Saturday, October 16, 2010

China Part Three: Suzhou & an overnight train ride

Today was our second full day in Suzhou. We arrived here by express train from Shanghai on the 2nd. Just getting to the train station was an experience as we had to take off our backpacks to go through security at the subway station, then ride the 1 line three stops to the main train station, walk for 15 minutes through a series of underground “malls” and passageways until we finally reached an exit, then had to maneuver past a bunch of touts and other people just hanging out to get to the entrance of the station. There we had to go through security again, then sit in a hot/un-air conditioned and crowded waiting area until they finally announced the boarding for our train less than 15 minutes before its scheduled departure time. The train was completely sold out so I was glad we had reserved seats, albeit in economy class, as it was less than a 30 minute ride to Suzhou. It’s almost laughable to watch the people pile into each other to be the first to get on the train, whether they have reserved seats or not! We observed that the train was going at least 175mph at some points of our journey and the scenery, what little we could see due to the haze, did indeed “whiz” by.

When we reached Suzhou Station there was another stampede to get off the train and out of the station, which we patiently endured as we walked to the taxi queue. There we were approached by many unlicensed drivers, but we held our ground and stood in line for about 15 minutes until we were finally “assigned” to a taxi with a female driver. We have only seen a few others during our time in China and I only wish I could have communicated with her in something other than sign language to find out what that must be like. Anyway she was a good driver and dropped us off as close as possible to our hostel for a fare of only 20CNY.
Suzhou Mingtown Hostel (our room has the window on the 2nd floor)
From there, the Gloria Plaza Hotel, we only had to cross a busy street and walk along the Ping Jiang canal a short distance to reach the hostel. We immediately liked the more “traditional” location & design of the hostel and were glad when they told us we could have our room for all 3 nights of our stay (as only 1 night had been confirmed by phone prior to our arrival). We did find our room, #1202 facing the canal, to be quite tiny -- actually the smallest room we have stayed in so far on our trip, measuring about 10’x7’ with a shared bath in the hallway just outside our door. But it is also very cheap, 150CNY per night, so we certainly can’t complain after paying more than twice as much in Shanghai (but for a much larger room with private bath).

We did not venture very far on our first evening in Suzhou as it was raining. We ended up drinking very large Stella & Carlsberg beers and eating Mexican food at the Southern Cross bar on the eastern edge of the Guanqian district which is only about a 10 minute walk from the hostel.

We also discovered that it makes for a restless night when two “large-by-Chinese-standards” American people try to sleep in a double bed that hardly fits both of us. Not to mention the top sheet barely covered both of us! Plus there was the almost constant noise of some type of vehicle (bicycle, rickshaw, moped, etc.) bumping along Ping Jiang road just below our window. I put in my earplugs after about 15 minutes! The next day we asked for another cover/blanket so we would each have our own.

We spent the day yesterday (10/3) roaming the streets of Suzhou. We walked all the way up Ping Jiang street to Dong Bei Jie, across Ren Min road and back down a side street to the Guan Qian area. There we wandered around for at least 30 minutes looking for the address where we had noted a train ticket office, hoping to buy our overnight tickets from Guilin to Guangzhou. We also stopped at a fancy watch store where we were able to get Greg’s watch shortened to fit his now smaller wrist. I don’t think he has lost much more weight on our trip, but he hasn’t gained any either so the watch was too big from when he was 40lbs heavier last year!

We finally found the CITS office only to discover they didn’t sell train tickets, only flights. But a lady there spoke decent English and drew out a simple map to a local train ticket office about 5 minutes walk away. We did locate that office as well, but they could only sell tickets to/from Suzhou. Tired from all the walking, we hoped to find a bar nearby to sit down & have a beer or two. But after roaming around Guan Qian and its side streets a bit longer, we ended up back at Southern Cross where we enjoyed our very large glasses of Stella & Carlsberg during happy hour (as they are buy one get one free!).

Then it was time to look for somewhere to eat dinner so we walked all the way down to Shi Quan street which I had read offered plenty of interesting options. Of course, we walked for many blocks before spotting the one restaurant I had noted we should try: Xinjiang Yakexi. They did have an English menu but descriptions were very simple (ie, fried lamb, roasted lamb, grilled lamb, etc.) so I wasn’t 100% sure what I was ordering but it turned out great. We had nicely spiced bite-sized pieces of lamb which I think was pan-fried, roasted green beans with garlic & chili peppers, and long broad noodles in a simple broth with sliced carrots. We also enjoyed complimentary hot tea, roasted peanuts & raisins. The total bill was only 61CNY or about $9! Quite full from the beer we drank earlier and the delicious meal, we walked the 20+ minutes back to our hostel and relaxed for the remainder of the evening.
one of the best meals we ate in China!
We got up late this morning (around 10am) after another somewhat restless night’s sleep but I think we were also tired from walking so much yesterday! We took our time eating our instant noodle bowls, drinking instant coffee, and also made our hostel reservation for Hong Kong.

