Year Abroad: Suzhou Sunshine!

OFF TO SUZHOU!
苏州

Shanghai Honqiao – Suzhou: 79¥

It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to take a break and update on my travels here in China, but with the pesky Midterm Exams over I can finally take a look at the rainbow array of photos from my October trip to Suzhou!

With my 79RMB return ticket from Shanghai Hongqiao Station to Suzhou clutched in hand, our group of five make our way though the mid-National Week holiday masses to the train station.  Suzhou has been cheerfully sold to me as the ‘Venice of Shanghai’, and to add to my natural scepticism of such Chinese claims, there’s a scuffle of conjecture that it’s actually Shanghai’s other water town, ZhuJiaJiao. A quick (and exasperated) description edit later, we’re back on track: to one of Shanghai’s two Venices…

Snacks and drinks packed in my trusty rucksack and sunglasses at the ready.

Train to Suzhou, Shanghai Railway Station

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WATER TOWN

The Old area of Suzhou around 石路夜市场 ShiLu Nightmarket and its surrounding canals is a beautiful area of dainty Chinese bridges and street markets that sweep up out of the water in streets that weave alongside cloudy-watered, narrow canals. With it’s white and dark wood traditional buildings, cobbled streets and streams of red paper lanterns – the town Old Town sections are beautiful in the sun.

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Suzhou Canal Boats, China

Suzhou Streets

Suzhou Canal City

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TRADITION & THE TOWN

As we make our way from the East of Suzhou town through the backstreets to the West, we criss-cross through silent, thin streeted residential areas (stopping for the odd 1.50RMB Green Bean ice lolly sold through a front door) and bustling open squared Pagodas where embarrassed tourists pose in traditional Chinese clothing and awkward couples shuffle in suits for wedding photos.

We watch a man in his late 50s twist blobs of hot coloured sugar into beautifully delicate, edible animal shapes with some lickity spit and dubiously clean hands around the Temple of Mystery (which in itself is not that mysterious, and probably not worth the walk if the Temple is all you want to see…).

Comfortable shoes an absolute must.

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SUZHOU LUNCH

Lunch, one of my three favourite times of day, greets us in the form of the famous hundred-year old Zhū hóng miànguǎn 朱鸿面馆 as we battle with the locals stopping off between work shifts, wrinkled and fresh-faced alike who fold over their steaming noodle broth bowls and inhale their juicy lunch. I try the recommended salty pork and noodle soup 香辣排骨面, 14RMB and exact sighs of exasperation as I take pictures of the chilli sauce bowl.
That’s some mean chilli.

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COLOUR-MAD MARKETS

In a refreshing, zesty break form Shanghai’s concrete forest, Suzhou markets are packed bursting with colourful flowers, tea-shops and stalls around the Suzhou Watertown Hostel area (苏州浮生四季青年旅舍). Besides a treat for the snap-happy photographer (myself), it’s also a sensory delight for anyone who loves nibbling at sweet street-food snacks (also me) as their speciality steamed desserts, candied fruit and sugar stewed lotus root are light, yummy treats that should keep most children (and easily satisfied twenty-one year olds) happy.

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For a bit of formal history, and light culture we stop off at:

HUMBLE ADMINISTRATOR’S GARDEN
Adult 70RMB/Student 35RMB

Unfortunately, being peak holiday season, what we actually see is thousands of other tourists and energetic, flag-flailing guides, filing wildly and haphazardly in droves along the well-trimmed verges of the Humble Administrator (who certainly had a very big garden indeed). We become a garden highlight as we naively stop for a rest at this pagaoda, and are subjected to the flashes of Chinese tourists from all over the country.

We do however, pose for this little girl who solemnly asks in perfect English if we would mind her mum taking a photo of her with us.
Cute!

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As the sunlight sets over the Humble Administrator’s Bonsai’s we make for the end of our day-trip to Suzhou in a slightly mad dash back to the station after dinner. Taxi after taxi refuses to stop for the boys, who wave desperately at them. As the token Asian, I manage to hail one eventually (supporting our theory that some Taxi drivers are very suspicious of foreigners – actively avoiding picking them up) and we make it in time for our 40min train back home.

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Bonsai in the late afternoon, Suzhou

Good Bye, Suzhou!

It’s been a great day out, but I’ve got class in the morning.

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Charlotte xx

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Taiwan: Sanzhi Mountain Driving

 

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For my first section of real hairpin-turns driving, I’m up above Yuanlin near the Sanzhi mountain park with a full van of eight family members in the back. No pressure. It helps that sections of the road that are plunged with mist (霧 – Wù) are conveniently also subject to large holes and mudslides after the past typhoon weather. As I crawl along the road, I’m overtaken by shiny black and silver BMWs and Toyotas, fearless to death apparently.

