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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Shanghai: Suzhou & Xintiandi - 4.13.11 Part 1

Writing this day's blog was like pulling teeth, I worked on it for two nights and was half way finished.  In the middle of writing, Blogger had some kind of a technical problem and not only that it was not able to save the last few minutes of changes that I made, it wiped out everything I wrote. 

For the next ten days, I was mourning the work that I lost, trying to contact Blogger to get my lost work back in vain. I struggled to re-write everything and could not put down even one word. 

As I tried to recall the itinerary in my head, I realized that Suzhou was my least favorite part of the trip.  It was hard to write it the first time, not to mention I had to re-write it again.  

The bottom line is, it was down to a week before our next trip.  I knew I had to finish Shanghai before my next travel report is due.  So here I was, dragging my fingers across the keyboard, reluctantly back to the morning of April 13..... 

  • Lion Forest Garden (獅子林)
  • North Temple Pagoda (北塔報恩寺)

Ever since the trip to Barcelona & Madrid, I decided to always make an effort for a side trip when I visit big cities.  Suzhou would be our side trip when we were in Shanghai.

There are many tour companies that offer day trips to Suzhou and can be easily arranged through hotel concierges.  The day tour costs around CN¥ 800 per person.  Since I hate group tours, we decided to go on our own.  We arrived at the Shanghai Railway Station just before 9 AM.  The high speed train from Shanghai to Suzhou was less than 45 minutes and cost only CN¥ 41 per person.  The train station was modern and orderly.  Free bottles of water were given with the tickets we purchased.  The cart  and seats were assigned to each ticket but written in Chinese.  And the entrance point to each cart was marked on the platform.

The high speed train was kept very clean.  After we settled down at our seats for awhile, I noticed some Beijing Opera was playing in the background.  I pointed out to H and said, "Really? is this what we have to listen to the whole ride?"  Then, only to find out later that it was another passenger behind us watching some show on his laptop without the headsets on.  I guess, in a land that houses 18 billion people, the personal space in many forms do not exist. 

40 minutes later, we stepped out of Suzhou Train station.  There were many taxi drivers, vendor selling maps, and tour companies selling day tours.  H and I were a bit lost about what we should do next.  Reluctantly, we took a day tour with a company for CN¥ 120 per person including all entrance tickets. The price was a steal, I assumed that it was because the tour was catered for local tourists as they did not provide any English guides.

Our first stop was the Lion Forest Garden (獅子林), a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1342.  Once we arrived, we were surrounded by groups of Chinese tours.  We dissed our tour and wondered off on our own.  The grotto maze in the garden was quite unique for Chinese garden designs.  Unfortunately, it was just too crowded. 

An hour later, as we left the garden and hopped back on to the bus, we noticed a fruit vendor in front of the garden selling some scary bright colored plums.  The guide confirmed our suspicion and warned people not to buy them because those plums were dyed with artificial coloring.

The next stop was  North Temple Pagoda (北塔報恩寺).  Once we entered the temple property, it was required that we followed the temple guide for a 15 minutes tour before we could venture out on our own.  The tour guide hinted a few times about donations.  After the tour, some "high ranking monks" came out to greet the visitors. When the monks talked to me, they asked where I was from and suggested donations again.

I have developed this unfortunate defense mechanism that every time when locals of the countries that I visited asked me where I was from, I immediately had my guard up.  Often times, I had the impression that these people were either:
A) trying to distract you with the conversation and pull some tricks or,
B) to seize you up and see how much higher they could jack up the price.

The whole thing felt quite shady.  Since they only spoke Chinese, H had no clue what was happening.  It was probably safe to assume that if you were a foreign tourists, they would not bother you for donations.

So far, the restroom situation in Shanghai was pretty manageable.  I encountered people smoking in the restroom stalls, and there was never any toilet paper or hand soap. But overall, it was definitely better than I expected.  At North Temple Pagoda, my limit was tested.  Don't get me wrong, the restroom was quite clean.  What I had problem with was the design of it.  There was a long gutter in the ground that connected all stalls.  Water would pull down the gutter periodically to flush waste.  Which meant you could see other people's waste if you got unlucky....  The thought of that freaked me out.  I did not want to see other people's "stuff" nor did I want other people to see mine.  Thank god I was the only one in the restroom at the time.

After the temple, we had a quick lunch at a small restaurant across the street.  The pork in the Xiaolongbo had this weird dark red color which scared us a little.  But the noddles were quite good.

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