I did not prepare well for this trip. I was in HCMC for 5 days for a business conference and catching up with friends. The Sunday I got back, I was sick and on MC for 2 days. I only managed to do some google search and printed out a list of places in each province that I would visit. Until Friday morning itself, my plan was not even confirmed. Luckily, Friday was announced to be a Public holiday due to General Election, hence I got some time to plan briefly for train schedule and book for hostels.
My strategy was to ask receptionist at hostels in the morning and night before sleep to craft out the next day itinerary. And it worked out pretty fine.
So I arrived in Shanghai Pudong airport at 5am. Because of that I needed to wait for 1 hour for the first subway to Hongqiao railway station. It was messy the moment station gate opened, the crowd rushed in, they pushed and pulled. Ticketing machine for subway token was so packed. It was totally stressful for such an early morning. I met a guy from India, who wanted to go to the railway station too. So in a way, we became same-fate foreigners. Nonetheless, the subway system was amazing with English announcement for station and especially for interchange lines.
Next thing, I needed to buy the railway ticket to Nanjing. Local people can buy from ticketing machine with their ID cards but without then you would need to queue up in line at the ticket counter. None of the staffs spoke a single English word and I hardly can comprehend their Chinese too. So it became paper and pen plus sign language battle. I managed to get my train tickets to Nanjing and also bought in advance the ticket from Nanjing to Suzhou. Well, the bullet train ride was pretty cool actually. It went up to 300km/hr and it was really smooth. The seat was much more comfortable than China Eastern airline lol.
The morning disaster did not end there. As I got to Nanjing, I took the subway to a station near my hostel. That was easy to handle. But, the hassle came when I tried to figure it out how to walk from the station to the hostel. Asked a group of young girls, they opened their China street directory and guided me the way, the totally opposite direction. Along the street, I asked a few others too and they all advised to take a bus because the place was further away. That did not make sense at all because it supposed to be walking distance from the station. I just roamed around the area and tried figuring out the way. I landed on the correct the street name but to my surprise, the house number was until 30+ only when the hostel was 142. How??! I asked the locals who stayed on that street, they also had no idea… I wasted an hour around the area for nothing. I saw another hostel nearby, of the same hostel chain so I went in to ask. The receptionist guided me the way. It was funny how a street was bended, divided into awkward segments and not in a straight line… I finally made it to the hostel.
And the first thing that I did was to knock off and sleep.
As the hostel was just a stone away from Confucian temple and the Huai river, the rest of my day itinerary was just to take a leisure stroll around the area. Confucian temple, I did not pay 30RMB to go in, I was just walking the external rim. Examination Hall was the same thing needed to pay 20RMB or so and I did not.
The entire walking street was quite fun to walk where I could see lots of Chinese stuffs like embroidered silk, calligraphy, etc. I tried the sugar coated fruit, sour sweet but delicious in a way. And it was amazing to see deep fried tofu being a hot seller as street food too. The architecture was gorgeous and splendid. And the Asian fusion mixed with a little modern made it even more awesome. Seeing KFC, McD and Starbucks signages shining within the ancient street, it suggested how commercial and touristy the area has become. I found that food was pretty pricey. Some kind of crab soup dumpling was 20RMB, roasted chestnut was 25RMB for 100gr and so on. I did not spend on food.
I took a boat ride along the Huai river, 50RMB. It was great to see the river banks from the boat view but the ride was just so so. It was short, about 15 minutes and the pre-recorded explanation was in Chinese. So afterward I decided to stroll along the river banks and that was cool. At night, it looked amazing.
However, the first day of adventure was really overwhelming. I was tired, devastated and as the result, I cried the whole night out.
The night before, I aimed to visit the Ming tomb, the mountain area and tried to see if I could visit a few other places but not quite sure which ones. The receptionist was very helpful as she gave me detailed direction of which subway line to take, which ones were convenient to clum together. Museums were not really my taste so I kind of excluding all the museums. I headed out confidently for the Ming tomb.
At that station, directory was too brief and misleading for where I wanted to go. I tried to ask the Passenger Service staff and none of them spoke English. At that critical moment of frustration, I saw a couple who was trying to figure out the way too, the lady was Chinese (Lila from Wuxi) and the man was a Caucasian (Brad from Belgium). I approached them for direction and I heard them saying that they were going to the mountain area too, which was my second destination for the day. A spark ignited: “How about I jusy tag along this couple?” And yes, I did! They were so friendly and fun. We got the wrong direction some times but we really had a great time interacting.
Dr. Sun’s memorial palace was up in Zhao Shan Ling. According to Lila, the place was chosen because of its golden combination of mountain, water, wind… which was the best of all worlds in Chinese Fung Sui. I was there on a Sunday and it crazily packed with people, mostly domestic travellers and tour groups. The bird eye view when I got to the top was stunning. I could see the whole city from up there. Despite the mid-day hot sun, the breeze was so chilling. They wanted to head for the Presidential Palace so we parted ways. They recommended me to Xuan Wu river. Thanks to them, I had a great morning.