We walked down Ren Min Road towards the “Grand Canal”, stopping in the Suzhou Library for a quick break and also browsing the Foreign Language Bookstore where we briefly contemplated buying a Lonely Planet Turkey guidebook but it was 200CNY or $30! Once we reached the canal, we continued along the waterfront path towards Ruiguang Pagoda. We ultimately decided not to pay the 40CNY to enter the nearby garden or the separate fee for the pagoda. As usual, after a few hours of walking we were ready to sit down and drink a beer somewhere, but it’s almost impossible to find a decent-looking bar! So we ended up walking all the way back to the hostel where we bought some beer & snacks from our neighborhood closet-sized convenience store and sat outside in the hostel’s courtyard by the fish pond. We also started a load of laundry as they have no dryer and our clothes need to air dry by the time we pack tomorrow morning.
the neighborhood convenience closet, I mean, store
The washing process took longer than expected because one of the cleaners at the hostel took out part of the load while it was running because she said it was too full. So we had to wait for the first load to finish and then start a second load… When it was all hung up to dry a couple of hours later, we were ready for dinner. We decided to look for a truly local place along Ping Jiang street and ended up in a dim sum shop located directly on the canal. The place was packed and featured communal seating so we initially shared our large table with a man & his young daughter (maybe about 7-years-old and another couple with one son about 5-years-old). They all eventually left while we were eating and were replaced by a husband & wife and a couple of guys.
enjoying a beer in our hostel's courtyard
The set up of the restaurant was quite interesting. After finding a place to sit, you notate on an order form which & how many dim sum dishes you want. You take that form and your wallet to the cash register where they ring up your order and give one itemized receipt to the kitchen and the other to you for the servers to use. Then you return to your seat and wait for your food. We waited about 10-15 minutes for our first dish to arrive; the crab dumplings were juicy and fantastic, followed by shrimp shumai, and some type of steamed bread with sesame seeds. All was going well until we received an unidentifiable dish that was sweet and gelatinous, like a dessert, which I definitely had not ordered. Eventually with the help of the other couple at our table, we understood that two of the dishes we had ordered had since run out so they were being replaced by other dishes. The problem was that this “other” dish in particular was nothing like what I had actually ordered. Anyway, as it did not taste bad, we ended up saving it for dessert and eventually got our other food: 2 orders of pork & leek potstickers and some spring rolls. Everything was truly delicious and very reasonably priced at a total of 46CNY or about $7. Note that we were the only non-Chinese in the place and I was glad for it despite the language barrier! We returned to the hostel with another couple of beers from our little neighborhood store and spent the remainder of the evening reading & writing.

I’m writing this while sitting on my top bunk on the overnight train from Shanghai to Guilin. We booked “soft sleepers” which is the best seating arrangement China Rail offers on this particular train. Still, we are sharing our tiny cabin with a solo middle-aged mafia-looking Chinese guy and a sister (upper teens) & brother (maybe 8-years-old) who are somehow allowed to share the same bed.
"K" train soft sleeper
We slept in again this morning until the alarm woke us at 9am. Of course, I was awake off & on throughout the night with the street noise and tossing & turning on the hard, table-like bed. We took our time packing our bags, eating our noodle bowls & drinking instant coffee, and even chatting on Google Talk with my mom about meeting her & Ronnie in Turkey in a few short weeks.

When we checked out of the hostel at noon, I asked the guy at the front desk to write out the words “Suzhou train station” in Chinese so when we hailed a taxi on the main street we would be taken to the correct location. That worked well, and we were at the station by 12:30 for our 14:31 express train to Shanghai. We killed time in the waiting area by watching other passengers and observing all the various packages they were carrying. I also wrote an offline blog post about crossing the 2-month mark of our RTW trip.

When it was time to board the train around 14:20 everyone had already started crowding around the doors that led out to the platform. As usual, it was push & shove to get through the ticket gates and then board the train, despite 99% of the passengers having reserved/assigned seats. We eventually got to our seats and settled in for the less than 30 minute trip back to Shanghai. Greg & I noted that our trained topped out at 332kph during the short ride -- quite speedy!

We did a better job of navigating from the train station into the Shanghai metro where we took the 1 line 11 stops to South Railway Station. There it was a bit more confusing as they had all the exits that led directly into the train station blocked off, so we ended up having to go outside, cross a busy bus zone, and have our bags x-rayed again to get back into the train station. Greg’s backpack strap got caught inside the x-ray machine which caused us to panic at first because the bag simply disappeared and we thought someone had run off with it. After several attempts to disentangle it from the machine, they finally stopped then reversed the belt which freed the strap. Luckily it was not damaged!
After that small fiasco, we bought some non-perishable food (instant noodle bowls, crackers, bread) from a small supermarket inside the train station then tried to find somewhere to buy hot takeaway food to eat for dinner on the train. Not having much luck, I inquired at the first class waiting lounge where we were told that it was time to board the train.
cabbage in the corridor?

cabbage on your plate!
Boarding was slightly less crazy than the usual mad rush and we settled into our cabin easily enough. Shortly after the train started moving, we ventured to the dining car, passing bags of cabbage in the corridor. The only people in the dining car were train staff, who appeared to be finishing their meal. No one offered to serve us anything so, using hand signals, Greg indicated to the kitchen staff that we wanted to eat. They motioned that a cart would be coming around with food so we returned to our cabin to wait. I took a short walk around and, after seeing the unenclosed hard sleepers (6 bunks) and hard & soft seats, was thankful for our cozy soft sleeper! With no sign of the cart, we returned to the dining car where we were successful this time in ordering some food: a chicken dish, a beef dish, some of the aforementioned cabbage (now steamed), rice and 2 warm beers. When I asked about getting any cold drinks, the “waiter” told us they did not have a refrigeration system on the train! The food wasn’t bad and we took our time eating our dinner. I was also glad to see other Chinese passengers eating the same food as us and was thus less worried about getting sick! We returned to our cabin where the brother & sister had already gone to sleep (it was only around 7pm). With nothing else to do but read or write, we retired to our bunks for the evening.

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