended some of our students. One, Salla, has stayed in constant touch with Jerry since them. She was now working in Suzhou and despite us having been there the day (Friday) before she had arranged to meet us in Shanghai on Saturday morning. Salla is 25 years old now, had continued studying English at university, and was now working for a Swedish company in Suzhou. She met us early on Saturday and was a little overawed by Shanghai but very pleased to see us. We had an interesting chat over a coffee. I don't think she earns
a lot of money (though she seemed happy with her wage) and a large proportion of it is sent home to her mother who lives in a tiny village near Guangshui (where we taught) in Hubei Province. Her father now works as a labourer in another city - he left farming their tiny plot of land to do as many Chinese farmers have done - to try his luck in the city. She sees her mother twice a year - next time will be over Chinese New Year where she will travel by train For 15 hours to spend only 24 hours at home before spending another 15 hours on the train back to Suzhou. Last time she made the trip (in October) she had to stand the entire 15 hours on the train as there were only standing room tickets available. She lives in the company dormitory and is considered lucky as she has been allocated a two person room. No ensuite bathroom of course and she eats all her meals at the company dining room. She said most meals comprise rice and a few vegetables. Her wage (or what is left of it after supporting her mother) doesn't
cover too many luxuries. A cup of coffee is a luxury - she may be able to afford four a year. And she wouldn't let us buy her one!
I had planned a bit of a different day than Salla may have experienced previously. We went into People's Park in search of the Shanghai Museum of Contempory Art. As we wandered through the gardens we saw rows of unfurled umbrellas with notes attached. I asked Salla to read on of the notes. It appeared that all the messages were written by parents describing attributes (height, age, place of birth, yearly income, etc) of their tunmarried children. Salla had never seen it before and was surprised. There were dozens of umbrellas, some with photos as well, and many parents, notebooks in hand writing down the information from the umbrellas. I asked Salla would she be able to choose her own husband (at 25 she has never had a boyfriend) - she said yes it could be a love match but that her parents would introduce her to all potential partners.
We visited the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art - poor Salla was horrified when she saw the 50 yuan
entrance fee as she thought she had to pay it. She was reassured when we told her that everything that day was on us. She had never been in such a place and really didn't think much of the art on display on the ground floor. To be truthful, neither did I.... She brightened up though when she saw the Mona Lisa display (contemporary takes on the original) on the top floor and a display of fashion by a young Chinese fashion designer. From the windows of the museum I could see groups of men doing a form of tai chi - but it was all being done with a partner. Quite strange as the men seemed were moving very slowly whilst holding their partners.
Next we caught the MRT (we are getting very good at getting around these this trip - we've had lots of practice!) to visit a Buddhist Temple - the very beautiful Jade Buddha Temple. Another new experience for Salla as she isn't Buddhist. It is one of Shanghai's only active monasteries, and is relatively new as it was only built early last century. Again a busy complex - also very large as I was
amazed to see that it had an attached hotel! Renowned for it's 1.9 metre pale green Jade Buddha which is housed in a separate building (so extra entrance fee...). It was stunning though - in fact the face had the most beautiful features of any Buddha I have ever seen. We were not allowed to take photos and despite there being postcards available for sale the staff refused, for some reason, to sell me any. There was also a lovely reclining Buddha in another building. We ate lunch at the vegetarian restaurant that was part of the complex. Salla thoroughly enjoyed her vegetable heavy lunch!
From the temple we made our way on foot to the M50 Art District. Salla was very helpful at translating the street directions as it was harder to find then we expected. I knew we were close when we started to pass through a run down area covered in street graffiti though Salla thought we were going the wrong way. I loved it even more then the art district we had visited in Beijing, mainly because there were a lot more artists actually working on site. One art gallery left a really big impression
on Jerry and I. Check out www.island6.org - both of us loved their LED art - it was unlike anything We had seen before. They were making it in the studio whilst we were there and we could also see the props stored that they had used to make the art that was currently displayed. Salla was also very impressed. Eventually it all got a bit overwhelming for her and I left Jerry and her chatting whilst I explored the remaining galleries.
Late in the afternoon we walked to a nearby MRT where we parted ways - Salla back to her dorm and overtime work on Sunday and Jerry and I back to the city centre. We decided to have a drink at a bar opposite the hotel where we met a lovely Australian couple, Jim and Cathy, who we had previously had a conversation with in the Yuyuan Gardens. We ended up joining them for dinner at a restaurant they had eaten at the night before. New friends, tasty food and a few drinks made a very enjoyable way to end our time in Shanghai.
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