I made my way to the Ming tomb on an electrical car. Entrance fee was 70RMB. But since it was the high recommended place to visit in Nanjing, I paid! And it was a good decision because the Ming tomb complex was huge with different sections such as the Main tower, former residence, garden, cherry blossom hill, etc. And I took a good 3 hours plus in there (compensated to 70RMB paid).
I was a bit lost trying to get back to the subway station. The next one I aimed to visit was Xuan Wu lake as recommended by Lila. It was just next to the Xuan Wu station itself so it should not be a problem. After much wandering in lost direction, I ended up taking the “correct” electrical car which headed to the subway.
Xuan Wu lake was a leisure place for the locals. I could see paddle boating on the lake, old folks played instruments and sang traditional Chinese songs in pavilions around the lake, youngsters came to picnic, camping and people gather together for some card games (instead of rounds of Chess).
A better day for me and I headed back. I met a new roommate, Becka from LA, USA. And we had a real good chat. She was in Kyoto, Japan working for 2 years and now coming back home. But before that, she decided to travel Asia for a little while. For the two lone travellers, talking places and countries could never run out of topic.
2 days in Nanjing were generally good.
I left hostel at 530am to catch the first 6am subway as the train to Suzhou was at 730am. The problem was, the first subway to railway station only started at 636am and it can cause me being late. I met Alice, from Beijing who spoke very good English and her train was at 720am. And we dicided to share taxi together (but in the end, she insisted to pay it all, 25RMB). We made it in time for the train. It was nice listening to her sharing of how different Beijing could be from the second tier cities. I also expressed how hard it was to have a local who can speak English for the past 2 days.
I arrived Suzhou at 1130am and the hostel was easier to find so I had no morning disaster. But in this hostel, communication became the problem. Only one staff who could barely converse in English (thank God, at least one person could). So my itinerary for the rest of the day was to visit the Humble Administrator’s garden. Along the bus ride, I spotted a nice walking street (the street was in my list too but at that time I did not know).
Humble Administrator’s garden’s ticket was 90RMB. And I was there until they closed at 530pm. It was lucky to be there on a Monday, not so many people around. Gardens generally close at 5pm and museums close on Monday. The garden was massive with different pavilions, guest houses, halls and each has its own charm and beauty. I really enjoyed it there and spammed photos until my phone went from fully charged to totally flat. My new technique was to following foreign tour groups as they were easier to ask for help in taking photos. Another technique was to sneakily behind English guided tour for introduction and explanation. That worked out awesomely. I met two German brothers whose love gardens and photography. And we shared a common view which was to wait patiently until the frame had no human inside to take a shot. And I got a lot of pretty ones. I met a local uncle who is 82. He made sketches of the garden beautifully. He was so generous and asked me taking photos of his art works. Uncle recommended me going to Dong Li water town instead of the other two I had on my list. As I stayed until closing time, the garden was pretty empty and the view was indeed amazing!
The receptionist recommended me to walk this street right near to the garden. It was a long touristy walking street along the canel with food stores, shops and all. Breaking away from the flocks of tourists, I took shortcuts into the town and houses. The locals eagerly gethered along the banks for fishing and prawning. The kids had so much fun with the piles full of small fishes and shrimps.
I took the bus back to the night street I spotted earlier in the morning. I guess this was the night life of local people for shopping, clubbing and all that. I bought quite a bit of snacks to bring back too.
The long day ended well. I got caught under a sudden down pour on my way back to hostel. I met Alexi from LA, USA in the hostel. He worked in Japan for 8 years and Shanghai for 8 months. He is a hard core Asia traveller and loves handicrafts. We had a quality talk on backpacking to economics to US univeristies.
I planned going to Dong Li as Uncle at the Humble garden suggested. It was a lomg bus ride to get there. And it dizzled for the whole day. The bus engine did not start so the driver asked Dong Li passengers to transfer to another bus instead. I barely made up the words he said but I transfered after hearing the repetition of Dong Li. I identified a few others so that later when they got off, I would follow. The bus driver did not even care to announce the stop, even when the Chinese asked him what stop it was. And when it reached just a random bus stop for normal bus, not long distance bus, he kept saying Dong Li and dissapeared for his quick break, I got off. None of those that I identified earlier did. I was the only one who got off there. Confusion to the max, I pointed the Dong Li Chinese characters which was written by hostel receptionist on my paper to the local, he nodded and pointed the direction for me. I kept walking along. The street looked quite touristy with latterns and I finally found the town entrance. Ticket was 100RMB and it must better be nice, if not I would burn the town down. But first thing first, I went into the Tourist service center to ask how I could get a bus back to Suzhou bus station later. They were of no help, not speaking English, totally unfriendly and refused to help. My new technique was to find a foreign tour group and asked the guide (who probably could speak English). Not so many foreign tour groups were here actually.