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The good news is, the temperature takes a sharp plunge as we head on this nauseatingly winding roads upwards into the mountain, bypassing tourist-and-SUV overcrowded spots at BaGua Shan. Instead, along the way, we stop in the surprisingly temperate, cool climate, nearly chilly in our shorts and t-shirts, to take a look at some stunning tea plantations that spring out of the sheer, dark forested mountain side along with small crowds, promotions women (of the late fifties, restaurant overall wearing type) and a sudden surge of cars parked along narrow road passes that accompanies it. Unlike hardy tea I’ve seen growing on parches hilltops and fields in Taiwan, these thick bushy lines of tea plant are rich and dark against the hill, and it’s something really gorgeous to behold.

For as long as you can stand crowds that is.

Back into the car after a short walk and on down the hill.

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On the way down the hill, we stop off at a Taiwan speciality: a roast chicken. We’re big fans of roast chicken back home, and this dramatic way of cooking a chicken is certainly entertaining – nearly as entertaining for me as the little mountain pigs (pets I’m assured) that try to eat my fingers outside the restaurant. The chicken, in a strange orange to match the chefs t-shirt (deliberate?), is strung on a wire with a small dish of oil beneath it and hung in the large kiln to get roasted, coming out a deep, glossy blackened colour. Dad, head of the table, has the honour of donning a pair of white industrial gloves, made dubiously sanitary by a thin, disposable plastic covering, and tearing up the roasted chicken for the rest of the family.

Messy and very yum.

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After lunch, we hop in the car on our way back to Yuanlin, making a short stop at Beitou’s city hall – but don’t quote me on it – and wander around it’s grounds watching a fantastic array of kites soar on the strings held by parents, as children scream and run wildly on the grass track in front of the blindingly white building.

It’s a long day of exciting driving, but boy am I glad to experience some cool weather here in Taiwan, even in the peak of summer. It’s good to know leaving the safety of air-con is not always like stepping into a pre-heated oven.

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Beijing, TUESC: Tienanmen Square Tourists

Thanks Mr. Hu!

There’s no cutting corners with the volunteer’s first trip outside the safe confines of the Tsinghua University campus.

We’ve get ourselves kitted out with bikes, locks and keys from Mr. Hu (Mr. Who?) the local tough-bargaining student-bike specialist (150RMB for three weeks all-inclusive hire) and we set off to the scene of the 1989 Tianamen Square Protests.

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Tiananmen Square

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It’s a typically over cast day, and though I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever see the sun, I’m fairly glad that I’m out of its rays given the current sticky heat.

We chain up the bikes at the gates of the campus (I’m feeling pretty attached to my transportation already…) and navigate the Beijing Metro to unearth ourselves by the quiet of the square. It’s literally just across the dual carriageway, but it’s a five minute roundabout way to the square’s entrance past politely round-topped fences, and when we get there, we share the space with several other Chinese tourists taking happy photos of the surroundings.

We’re the only foreigners here, and cause some hubbub by sitting wearily in a circle, resting our sagging jet-lagged backpacks in a pile on the ground. And it’s not long before our presence begins to draw attention.

We’re firstly bombarded (although mostly the English looking girls in the group) by Chinese, accents belying their own status as non-Beijing Chinese, and tourists in their own right. We are bemusedly frogmarched into photographs with their children – and them – until a blank-faced khaki guard steps down off his half meter square carpeted block and makes motions for us to move on.

Besides our careful tourist chatter of the revolts in 1989, there’s nothing of the area which would which suggest the murders of peaceful student protesters by military police, but the heavy surveillance, strictly marked walking lines and the relative inaccessibility of the square itself, make me feel like we should take the guards direction and move on.

Luckily, we bypass President Mao’s body entombed in his mausoleum by the square – and in hindsight I think I’m just as happy with the imagined knowledge of the iconography of Mao himself; certainly the other volunteers relish telling us about it.

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The City Gates

The City Gates by the square are a jarring palette of red, blue, green on a back drop of grey; flashes of bright colour in a concrete city. We traispe rather tiredly around the gates, somewhat stunned by their looming structures around which blaring taxis and bicycles and motorbikes fight on the dual lane road. In and out of the market streets, taking many breaks on huge two meter square stone blocks that have been in Beijing over four times our live span, and deciphering dubiously translated English information leaflets.

I had my first green tea flavoured ice cream today.
Ah-mazing.

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