Boat rides and small streets: Zhujiajiao and Suzhou
I close my eyes and I open them again. I still cannot believe it has been a month since I arrived in China. Things have been a complete whirlwind, a complete blur. Right now I am sitting down in a small coffee shop across the street from one of the schools I work at, drinking hot water and reminiscing on some of the trips I’ve taken within this first month. The first one was to the water town of Zhujiajiao. This small town is only an hour bus ride from Shanghai and should be definitely be considered as a day trip. The bus leaves from People’s Square— you can tell them you are going to Zhujiajiao and pay either in cash once you are on the bus or use your transportation card.
This old town has small canals weaving in and out, which allow small boats to navigate through them. As you walk the small cobblestone streets you are taken past small gift shops, food stands, and other curious locales. I could not stop admiring everything from the weirdly shaped foods to the unique flutes and string instrument. And it’s not just a visual experience, it is also an olfactory experience: from the stinky tofu (really that is what it is called) to the caramel apples, the smell of tea, the smell of the water in the canals, and the smell of Starbucks coffee all come together to create this overwhelming sense of foreign and familiar.
One of the first sights to check out when you come into town should be Fangsheng Bridge. This bridge is located at the entrance to the Old Town if you are walking from the bus station, and it was a wonderful view of the gondolas coming in and out of the smaller canals, as well as, a view of a temple in the Yuanjin Monastery. From underneath Fangsheng Bridge, you can take a small gondola that will take you on a short trip through the canals, with a set prize of about 80 yuan for a boat of up to 6 people (regardless of how many people you have it will be 80 yuan) for a short ride around the canals. Some of the other views you can do is going to see some of the temples in town for a small prize of 10 yuan (1 US dollar). Be mindful, these temples are tourist attractions and they will try to get more “donations" out of you. Just be firm and polite when you say no. You can also find the Kezhi Gardens and the Qing Dynasty post office which I did not have enough time to visit but am planning on going back to see.
Now Suzhou is way bigger than Zhujiajiao. The city itself is located 30 minutes (on the bullet train) from Shanghai. Suzhou is located in southern Jiangsu Province in the center of the Yangtze Delta. There is a great amount of sightseeing available here ranging from canals, to gardens, and lake side views.
For our trip to Suzhou, we tried winging it… Never doing that again! At least not when there is a major holiday occurring at the same time. For us, we attempted to do this during National Holiday which is a week long vacation resembling 4th of July back in the states. Needless to say, everything is packed and booked. I mean if you think about it mainland China has about 1.3 billion people, they are all on vacation for a week, so they travel their country because, well, there is a lot to see! So, back to Suzhou, we tried booking trains the day before we left and found out that there was something wrong with out bank accounts and couldn’t book the tickets online. We thus had to get up early to buy the tickets at the station. We booked several hostels through booking.com and hoped for the best (you find out that things in China are not usually what they seem). We arrived at the station and found that we could not take the train we planned on because 1. we were at the wrong station and 2. it was sold out anyway. Again do all of this ahead of time. We got a ticket for noon, and waited in the train station until it was time for us to go. Once we arrived at the Suzhou train station we made our way to one of the hostels we had booked only to find that there was something wrong with their system and they could not check our reservation, also they were booked. Thus, we started our journey to try to find another place to stay. We inquired within 3 places before we actually found a hotel that could accommodate us. While it was not what we wanted to pay, a night costs us about 170 yuan each (which is 25 each by the way).
We finally put our bags down, freshened up, and made our way to explore the city. Our first stop was PinJiang Lu, which is part of the historic district of Suzhou known as “Ancient Suzhou City” and it is aptly named. The small road is just wide enough to walk through, and as it was the holidays, was packed with tourists, both Chinese and Westerners, peeking into the small shops and trying the different street foods. The architecture here was more conservative and more of what you might imagine Chinese buildings would look like. I found a small postcard store and immediately fell in love. I browsed through the wide selection of cards, and admired while fellow tourists picked a solitary spot or a group table to sit down and write. The great thing about this place was that you could buy postage and leave your postcard with them to send! There was even a wall where you could place your letter/postcard to send at a later date (I mean that is freaking nifty). I bought my postcard and continued to walk down the road admiring all the different types of shops and the quirky items they sold. We soon found a small bar next to the river where we bought some drinks and just chatted about life while Chinese tourists walked by and took pictures of us. We followed our stroll through Guanquian Jie, which is a huge contrast from the street we were just in. Guanquian is modern, full of brand-name stores and restaurants: there are two large KFC right in front of each other, for no apparent reason. We wandered the streets in look of a bar or a small place to have drinks, and we found it. Nestled in a small side street, we found Ellen’s, a westerner dive bar that is actually very popular with asian locals (probably due to all the cheap beer and hookah). We had some beers, made some friends, and somehow managed to make it back to the hotel without any issues.
We woke up the next morning around noon, to head towards Jinji Lake. This small lake is located in the center of the Industrial district of Suzhou and contains a long dam named Li Gong Di which contains many different types of restaurants and bars. The scene of the lake is absolutely spectacular and you get a perfect juxtaposition of old and new: there is classic Chinese architecture along with some modern buildings such as the the “Gateway to the East”. We walked down the lakeside trying to figure out whether we wanted to head back to Shanghai or stay another night in Suzhou. We opted for the latter and booked another night at a different hotel. We then headed out for dinner and some late night entertainment.
The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and made our way to Shantang Jie. This street along with Pingjiang Road have been noted as part of the “Historical and cultural block of China”. The street starts with the Changmen Gate and winds northwest towards Tiger Hill. It is about 2.2 miles, or seven li, which is why it is also known as Seven-Li Shangtang. The canal on this street is much wider than the one in Pingjiang. Large boats full of tourists, to our surprise mostly Chinese, can be seen going up and down the canal. These tourists often waved and took pictures of us as we walked along side the canal, it kinda made us feel like a tourist attraction ourselves. We walked all along Shantang Jie all the way to Tiger Hill. To enter the Tiger Hill scenic area you have to pay which is 80 yuan for adults (about 12 USD) or 40 for students (about 6 USD). We didn’t have enough time to go in so we decided against purchasing tickets. We had to make our way back to the hotel to pick up our bags and then head to the train station to catch our train back to Shanghai.