We arrived in Suzhou just before 8am on the overnight train from Huangshan. Suzhou has a small metro network and we’d booked a hostel not too far from a metro station. It took a bit longer than expected to find the hostel because I missed the road and walked 5 minutes further down the road.
At the hostel we checked in and were immediately given a room. We’d paid 10 RMB (£1) extra for a garden view. The garden was 5m long, 3m wide and was ringed by a 3m high wall. The walls and ground were concrete and the only greenery was a tree in the corner. Not exactly a garden!
We hadn’t eaten on the train so we ordered breakfast in the hostel. Whilst eating we planned our next moves. I’d originally thought of staying two nights in Suzhou to see everything there (everyone we’d spoken to raved about the city and told us we must go). But the hostel was fully booked and we didn’t care that much about staying to move hostels because we’d have all today and most of the next day to see the city anyway. That meant our first task would be a trip to the train station to book tickets for the train the next day (trains are very busy in China and you must book in advance). Tai’Shan was the next place we wanted to visit and we had two options, take the overnight train which arrived in Tai’Shan around 5am or take the high speed train to Jinan or Tai’An and get another train to Tai’Shan. The latter option costs a fair bit more and takes most of the day to travel. The first option has us arriving at an awful time. Eventually after looking at all the options we decided to get the high speed train to Beijing and then go back down to Tai’Shan on the slower train which arrives at a reasonable hour. This plan was fine because we had to come back down south as we planned to leave China by ferry from Qingdao. With the rest of our route in China planned we could leave the hostel and start seeing the city.
We took the metro back to the train station and bought the tickets for Beijing. The train station wasn’t too far from The Humble Administrator’s Garden and we could walk that. Outside the train station is a city gate and part of the city wall. Like almost everything else in China it’s a reconstruction, the original was destroyed when some people followed the orders of a psychopath leader who thought that culture sidetracked people from the Revolution.
Finding the entrance to the garden was harder than expected too. The signposts disappeared and we had to guess the rest. We paid the entrance fee and went in. To call this The Humble Administrator’s Garden is a misnomer, judging by the enormous size of the garden and all the lakes, streams, walls, pavilions, etc he wasn’t humble! He was a massive showoff! Annoyingly there was no map provided. Chinese gardens rarely do flowers and colours, they seem to focus on trees and plants and paths winding through the garden and pavilions in an attempt to disorientate visitors. This is a UNESCO world heritage sight and supposedly the most beautiful garden in southern China!
It was quite busy and had a few tour groups. The busyness was a bit annoying for many reasons:
a) The Chinese are obsessed with taking photos and will take a photo of themselves and then the entire family in front of every scenic spot. This blocks all the paths, bridges and scenic spots in the park.
b) Many Chinese will ask for a photo of us. I don’t understand why because most of their adverts use stock photos from the West and are all of Caucasian looking people. Why on earth they want our photo, especially when we’re dripping with sweat I don’t know! (Maybe they all work in advertising and we will be on billboards in a few years time.)
c) Chinese people walk as if there’s no-one else on the path. They simply can’t walk straight and just a few people can easily block a whole path.
d) Chinese people don’t talk, they shout! Put a few Chinese people together and it can be deafening.
But the general milling around of people wasn’t what destroyed the atmosphere of this place. That was the tour groups! In China tour leaders have a microphone and a portable speaker strapped over their shoulder. The volume is cranked to 11! To go near one of these will cause a normal persons eardrum to start bleeding! To the Chinese it’s probably not loud enough. Combine that with about 25 people crowded together blocking everything nearby (they probably can’t hear the speaker) and any sense of relaxation or tranquility are destroyed. We walk through gardens to relax and enjoy the plants and trees, the Chinese walk through gardens to take photos of themselves in a different setting! It’s awful and I finally snapped and had to leave! I just couldn’t handle the noise, the crowding, the requests for photos and the total and utter lack of relaxation. Besides, the gardens weren’t exactly great anyway, they were a bit boring! The UK has far better, as does New Zealand, our final destination.
