How not to travel to Suzhou (Part 1).

14 Mar

This post is long overdue but during the National Holiday on October (I know, long overdue) I went on a quick – very quick – trip to Suzhou, a town near Shanghai that is apparently known as the Venice of China. I have never been to Venice but I still think I can say that Suzhou is nothing like Venice. Yes, it has canals and bridges but no, Venice it is definitely not. Also, I have since then read about a whole bunch of other Chinese towns that claim to be the Venice of China.

Anyway, Dave as well as the rest of China had a week off (actually, if you work for a Chinese company, you don’t really get a holiday: you get time off but you have to make up the time later) but unfortunately Dave had a lot of work to catch up on so instead of going on a mini-vacation we decided to head up to Shanghai. Clif and Kat were away on our holiday and left us their beautiful apartment in the French Concession. While Dave buried himself in work I could explore Shanghai a bit more, which translates into eating lots of cheese and drinking wine in Shanghai’s many western-oriented bars and restaurants.

Damn Shanghai!

Every time I am in Shanghai, a part of me forgets I’m in China. I’m just so mesmerized by its glitz and glamour and all the cheese and wine and coffee bars and brunch places and cupcake parlours and all this in ENGLISH! I forget that I am deaf, dumb and blind and that doing anything – like meeting a few friends in Suzhou –  requires meticulous planning and organization.  Shanghai was making me think: “Yeah, I’ll just get up, have some breakfast with Dave and hop onto a train to Suzhou.”

But this is China… and for me, there’s no such thing as “I’ll just” and “hop onto.”

This is what was planned: Kim, Meg and Marc were going to take the bus at 10am and were due to arrive in Suzhou at around 1pm. I was going to head for the Shanghai train station for 11:30, “hop onto” the next available train, stare out the window for 35min while the train whizzes to Suzhou and then meet the others at the hotel, just in time for some lunch. Good plan!

This is what happened: I got up at 8am so I could take my time packing, having breakfast with Dave and maybe even take the metro to the train station instead of a cab. Then I realised I needed to get some cash for Dave because I was going to take the bank card. ATMs are the one thing that’s not available on every corner in China, even in Shanghai… even in the French Concession. You can buy live chickens, a whole sofa set and a pet cat without so much as leaving your street but getting cash can be quite a trek. So off I went to the nearest ATM which is a 20min round-trip on foot but as the humidity levels at this point were still disgustingly high and as I was trying to hurry and I arrived back at the apartment drenched in sweat. It was probably 11am at this point and I decided to check in with Kim. Her phone rang out so while I waited for her to call back I realised, argh, I didn’t know which train station the trains to Suzhou left from so onto Google I went. I also checked out where the bus station was just in case train tickets were sold out. (But again, it wasn’t as straight-forward as “just googling” – I spent ages searching for an English train timetable and then making sure it was not out-dated,) I also made sure I had both these destinations in Chinese characters to show taxi drivers in case they didn’t understand my poor Mandarin. Kim called back and informed me that they had gone to the wrong bus station in Ningbo and after taxi-ing it across town they were now finally on the right bus that left at noon and was due to be in Suzhou at 3.

This suited me fine as Dave and I never managed breakfast and this gave us time to get some lunch together. Being absolutely spoilt for choice (again, damn you, Shanghai!) we wandered the streets for ages looking for something good but wanting somewhere we hadn’t been before and basically not being able to agree. Running late I eventually had to put my foot down and we ended up in the nearest restaurant which was called Grape and which we thought was Western but then turned out to be Chinese (no coffee – oh no!). They had Peking Duck on the menu though, so Dave was very happy. However, as my luck would have it, this turned out to be one of the slowest restaurants in all of China. Also, initially we only got served the crispy duck skin (always tasty but not very substantial, especially not for breakfast!) and only after waiting and then asking did we actually get the duck meat. I know the Chinese prize the crispy skin more than the meat but for us it was the first time we only got served the skin. (Also, the skin cost like 60rmb and the meat 10rmb – strange.)

Anyway, lunch took so long that my metro plans flew out the window and I had to hail a cab. Cram out print-out of train station address in Chinese characters. The driver understood and off we went.

