Highlights of our visit to this corner of China included the aesthetically appealing Bund (a myriad of European styled buildings that face the Huang Pu River), Nanjing Road (Shanghai’s main shopping district), Shanghai Museum (China’s largest museum), the Suzhou Grand Canal (an amazing engineering accomplishment as this is the longest man-made waterway in the entire world!), the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the Garden of the Masters of the Nets, and the Jade Buddha Temple. With a nice variety of old and new, our whirlwind tour was the perfect introduction to China.
21 Nov 07: Our Emirates flight from Dubai arrived into Shanghai at about 1505. Our initial impressions of Shanghai’s Pudong International airport? Excellent…we were surprised at how organized and efficient the airport staff was, our experience at immigration was positive, and the baggage claim process was ever so efficient. In less than 30 minutes, we were through customs, and were greeted by a smiling Ms. Ching-Ching (Penny was her “English” name because saying her Chinese name out loud makes the sound of money). Unfortunately for us, we arrived during Shanghai’s rush hour, so our ride to our centrally located Pacific Luck Hotel was guaranteed to take over an hour. Penny took advantage of our captive audience by giving us a quick rundown on Shanghai’s history and significance.
We couldn’t find our hotel, the Pacific Luck Hotel (299 WuSong Rd), on our LP guidebook map, but were relieved to find out it was centrally located (a fifteen minute stroll to the Bund…a nighttime must!). After presenting our passports for registration and giving a 200 Yuan deposit on our room, we got our room card but couldn’t unlock our room with it. So Robby ran downstairs to get a new room card but somehow with the language barrier, was given someone else’s card key! After unwittingly entering someone else’s hotel room, he ran down again and was finally given a key card that unlocked our suite. So much for hotel security!
We only had a few minutes before heading right back out for dinner and a show, so we decided to forego unpacking until after we returned back from our first night out in Shanghai. Our dinner was at the Central Hotel’s “Wang Bao He” restaurant, where we were spoiled with succulent dumplings, tasty dim sum dishes, sweet chewy bean curd (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it), spicy chicken, corn soup, asparagus, fried shrimp and rice, topped off with green tea. Since we had been craving for Chinese food for months, this meal really hit the spot! With a big smile on our faces, we looked forward to weeks of dining on Chinese cuisine. Dinner was accompanied with music played on a pipa, a Chinese lute, strummed by a lady in the corner.
After dinner, we had a short ride to the Ritz Carlton’s Shanghai Center Theater, where an acrobatic show was prearranged for us. What a fantastic performance! We were so amazed at the acrobats and their ability to contort their muscular bodies in symphony. The show was only scheduled for an hour and a half, and we assumed there would be a short intermission. However, 90 mesmerizing minutes later, we were reluctant to leave the venue. What a great first impression of China! Little did we know but there was plenty more to come…
22 Nov 07 – Shanghai – Suzhou: Happy Thanksgiving! We had to check out of the Pacific Luck Hotel as tonight we were heading to Suzhou for an overnight visit. Obviously we weren’t listening to Penny the night before, because she had advised that we pack lightly (a day-pack) and store our large backpacks in storage for our return visit to Shanghai the day after. After muddling though our luggage at the last minute, we were finally packed and ready to go.
Thanksgiving celebrated in Shanghai was a cool experience! Actually, to be honest, until Penny mentioned that it was Thanksgiving, we had completely forgotten that today was the special day. We were more stoked with checking out China’s pulsating and up-and-coming city. First stop after stuffing ourselves silly with the breakfast buffet was a visit to Yuyuan garden, which is located in the old part of the city. Also known as the Yu Gardens Bazaar, the garden complex and surrounding streets are beautifully reconstructed in an “old style” collection of buildings and squares. Even though we visited off season on a Thursday morning, the streets were still packed with Chinese and foreign tourists alike, all marveling at this cool oasis of Shanghai.