We weren’t allowed out the way we came in. I think people going in both directions would confuse the ticket people. The exit lead us into a line of shops, all selling the usual shit which everyone in China seems to love buying. Back on the main street it was lunch time and we were in luck, the street was filled with food stalls. We bought noodles as usual and sat on a tiny table on the edge of the road to eat them. It’s ironic that in a city famed for its gardens there’s nowhere quiet to go and enjoy your food in peace and quiet.
The second best garden was described as much busier than the Humble Administrators Garden, so we were skipping that one. According to our Lonely Planet guide the Couple’s Garden was lesser visited and much quieter (if it’s far away the Chinese make little effort to visit). It only took about 30 minutes to walk to it. The sign stated Couples Garden and had a ticket office next to it, so we bought a ticket. We entered and looked at our ticket, it said Suzhou Zoo. The sign pointed to the zoo, but also had the Couples Garden on it. Phew, we thought we’d just bought the zoo ticket and entered the zoo, but the two must be combined. We finally reached the garden and found another ticket office. It turns out we had bought the zoo ticket and it wasn’t valid for the garden (there was another route into the garden avoiding the zoo. We explained but the Chinese people just don’t understand. We used the translate on our phone but they couldn’t grasp it. We even wrote, “we don’t want to go to the zoo!”. ” we have the wrong tickets”, “can we exchange the tickets”, etc. Too complicated for your average Chinese person (those purges of the intelligentsia did lasting damage to the country). In frustration and with no other option I tore up the zoo tickets, shouted, and walked out.
By now I was starting to really dislike Suzhou. Our next destination was an old street with a canal, old buildings and coffee shops. This is Pingjiang Street, it is part of the historic, cultural area of old Suzhou and has been in existence for 1,000 years, maintaining the style of the Song Dynasty. It is a portrait of “water and land, and rivers adjacent to the streets,” and a good example of the waterside towns south of the Yangtze River with their “small bridges over flowing streams, and whitewashed walls and black tiles”. We got there eventually (on the way we followed a huge crowd of people. They were going into the school to pick up their children!). It was a pedestrian street, but this been China plenty of mopeds were going up and down. It’s very narrow so this could only be achieved by holding the horn and constantly swerving through the crowds. There are police on the street, but they aren’t there to uphold law and order, they are for show and state intimidation. The street looked OK, nothing special though. We found a coffee shop with WiFi and spent well over an hour in there.
We left and walked further down the street. A guy was putting up some bright red flags with writing on them. An old guy was going crazy at him for this. He was shouting and screaming and waving his walking stick at the younger guy. He hobbled at snails pace over to one of the flags and hit it with his walking stick, eventually managing to make it tilt a bit. A large crowd had gathered to watch. The old man was very worked up and continued to shout at the younger guy who just stood there and took the verbal beating. He just stood back and watched as the old man hobbled over to the tree and tried to pull another flag down. He could easily have overpowered or shut the old man up, but he didn’t. A police man came over and took a look, then he rode off down the street. We have said elsewhere on this blog that police in China are for show and here was the proof. This was highly entertaining and a highlight of the day. We walked off down the street, avoided the mopeds, got bored and turned back. The old man was still shouting and some younger police officers had come to sort out the problem.
We found a Dim Sum restaurant and went in. We ordered four dishes. Spring rolls, dumplings, chicken and a cucumber dish. They were all disgusting! Greasy, covered in oil and had a horrible taste. We left almost all of it and got out.
On the main road there was only western style cafes or McDonald’s. We wanted neither. On the road back towards the hostel there were no food places. Nothing looked good near the hostel so we bought a noodle tub each and ate in our room that night.
Suzhou had been a total waste. The gardens were massively overrated and terribly crowded. The city itself didn’t look very nice and the people couldn’t understand simple requests. Complete and utter disregard of the rules makes walking, even on streets which are for walking only, a game of dodgems and the food we’d found was horrible. I’m glad we couldn’t book two nights at the hostel now.
Posted from Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.