Tuesday, April 03, 2007 China China

Suzhou and Zhouzhuang

The Humble Administrator's Garden [Enlarge]

On the fifth overnight train of our round-the-world trip, this time from Huangshan in Anhui Province to Suzhou in Jiangsu province, our companions in the compartment were Chinese and we were not able to communicate with them. Aside from the language difficulties, they made it particularly hard by immediately falling asleep the moment the train started moving! The Chinese have an incredible ability to fall asleep on demand whenever they find themselves on public transport, day or night. They—and us—were woken up very early in the morning by the conductor, because they needed to get off at Nanjing. [Today's fact of the day: Beijing just means 'North Capital', and Nanjing is the opposite 'South Capital'—Nanjing was the capital of China until The third Emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhou Di, moved it up north to Beijing in 1420.]

We were in turn woken up fifteen minutes before the train reached Suzhou, and when we arrived we headed out of the station's main exit to meet our new guide. But nobody was there. We stood by the exit for a few minutes and eventually a 24-year old woman ran over to us, flustered and full of apologies. This was our guide Jing, and we immediately liked her. She had been standing right next to our carriage when we got off the train, but somehow we had missed her and she had missed us. She had spent the next few minutes panicking about whether we had arrived in Suzhou or not. The staff told her that two foreigners had got out of our carriage and had headed towards the exit, so she ran after us. There was no need for her to apologise, it was just that our previous two guides had met us at the station exit so we weren't even looking for her on the platform.

We checked into our hotel and quickly had a shower and sent an email to our contact at TravelChinaGuide using the free in-room internet. We were not overly dramatic, but just outlined why we were unhappy with the tour so far, and said that we hoped their service would improve for the rest of our trip. There's not much point in complaining when the holiday is over. We added that things already seemed much better in Suzhou.

After breakfast we headed into town. While we had been having our shower and a quick, but very good breakfast, it had begun to rain. Jing borrowed two large umbrellas from the hotel reception and we set off in the car to our first stop: the traditional Chinese garden belonging to the Master of the Nets. Suzhou is famous for its gardens. The Master of the Nets is the smallest, but like the Yu garden in Shanghai it is carefully and cleverly designed to appear much larger than it is. Suzhou is inland from Shanghai and a little cooler, so the fruit tree blossom that had already finished flowering in Shanghai was in full swing here, as were the camellias and wisteria. The garden has a big pond flowing all the way through it, full of happy and well-nourished carp, if size is anything to go by. The rain was still falling steadily, but it wasn't a problem—if anything, it improved the garden. The dark sky made the pond appear slate grey and sent beautiful ripples across the surface, and the wet foliage looked fresh, lush and green. The rain had also kept the crowds away!

Silk winding machine [Enlarge]

Lunch was due to be at a silk factory. This was, of course, another shopportunity, but for a change it was actually very interesting. To qualify as a genuine shopportunity according to our own definition, the attraction has to be a factory, or to be disguised either as a museum, or a "watch the local people do their craft" type place—a place of education and cultural exchange. Then there must be a shop, the bigger the better, at which you can do some financial exchange too. Usually, the shop part dominates, but in this case the shop was preceded by demonstrations using real clunking, whirring machines, which showed how they cultivate the silkworms, persuade them to build high-quality cocoons, boil them (ouch), unravel their silk, spin it, dye it and weave it. It was an amazing place.

One of our complaints to TravelChinaGuide had been that the guides were never allowed to eat with us. So at lunch in the factory's restaurant we practically insisted that Jing eat with us and explain how to eat Chinese style. It probably caused her all sorts of problems (presumably her own lunch was sitting uneaten somewhere else in the restaurant, and the driver was eating alone), but she handled it admirably and we got all the answers we needed. It turns out that you can pretty much do anything you want, but if you're doing things properly, you don't use the plate for eating from—it's for scraps, bones and prawn shells. You use your rice bowl as an edible plate, moving food from the serving dishes a piece at a time onto the pile of rice, then picking them up with some rice using the chopsticks. We were pleased to find out that we were holding the chopsticks properly and using them fairly well, for foreigners. Our moment of triumph came when we managed to eat a prawn, still in its shell, and return the shell to the scraps plate, using just our chopsticks. It was one of the proudest moments of our trip.

Tulips [Enlarge]

Jing took us to see Suzhou's largest garden after lunch, this time belonging to the emperor's Humble Administrator. It is huge, but still retains the traditional style of having separate 'rooms'. The banks of planting are in pots so they can be changed seasonally. For our visit it was tulips: thousands of them. Glenn got right down amongst them to take some artistic shots and Jing was keen to see the results. "How do you make the background all blurry like that?!" she asked. She loves taking pictures and had her own camera with her, so Glenn gave her a quick lesson on selective focus and filling the frame and with Isla holding the umbrellas (the rain had stopped) she set off on a photographic expedition.

As we were walking over a bridge, Jing's phone rang and for some reason we had a feeling it was TravelChinaGuide's head office. Our hunch was right, and after a bit of discussion the phone was passed to Glenn. It was a senior lady. She made it clear that the company was not used to receiving complaints and would treat the fact that we were less than 100% happy as a very serious matter. She assured us that we would get experienced guides in future, who would speak excellent English, and all of our points would be addressed. She also promised to give us a full response when we get to Xi'an, where they are based. We feared for Peter. Our email had been in the tone of "It's not the end of the world, but we're a bit unhappy with this, this and this; we're just telling you so that you can tweak some things for the rest of the trip". But we had triggered a major investigation and it sounded like Peter was in a whole lot of trouble.