The Yuyuan Garden complex was founded by rich Ming dynasty officials. Penny gave us a briefing on how important gardens are to the Chinese, as we admired the careful balance and blending of nature and man-made structures. Components of a classical Chinese garden will always include stones and rockeries, plants, water, temples and bridges. We enjoyed our brief introduction to Chinese gardens, although Penny advised us we’d get our fill tomorrow in Suzhou, where we’d visit two famous gardens. Afterwards, we visited the magnificent Shanghai Museum, which we had seen the night before from the highway. We were blown away by how cool the museum was…Penny got us two audio guides and advised us that the “must see” sections included the Ancient Chinese Bronze and Ceramics galleries (on the first and second floors, respectively), as well as the fourth floor’s Chinese Minority Nationalities Art and Coin galleries. We had about 2 hours here, but could have easily spent more time as the museum is beautifully laid out, and the audio guides were excellent. The displays have excellent showcases, and while neither one of us are huge museum buffs, we thoroughly enjoyed our experience here as this visit provided an excellent overview of China’s vast history. Becky ended up buying an Ethnic Minorities book which showcased China’s 55 minorities…fodder for a future Chinese adventure as we just love tribal customs, costumes, and traditions!
Lunch was a visit to a restaurant that is owned by a former Chinese soccer player. Wow, the Chinese love to eat out! We expected that the restaurants we’d be dining at would be full of tourists. Boy were we wrong! Oftentimes, we’d be the only foreigners in a noisy restaurant full of Chinese diners…for lunch today we enjoyed “bai chai” (white cabbage), fish with mushrooms, lamb, red tomato soup, and tea. We found the vegetables to be a pleasant surprise…simple but delicious and nutritious! After lunch, we were supposed to have a visit to a local family, but Penny informed us that one of the family members was feeling sick. Instead, she offered to take us to a nearby Confucius temple, as well as the French Concession. We agreed and found the Frenchtown area to be a sleek, hip, and lively area of Shanghai. Penny led us in via one of the side streets, where gorgeous old architecture is perfectly maintained. We could only imagine how much one of those neoclassical mansions would cost these days! We had no idea that Shanghai was split up into a number of concessions prior to WWII. The French Concession was an autonomous French state within China in 1847, after the first Opium War. French and Russian expats lived and thrived once in this neighborhood.
Next stop was a brief visit to the Bund for photos by the river front. What a panoramic vista! Not only do the Bund’s gorgeous building façades impress, but the view across to the Pudong New Area (Oriental Pearl TV tower and the entire eastern bank of the Huangpu River) are fantastic. Obviously we weren’t the only ones to think so! The pedestrian zone of the Bund was packed full of tourists, all vying to take their photo op with the backdrop of Pudong New Area.
We had a bit of time to kill before our evening train to Suzhou, so we decided to partake in the tea tasting ceremony at the North West end of the Bund. Penny pointed out that the British Public gardens used to showcase an infamous sign on undesirables that read “No Dogs or Chinese allowed”. Yup, Shanghai has come a long way! The tea tasting ceremony was actually pretty cool, and we got to try a bevy of tea: jasmine, green, chrysanthemum, and oolong. After trying as much tea as we wanted, the high pressure sales tactics kicked in and we would have bought some tea except even with the “specially marked discount”, it was way overpriced. So we declined and strolled through the adjacent “Treasure Museum” where gorgeous specimens of jade carvings were on display. We admired the carvings and saw that buying souvenirs on the Bund is not for the feint of heart. The prices here are astronomical! After walking back out, we realized that we hadn’t paid for our tea ceremony, so Robby ran back in and paid up. And to imagine if we’d kept our mouths shut we would have gotten away with it for free! But our guilty conscious would have kicked in, and the tea ceremony was actually very educational and well worth a visit.
Nanjing Lu (road) was our next stop, and this is Shanghai’s shopper’s paradise. At least one full kilometer of buying opportunities, as well as the “hello” opportunists and “art students just trying to practice my English and sell you my art” vultures. We loved it. Strolling from one end of the strip to the other, we heard and saw the full range of street scenes in action. Prices here are still astronomical…who actually does more than window shop on Nanjing Road? First timers to China is who! Robby ended up buying a chopstick set, which he found for a fraction of the price later on in our trip. But at least we got off lightly…we saw other tourists loaded with purchases and who knows what kind of a bargain they got! The important thing to keep in mind is that everything is negotiable, so bargain away if you must. At this point in the trip, Becky remembered how to say “too expensive” in Chinese as well as “don’t want”.
It was dark by the time we linked back up with Penny and our driver. Our express train from Shanghai to Suzhou was departing at 1910 and we had about an hour to get to the train station and buy our tickets. Amazingly, the tickets were only 26 Yuan each (a bargain) and we were handed off from Penny to our new Suzhou guide, Ai Mei (Amy) at the train station. After saying goodbye to Penny, we waited in the train lounge with Amy for our train to Suzhou. While we waited, Amy launched into Suzhou’s vast and interesting history. We learned that the Chinese have a famous saying, “In the sky is Heaven’s paradise, on Earth paradise is Suzhou and Hangzhou”. She explained that the Chinese perceive Suzhou and neighboring Hangzhou to be the closest things to heaven on earth. Perhaps this perception is due to Suzhou’s UNSECO World heritage gardens, which symbolize the harmony of heaven and earth. We were lucky enough to be visiting two of them tomorrow, “the Humble Administrator’s Garden” and “the Garden of the Master of the Nets”.