This was my first time at Shanghai Railway Station (coming from Ningbo you either arrive at Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station or Shanghai Long-Distance South Station) and it’s MASSIVE! Hongqiao and South Station are massive as well but for some reason, when I got out of the taxi and faced the huge block of a building I was flummoxed. There were thousands of people (remember, it was a holiday week) and for the life of me I couldn’t see the ticket office. Like any major public transportation station in China, ticketing is outside the hubs and you can’t enter without one. Usually I just look out for a congregation of people queuing to find the office but there was too many people milling about EVERYWHERE! A guard pointed behind me when I couldn’t hand over my ticket and I finally saw it. It was a huge room with tons of ticketing machines and then a huge sign for me: “Foreigners, please buy your ticket in the Ticket Office. Turn around, out this hall, turn left and walk 3min.”

Aw, Shanghai, you make it so easy for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind among us!

Or so I thought.

I turned around, walked out the ticketing hall, turned left and walked for 3minutes, or rather, walked until the pavement was blocked by a street railing. There was an exit of the railway station and an entrance to the metro. No ticket office.

Damn you, Shanghai!

I looked into the exit to see if the ticket office was hiding in there, then descended down the steps into the metro station which was also an underground road crossing. Not down there. Must have missed it on my 3min walk so I walked back the way I’d come. No, not there. Walked back to the exit/Metro station entrance.

And then I saw it!

Somewhere amongst all the signs for the different Metro lines and destinations and all the streets the underground crossings lead to was a tiny sign reading “To ticket office, descend stairs, first passageway of left” or something like that. I ended up on the other side of the railed-off road, right in front of the ticket office.

Man, I felt like such an idiot.

But I purchased my ticket, went back to the station’s entrance and by 3:30 I was on the train. (By the way, you need a Chinese ID card or if you’re foreign, your passport, to buy train tickets, that’s why foreigners have to seek out the manned ticket office instead of using the ticketing machines.)

This was not the end of my odyssey. Oh no. There are more complications to come. I bet you can’t wait.

But for a little which in the train, comfy in my seat, reading my book, I was feeling pretty good. Kim had texted me to let me know their bus was an hour late due to traffic so I wasn’t even going to be late!

Pretty soon the announcement came through that we were approaching Suzhou. I gathered my stuff and headed for the exit. We rolled into the station and I thought it was weird that the surrounding area looked more like an industrial area as opposed to a crowded urban city. And there were only a handful of other people that were queuing at the train’s doors with me. Weird, but I double-checked the screen that it was Suzhou and it was, so I pushed my worries aside and disembarked.

On the way to the taxi queue I realised I didn’t have the address for the hotel we were staying at. Damn! My phone doesn’t support Chinese characters so I couldn’t get Kim to text me the address nor would it show on Google. Damnidy-damn. So Kim texted me their telephone number and when I was sat in the taxi I called them so the receptionist could speak to the driver, while he was incessantly asking me, “Where do you want to go?”  However, I only got an automated message so I shoved the phone to the driver who looked at me like I was crazy – nothing new there – and e-ven-tu-ally we were on our way.

Turns out I HAD gotten off the train too soon, we were miles outside the city, and the taxi ride cost as much as my train ticket had cost!

But whatever… after battling through rush hour traffic I finally arrived at our hotel and met up with Kim, Marc and Meg, who had themselves only arrived half an hour earlier. Apart from having to switch bus stations in Ningbo and getting stuck in traffic for an extra hour Meg also had the pleasure of sitting next to a woman on the bus who let your child pee into a plastic bag that she subsequently dropped on Meg’s foot.

So we took some time to recover from our respective trips in our rooms for a little while before heading out for some dinner and nightlife.

Come back soon for the Part 2 of this post: How not to visit Suzhou.

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4 Responses to “How not to travel to Suzhou (Part 1).”

  1. Gypo March 14, 2012 at 4:00 pm #

    hahahaha Excellent….okay, maybe not the pee part! Looking forward to Part 2…. hope your night out didnt turn into Bap Trip 3… or is it The Hangover 3! lol x

    • miravakily March 14, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

      There definately wasn’t a hangover as you’ll learn in Part 2, but it was fun anyway.

  2. Claire March 15, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    Haha luvin the blog Mira, tres amusing – sure I would have been even more confused trying to find my way so well done in my book! Happy if confusing times from the sound o it xx

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How Not to Visit Suzhou (Part 2). « Ningbo Nights - March 23, 2012

    […] last post might have left you thinking that I’m some headless chicken traveler, but I’m not really. I […]

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