China – Changshu, Shanghai and a day trip to Suzhou

Tuesday July 24 Today was a day to relax. We had most of the day to ourselves, while Wladyka was at work. We slept in, and took advantage of the fact we could do our laundry at his apartment! After two weeks of washing the bare minimum in the sink, that was a welcome change. Once Wladyka was back from work, we headed out for some dinner and then tried out the Changshu clubbing scene. The place we went to was completely different than I was expecting – mostly tables set up where you can kind of stand around and dance and share drinks with friends. Still, there was a little dance floor and a couple of girls convinced me to join them there. It was definitely a weird experience for me – yet again my height made me something of a novelty. Lots of people came over just to say hi and see how they stacked up (the highlight: a guy who put his hands on my shoulders and then jumped to get eye to eye with me). That is beginning to wear thin (really, I’m not that tall!), and I was ready to go after a while.

Wednesday July 25 We slept in after our night out. Wladyka had a work from home day, so we took the opportunity to explore the neighbourhood a little more. We visited a walking street and the local mall, and then decided we’d try to see a movie. After much struggling we figured out that the only movies that were currently showing were all in Chinese (other theatres we’d seen had English movies with Chinese subtitles), and that wasn’t for us. At least not that day. That evening we ended up at a Thai/German/Chinese fusion restaurant where I ate schnitzel and the Mikes had steak. You could hear the cook preparing the schnitzel, which was funny (fresh made!), and it was pretty good. Looking back now, it was definitely a weird little place… not something I would have expected from China!

Thursday July 26 Mike and I caught a taxi to the long distance bus station and spent the day in Suzhou, a beautiful water town. The bus ride through the country side was nice, and we started our visit with a walk to an 8 story pagoda (which we of course climbed), and some beautiful gardens. Next was a stop for dumpling lunch, and then we hopped on the brand new subway just to check it out. China initiated subway construction programs in many cities when the economic downturn began, and they are beginning to open now. What a great idea – it provides jobs in the short term, and improved public transit in the long. I only wish Toronto had such vision. After lunch we walked to Shantang Road, an area full of canals where you really feel like you’re in the “Venice of China”. There, you can see old architecture, lots of neat bridges and shops full of silks, shadow puppets and other souvenirs. We took a boat tour down one of the canals, which was really enjoyable. After the boat tour, it was time to head back to Changshu and meet up with Wladyka. We returned to the American Italian place from earlier in the week, where we met his bosses, had dinner and a few beers, and watched a live band play.

Friday July 27 Not too much to report for today. We woke up pretty late and spent the morning packing up before catching a taxi over to the bus station. The next available bus to Shanghai was in about an hour and a half so we grabbed lunch and waited. The bus ride was pretty uneventful, but I was surprised at the amount of undeveloped land between Changshu and Shanghai. It took a little while to get over from the Shanghai bus terminal to our hotel using the subway, but it went off without a hitch as well! It is impressive to note that while our tour book (published in 2007) noted there were 5 completed subway lines in Shanghai, when we arrived there were 11 operating lines (and the Maglev on top of that). Our hotel was near a huge department store with lots of restaurants in the basement, so we grabbed some noodles and dumplings in one of those spots and then called it a day.

Saturday July 28 We started our day by taking the metro over to People’s Square. Among other things, there are some nice gardens, an amusement park for kids and an exercise circuit there for visitors. We have noticed a lot of parks with outdoor exercise equipment here in China, which we both agree is a pretty cool idea. We exited the Square onto Nanjing Road, and did some window shopping. It was more quiet than we expected, although we did find ourselves the target of many people who wanted to sell watches and bags from picture cards they had. “Bu yao!” didn’t work so well here – those folks are pretty determined to part you from your money. We stumbled onto a nice looking restaurant advertising “Beef Noodles” and decided it was lunchtime. We found out once inside, it was a Taiwanese noodle place, so it was a little teaser for our next destination!

After lunch we headed down to the Bund to get a look at Shanghai’s famous skyline. It wasn’t nearly as crowded there as we were expecting, although that would change later on. Mike took some photos, and then we decided to take the tourist tunnel to get across the river. It was a bit silly (and cost a lot for what it was), but it did get us to the other side. We also decided to get a “combination ticket” with admission to the observation decks of the Shanghai World Trade Centre (SWTC). That saved us lining up for tickets at the SWTC, which was all right. We spent a few hours on the observation decks (the top one is the highest observation platform in the world!), and then had a few beers and a nice sandwich in a Canadian-owned bar on one of the lower levels while we waited for the sun to go down. Once it was dusk, we headed out to marvel at all the neon lights on the buildings. The skyline might be more impressive at night than it is during the day! When we were finished looking at it from the Pudong side, we caught the metro back to Nanjing Road and walked down to the Bund again. This time it was very crowded, and there were throngs of people heading down with us. There were too many people for the tiny sidewalks, and the road was chaos – with taxis, buses and a million tourists milling about.

Sunday July 29 For our second day in Shanghai we decided to visit Yuyuen Gardens, the touristy region around it. The Gardens themselves were very beautiful and quiet – a nice break from the crowds in the bazaar surrounding it. At first the garden grounds seemed much smaller than the those we visited in Suzhou, but we were pleasantly surprised by the number of passageways and little “environments” within the enclosure. We visited the gardens through the lunch hour, and after about 2 pm, when it started to get crowded, we decided to find the famous Nanxiang Steamed Bun House to sample Shanghai’s xiao long bao (soup dumplings). We had two types of the smaller dumplings, as well as big dumplings that came with crab soup you sucked out of them with a straw. Yum! After lunch we decided to walk back to our hotel through the French Concession, and enjoy the quieter, shady streets and European-style architecture. We spent the evening relaxing in the hotel, packing slowly and watching Canada win its first medal at the Olympics. Then it was early to bed in preparation for a big day of travel…. the last for a while!

Monday July 30 This was another brutal travel day along the lines of our trip to Changshu. We woke up at 5:30, showered up and caught a cab to the airport. We arrived around 2.5 hours early to the airport as per usual for international flights only to find out that our airline’s counter only opened 2 hours before the flight. Ok, no problem, we waited around and got through immigration and security in plenty of time. We waited around and got on the plane hoping that this time we’d take off on time. We had a 45 minute layover in Macau scheduled, and based on our other experiences with Chinese airlines, that was probably going to be too tight.

Yet again, we sat on the tarmac waiting for clearance from Air Traffic Control for over an hour. We missed our connection by about 20 minutes, and the fellow rescheduling our flights told us we should not have booked the trip we had (thanks for the tip). The best he could do for us was getting us on a flight 5 hours later. We decided to get lunch, but there was only a small cafeteria operating, serving rice and a sloppy grey topping that we couldn’t identify, and pork ball soup, of course at elevated airport terminal prices. Neither of us wanted to go in for that, so we bought some peanut M&M’s in the duty free shop and had a few beers. Thankfully our 5 pm flight had food (pork, bok choy and rice).

Nathan and a friend of his picked us up when we finally arrived and drove us back to Hsinchu, where we’ll be staying for the next little while. We dropped off our bags and hopped on some scooters to get something to eat (I doubled on Mike’s). It was my first time on a scooter, and it was a bit scary zipping around at night, but I got the hang of it eventually (read: the next day, in daylight). The food was delicious but in the end, the day’s events were too much for me. The boys dropped me off at home and went for some beers, while I got some sleep.

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