The train to Suzhou was fast, and we arrived just before 8 pm. From the station, we had to walk a short distance to our awaiting driver and van, which took us to the Bamboo Grove Hotel. The hotel was fantastic, and even though there was an indoor pool we seriously contemplated taking a dip in, we were both tired after our long day and decided to crash right after checking into our room.
23 Nov 07 – Suzhou – Shanghai: The Bamboo Grove Hotel’s breakfast buffet rocked. Breakfast was broken into a western section and a Chinese section. We focused primarily on the Chinese food and ate our fill of duck, beef with mushrooms, fried noodles and soy bean curd. What a yummy way to start the day. Amy had told us about the Bamboo Grove’s outdoor pavilion where geese and fish could be fed, but it was closed for the winter season. Too bad, because we were all set to feed them a healthy meal of our leftovers! After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and waited in the lounge for Amy to show up for our day tour of Suzhou. The previous night, Amy explained that Suzhou is a city surrounded by a rectangular moat and a series of canals, with its city gardens tucked away behind obscure city walls. Our first agenda for the day was a visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which our LP guidebook claims is “one of Suzhou’s best, second only to the Garden of the Master of the Nets”. Lucky for us, we were visiting both gardens today!
The Humble Administrator’s Garden was packed with Asian tour groups at 9 am. We couldn’t believe how many matching baseball caps and brightly colored T shirts were in the crowd. It was hard to gain a healthy perspective on the garden’s five hectares because people were dodging in and out of our views at every corner. Much to our relief, this massive influx of people was gone in an hour, leaving us to enjoy the garden in solitude. Amy gave us a full briefing of the garden’s many streams, ponds, bridges, bamboo and pavilions. With names like “the mountain in view tower” or “the small flying rainbow bridge”, we just soaked up the atmosphere and came away from this sight with a brand new appreciation for Chinese gardens. Definitely an eye opening experience, and we can certainly attest to the garden’s popularity!
After our visit to the garden, we pulled up to a silk factory (Suzhou Kaldi Silk Company, www.szkdsilk.com), where we were given a no hassle tour of the silk worm process, all the way up to spinning the silk into warm duvets. These were priced from 400 Yuan upward, and could be compressed into a flat, miniscule package if hand carrying back home. We weren’t too interested in buying one for ourselves, but made a mental note to see if our hotel’s duvets were made from silk or cotton. The silk ones certainly kept us warm and cozy all night long! Robby bought some small silk fans as presents, and we took a break to enjoy a lunch of fried rice, beef with bell peppers, shrimp, sweet & sour pork, green vegetables, mushroom soup, and water melon. Watermelon appears to be a popular “desert” meal, as we often found that most of our lunch and dinners were topped off with watermelon.
After lunch, we agreed to hire a boat to take us from the Grand Canal Boat ticket office past the Wumen Bridge, up the Waicheng He, towards Huqiu Shan (Tiger Hill). The price was a whopping $50 which we initially balked at since it was too steep. However, we soon realized that we were hiring an individual boat, and there wouldn’t be other tourists to help us offset the costs. We actually debated skipping the canal tour altogether, but since we were short on time and did want to experience this portion of Suzhou, we decided to pay up. Although the trip was a cool experience, the river boat captain got in a shouting match with Amy as he had clientele to pick up at 1400, and we arrived (late) to the dock at 1330. So he decided to put our boat in super overdrive to make the return trip in 30 minutes! Hardly the best conditions for taking photos with him zooming past the more scenic spots along the canal. But we enjoyed the short lived ride nevertheless, wondering in the back of our minds if we had been taken for a ride. Oh well, life is too short to dwell on things we have no control over! We reached tiger hill park and admired the fall foliage surrounding the leaning “Yunyan Ta” (Cloud Rock Pagoda), an octagonal seven story pagoda. This popular site was teeming with Chinese tourists, who climbed up the artificial hill to pay their respects to He Lu, the founding father of Suzhou. We saw the body of water where He Lu was buried next to, alongside his 3000 swords. After queuing in line, we were given a few seconds to walk through the Cloud Rock Pagoda, which is in remarkable shape considering it was originally constructed in the 10th Century! Once we were up close to the pagoda, we could really see its tilt, which began about 400 years ago.