Jing dodged the question when we asked her what the TravelChinaGuide manager had said to her before she'd passed the phone over to Glenn, but in case she'd been worried by it we tried our best to reassure her about how happy we were with our experience of Suzhou. She was a perfect guide, actually. She is friendly and chatty and had a convincing-sounding answer to any question we put to her. Most importantly she understood all our questions! She had mastered the art of letting us feel like we were taking things at our own pace, but making sure that we arrived at the right place at the right time. Or maybe the itinerary in Suzhou was just better. She must have been bemused by our fascination with the silk making machines. She's probably never had anyone stare at the sorting chute where empty cocoons magically go up the conveyer belt (against the flow) to be discarded while ones which still have silk on them fall down the belt to be unwound some more. Or say "wow, that's so cool", without a hint of irony, in reference to the insanely clever contraption which finds the end of the thread and starts unwinding it. Most people probably pass through the factory with a "yes, that's very nice, but when do I get to the shopping part?" and any guide would prefer tourists like that—the guides get commission on every purchase—but Jing sussed that we weren't interested and steered us around the shop. We were finished for the day and for a change dinner wasn't included, so on the way back to the hotel Jing gave us a recommendation of a dumpling restaurant, marked where it was on our map and wrote the name in Chinese in case we needed to ask for directions.

Zhouzhuang canal [Enlarge]

Next morning we drove to the nearby town of Zhouzhuang. By the way, 'zh' in pinyin is pronounced something like a 'j', at least in a South-East China accent—so Suzhou is Soo-Jo and Zhouzhuang is Jo-Jooang. In a northern accent they sometimes sound more like Soo-dzo and Dzo-Dzooang. Zhouzhuang is China's number one (and unfortunately most touristy) water town, a similar idea to Venice. In fact the most famous Venetian of all, Marco Polo, visited the area and proclaimed Suzhou to be "Noble, large and handsome."

By the time we arrived at Zhouzhuang we were no longer in our tour car. Instead we were in a hastily commandeered taxi, because our driver had been arrested and taken away at a police checkpoint en route! He had forgotten to pay his road tax—or rather he had paid it (he insisted) but didn't have the receipt. His wife was due to meet him at the police station with the receipt. That's what we were told, anyway, but we didn't see him again for the remainder of our stay.

Zhouzhuang reminded us of Lacock, a National Trust village not far from where we used to live. The traditional buildings are carefully preserved so that a visitor can see a village as it would have looked several hundred years ago, but it is still a real place where people actually live. Here the opportunities to part the unwary tourist from their money are rife. We were seeing the same silk scarves and ties, the same writing sets, the same jade writing seals, at every shop in every town. In between the shops were reconstructions of traditional houses and rooms, including a Chinese medicine shop and a classroom for Confucian scholars. An interesting moment was when we ventured into a quiet courtyard where an elderly couple were working away on two pottery wheels. They were making the traditional roof tiles used on every roof in Zhouzhuang. One consequence of ensuring that heritage towns and villages like Zhouzhuang are maintained in authentic style is that traditional building and craft techniques are not lost.

Jing told us that our train the next morning would be at 07:30 and we arranged to meet in the hotel reception at 06:30 (yikes!). A new driver took us back to the hotel and we had an early night. We never give a tip unless the service has been excellent, and in Jing's case it was. So we prepared an envelope for her and included a note to say that if she ever comes to the UK she is very welcome to come and stay with us and we will show her around our part of the world.

Map of Day 127

Day 127
Huangshan to Suzhou

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Anonymous said...

How long have you been in China? From reading this article it seems as if you just got off the plane and went on tour. There are several things you must come to terms with when traveling in China. One is to expect the unexpected, and don’t whine when things don’t always go your way. Roll with the punches, go with the flow. I’m not sure you are able to do such things being from the UK and all. You just can’t be so damn uptight about everything. You have to remember you are in China. If you want a good tour guide you should learn Chinese. I’m not surprised you had a good time in Suzhou. It is a beautiful city and there really is no need for a tour guide here.

Glenn Livett said...

Hi 'anonymous',

Thanks for your comment. It's a shame that you chose to leave a judgemental comment like this when you clearly haven't read much of our blog. In our blog we explain in detail our reasons for taking an arranged tour of China. It was a compromise because of various constraints which we clearly explain. A trip such as ours is all about compromise: 'rolling with the punches and going with the flow', as you put it. This has regrettably meant that from time to time we've had to take a short-cut here or there.

We can assure you that we would have much preferred to travel slowly and independently in China rather than have to suffer the continual mercenary behaviour of our guides, some of whom were only interested in dragging us to the next souvenir shop. All this in a country which claims to reject capitalism!

Please be assured that our blog is never intended to be about whining. We simply comment on what happens, usually good, sometimes bad. You should note however that we do have quite a dry sense of humour, being from the UK and all, and perhaps you have missed some of our nuances. If you want to fully appreciate our blog, you should learn about the English culture.

This brings nicely us to your rather flippant remark that if we want a good tour guide we 'should learn Chinese'. Does that same rule apply in other countries, or is it just China where you need to learn the local language to get somebody who is professional? If so, that's news to us. Actually we have taken a few Mandarin lessons while living in Korea in the past year and we've found it to be a fascinating language.

Where do you come from? Surely not China, or you would know that there is no language called 'Chinese'. But whatever, while we're on the subject of languages, you might be interested in a quick correction of your English: you should have used the simple past tense in your first sentence rather than the present perfect.

Anyway, thanks again for your comment!