I met an old couple from Perth, Australia, 72 and 76, who have travelled the world intensively. We talked briefly and they expressed how much they love Singapore. They also shared that China provinces have become more and more commercial, not as nice as they visited in their younger days. To my impression, it seemed like the foreign travellers tend to help each other more here in China.
I headed to the water town with high expectation. The entire town was gigantic, hugged by the river and channels. There were 10 different sections to visit, consisted of halls, gardens, pagoda and a small island. I came in to 2 halls, garden and the pagoda. The best thing I did there was to wear the ancient royal highness costume for photo taking.
And I also met an old Chinese couple, who were still deeply in love, held hands to walk around the garden. Uncle always asked Aunt pose for photos. I offered to help them take a photo so they both can be in it. They looked so excited and kept saying thanks to me for that. They are really the relationship goal to any couples.
The town itself was rustic and charming. However, it did show the highly commercialized side of tourism. Tired of walking, I decided to go back after 3 hours wandering there.
Finding the way to bus station was really no joke! But thanks to 2 nice uncles who showed me the way and kinda walked me there, I made it to the station. And the moment I reached back Suzhou bus station, it rained dogs and cats! The problem with this bus station was if I want to take back the same regular bus back, I need to go around to the departure hall and make a U turn at the highway then cross under the highway itself. The rain made it much more challenging to navigate. It was extremely cold too. I did observe on my way there of how to get back right so I tried to focus and used my mind palace. I was socked wet! But at least, I reached the bus stop to go back hostel, with an empty stomach.
As I reached back, the rain kinda stopped. I wanted to go for either KFC or McD which was quite expensive here for some reasons. The local food had been a bit of a challenge to my stomach. Alexi just got back from his museum hunting as well so we decided to head for pizza. It was good to have someone for dinner because you can share the bill! The pesto chicken pizza and bacon wrapped asparagus were delicious. Thank God I finally had a proper meal after a few days!
I decided to just have a slow day. Suzhou has a few other smaller gardens than Humber, museums and water towns but I was not quite interested. I guess Humber and Dong Li were good enough to bring out the best of Suzhou.
I just took a walk to Confucius temple which was not so far from the hostel. The engraved stone tablets were amazing. In the temple, so many P4 students around and it looked like a school trip. I had the chance to talk to the teacher and understand that they were from an international school in Suzhou. And every year, all class 4 students would go to a historical site for day trip to learn and treasure the past.
From the temple, I wandered around the area, walked in the small alleys to observe local life and the impressive architecture. It was a good morning stroll.
Headed back to hostel, I bought bananas and watched DVDs for the rest of the day. Just chilled out. Early night because the next day I would leave for Hangzhou.
The hostel was easy to find as their description on website was very clear and comprehensive. But I overshot the address and as the result, I walked for an extra 20 minutes to get back. I was too tormented after the past few days I guessed.
I checked in and went straight away to Longjing tea plantation with high expectation. It was one of the three places I wanted to visit in Hangzhou, the other two being West lake and Wuzhen town (actually after being to Dong Li, I could give Wuzhen town a pass). The hostel showed a detailed route to get there but after the first bus, I could not find the bus to transfer to. I tried to ask a few young people at the bus stop but they did not even hear me out, they already started shaking their heads and waving their hands. The was a man who kind enough to check baidu for direction but not useful at all. And his wife (I guessed) rushed him when their bus came. I heard her saying something in Chinese like “wasting time for what”. Really F* it. I went to the opposite stop and tried to ask an old Aunt. She was so nice and helped me find the destination among all bus routes. I really felt that old folks were more helpful and friendly (if you could ask them in Chinese, even simple one). So I headed to the plantation.
Longjing tea plantation was a total disappointment. The whole place filled with tea houses and old aunties, middle-aged ladies lured me to drink and buy tea from them. The only ok thing was China national tea museum where they showcased how tea culture has developed since its birth and how it differs across countries over the world. I did not see any signs or so to a village whereby tourists can visit inside the plantation and stuff. With deep disappointment, I decided to go back.
I dropped off 5 stops earlier to stroll along West Lake. Well, another disappointment actually. It was indeed a gorgeous and beautiful place but then again, it was too commercialized and packed. Nothing can be deemed interesting or fascinating based on my definition. Along the river banks were just awaiting boats. A few ancient villas of those rich scholars and pavilions scattered all over. West Lake in my imagination or perhaps to be exact, what Chinese old series portrayed it, was like the inner peace of the soul and heaven on Earth. The truth was far from that. I hoped to hear folk songs being sung, to enjoy oldies play chess or perform some tai chi. None of these above was present. I walked until my legs could break into pieces.
Right next to the hostel was a cafe and a bar. I decided to just have a good dinner for my poor stomach and space out.