After our visit to Tiger Hill, we greeted our driver by the parking lot, and headed off to the Garden of the Master of the Nets. Although this is one of the smallest of Suzhou’s gardens, we have to agree that it is probably Suzhou’s best! Amy gave us an in depth briefing of all aspects of the garden, and we were surprised to learn that the New York Metropolitan museum had designed and displayed an exact replica of the “Spring Rear Cottage” (also known as the master’s study). It was getting dark fast, and we wanted some free time to take some photos but we had to spend an obligatory few minutes in the painting store adjacent to the garden. Becky finally just walked off and started snapping away before the admission’s officer told us he was locking up for the night and kicked us out.
Our return train to Shanghai departed at 1850, and we still had over an hour to kill before it arrived. Instead of any more shopping excursions, we decided to hang out at the train station reading our books. We thanked Amy and our driver, and waited in the lounge area with our fellow passengers until we were notified to make our way to the correct platform. Our return tickets were a whopping 39 Yuan. While we weren’t on the express Suzhou – Shanghai train, we still got back to Shanghai in less than 40 minutes. Once we boarded the train, we noticed that there were people sitting in our assigned seats. As soon as we approached them, they hopped up without a word and stood perched next to us the entire ride back. We asked Penny about this and learned that they had most likely purchased a 1 Yuan entrance fee ticket (to gain entrance to the train station)…if the ticket police had actually conducted a shakedown, they would have either been fined or forced to buy the full price ticket on the spot.
Tonight was a Bund night, and we joined the throng of late night merry makers along Shanghai’s most romantic boardwalk. Beer from the local grocery store was a mere 4 Yuan, and night hawkers were cooking their wares right there on the side of the Bund. With such delicious smells wafting in the air, we couldn’t resist buying some street food and making a night of it. The night lights from the Bund’s buildings filled the sky, making for a fun (and cheap) night out.
24 Nov 07 – Shanghai – Yichang: We had planned on waking up early to head over towards Pudong New Area for a panoramic view of Shanghai from the TV tower. That was, until we heard that our flight had been bumped up from 1500 to 1300. Since we still had a visit to the Jade Buddha temple, we quickly calculated that we didn’t have sufficient time to do both. Instead, we had a leisurely morning where our only agenda was to eat, pack, and meet Penny in the lobby by 9 am. Once we linked up with Penny, she told us that we’d have to make a slight detour on the way to the Yufo Si (Jade Buddha temple) to stop by her office, where she had to pick up a copy of a questionnaire for us to fill out. Little did we realize it at the time, but each and every travel guide we had on our trip would require us to do the same. We were quite impressed that our feedback was so highly solicited…our only guess is that if there were any issues at all during the tour, the head office would find out in short order and still have time to rectify any problematic areas! After filling out the questionnaire and handing it back to Penny, we arrived at the Jade temple. Lucky for us, today was a full lunar moon day and the temple was packed with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of devotees praying in the courtyard and burning incense. It was a Saturday and many people had the day off. Somehow despite the long lines of visitors waiting to enter into the temples, the courtyard maintained a festive atmosphere with the crowds, incense and smoke. In fact, our visit to the Jade Buddha temple was the first place in Shanghai where we felt like we were truly in “China”, experiencing the China of old that we had imagined in our dreams. No photos of the 2 meter white jade Buddha were allowed, but elsewhere we were given free reign to snap away.
Lunch was at the “New Bund Restaurant”, a corner eatery on the Bund where the staff was ever so friendly and attentive. We could hardly take a sip of our tea before they were on us for refills. Same deal for our seaweed soup, and fried rice. We also had pear chicken (too sweet for Becky), and beef-n-onions, topped off with watermelons for desert. After lunch, we zoomed off towards the domestic airport to check in for our 1300 flight to Yichang. Thank goodness for Chinese efficiency and e-tickets. We arrived at the airport at 1230 and were a bit nervous about arriving so late, but Penny was completely unperturbed, and calmly had us checked in with boarding passes in hand in less than five minutes. After bidding her and our driver farewell, we boarded the plane at 1315 for the smooth and comfortable flight. Looking out our window seat, we could see mountains and rice paddies as we touched down at Yichang.