Day 5: Suzhou

I am waken by the low buzz of conversation and a sudden stream of light pouring into my bed from the hallway window. Only a couple hours from Suzhou, curtains are being thrown open by other passengers on the sleeper train. We find a couple granola bars for breakfast and crawl down to the bottom beds, joining our cabin mates in the only place in our cabin we are able to sit upright. Later, Paul, our G Adventures CEO, stops by to check in and inform us we will be getting off the train in about thirty minutes.

After the train rolls to a stop, we gather our luggage and follow the narrow hallway to the exit. Passing empty cabins, we are surprised many of the passengers departed during the night. Finally, our sixteen hour train ride has come to an end. Exiting the station, we walk to the metro station. After a couple of stops, we walk the rest of the way to the Suzhou Overseas Chinese Hotel dragging our luggage behind us. Passing a Starbucks, Paul denies our pleads to stop for coffee, promising we will have time soon.

A beautiful garden with a gazebo and small pond surround the hotel entrance. Paul allows us two hours to check in, shower, and get our promised coffee. Showering quickly, we leave the hotel and walk down the street to the Starbucks already filled with our group members. After ordering coffees, we walk back to our hotel to enjoy the peaceful garden.

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Starbucks and Chicken Noodle Bowl in Suzhou

Before taking a public bus to the Master of the Nets Garden, we walk to a Chinese noodle restaurant for lunch. Taking up most of the restaurant, we divide into groups of four. We sit at a small wooden table with a couple members of our group. Paul takes our orders of vegetarian mushroom for me and chicken for Mitch. Waiting for our food, I walk to the counter a few feet away and order two beers. While I am waiting to pay, I see an older Chinese man standing next to my chair. Unsure of what he is doing, I turn back towards my seat as I hear a loud splash followed by a squeal from our table. I look just in time to see the man’s hand emerging from the fish tank grasping a large, flopping fish. Just as quietly as he appeared, he vanishes back into the kitchen. After devouring delicious bowls of noodles we walk to the bus stop.

Master of the Nets Garden

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Master of the Nets Garden, Suzhou

We have ninety minutes to explore the Master of the Nets Garden, the smallest but most impressive of the Suzhou residential gardens. In the eleven hundreds it was known as the Hall of Ten Thousand Books, because the studies in the central garden were bursting with reading material. Then, in the sixteen hundreds it became known as the Fisherman’s Retreat.

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Master of the Nets Garden, Suzhou

In nineteen ninety-seven, the Master of the Nets Garden was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization encourages preservation of irreplaceable cultural and natural heritage while providing life and inspiration around the world. 

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Yinjing Bridge in the Master of the Nets Garden, Suzhou

The garden is divided into three sections: the central garden, inner garden, and residential section. The central garden is filled with pathways, vegetation, and buildings surrounding a pond. Each rock, tree, and structure is perfectly placed to create a tranquil retreat. As we explore the main garden, we notice all of the rooms in the surrounding buildings lead to the pond, including the Ribbon Washing Pavilion, Peony Study, and Moon and Wind Pavilion. One of the structures in the garden can only be accessed by Yinjing Bridge, a small stone bridge less than twelve inches wide .

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Master of the Nets Garden, Suzhou

Enjoying the many shaded areas and a break from the heat, we follow the maze of pathways to another area of the garden. Walking into the residential section, we hear beautiful singing. Thinking it is a recording playing in this area of the garden, we are surprised to find the sound coming from a security guard. He shows us how to use a touchscreen menu to learn the history behind some of the paintings and artifacts found throughout the garden.

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Entrance to Shantang Street and a Bridge Over the Canal, Suzhou

The Grand Canal

As our time in the tranquil garden comes to an end, we browse the gift shop before walking back to the bus station. Our next stop is the “Venice of the East” or as the Chinese refer to it, a traditional water town. After a short ride, we exit the bus and Paul shows us the metro station. Walking over a small bridge, we look down the canal lined with houses before arriving at the enormous entrance announcing the beginning of Shantang Street, also known as the Seven Mile Shantang.

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The Grand Canal, Suzhou

Following the sidewalk to the water’s edge, we take our first group photo at the Grand Canal, running one thousand two hundred miles from Beijing to Hangzhou. The sidewalk surrounding the ornate red building is etched with Chinese symbols. Paul shows us where we can find a taxi back to the hotel, then announces the rest of the day we are free to explore and will all connect again tomorrow morning when we depart for Shangahi.

 

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Shantang Street, Suzhou

Excited to explore, we walk by shops and restaurants. Lanterns hang from the store fronts above the stone paths. Tour boats awaiting passengers and umbrellas floating above outdoor tables line the edges of the canal. Seeing an illuminated sign for beer in the window of Echo Coffee Bar, we walk inside. We quickly learn coffee bar means alcoholic beverages are available. Passing the dimly lit bar we walk through a glass door. Seating is scattered throughout an outdoor garden surrounding a small pond. Looking quite small from the outside, we are amazed at the amount of seating areas inside the restaurant.

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Canal Along Shantang Street, Suzhou

Exiting the restaurant, we walk by  more store fronts before entering a small bar filled with strings of lights, memorabilia decorating the walls, and a small stage at the far corner. We have a seat at a table near the entrance as the waiter brings us a menu. We point to a picture of dumplings and a Chinese beer we have not tried yet. Not seeing any water listed, I order a jasmine tea. We enjoy the eclectic atmosphere while a mix of English pop and Christmas music fills the air. After eating our dumplings and finishing our beers, I am still waiting for my steaming hot jasmine tea to cool. We order another beer as a couple members from our group join our table.

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Shantang Street at Night and Inside a Bar on Shantang Street, Suzhou

Hungry for dinner, we say goodbye to our friends and walk farther down Shantang Street. Spotting a less crowded restaurant, we walk inside. Sitting on a bench covered in decorative pillows at a table, rain begins to fall outside. We order a chicken and rice dish to split for dinner. Not being prepared for rain, we finish our meal and walk quickly to find the closest shop selling umbrellas. Among many other items, we find a plaid umbrella for fifteen Yuan, about two dollars and fifty cents in US dollars.

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Shantang Street at Night, Suzhou

Walking closely together under the small umbrella. Seeing some of our group members enjoying a drink at an outdoor table protected by a giant umbrella, we sit down nearby  and watch the changing scenery of the canal. As the sunlight begins to fade, red lanterns flicker on one by one. The reflection of the lights shimmer in the water. Nearby shops illuminate the stone walkway with their glowing signs. We notice very few restaurants and store advertisements are in English, as we listen to the rain falling on the umbrella.

As our group members leave to take a taxi back to the hotel, two new customers occupy the table next to us. Neither the young man or woman look away from their phones while sitting down or ordering. The waitress returns bringing five beers for the man and chicken wings for the woman. Putting on clear plastic gloves from her purse, she carefully begins eating her chicken wings. Never looking away from his phone or speaking to the woman across the table, the man finishes his five beers in record time. The waitress returns and the woman orders a giant bowl of ice cream for herself as they continue dining without speaking or eye contact. Amazed at this social encounter, we decide it’s time to end our evening at the canal and begin the walk to the metro station.


*For more information on our tour check out: G Adventures China Express.

  1. Day 1: Fly into Beijing
  2. Day 2: Beijing: Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square
  3. Day 3: Great Wall Mutianyu and travel to Xi’an
  4. Day 4: Xian: Terracotta Warriors Guided Tour and travel to Suzhou
  5. Day 5: Suzhou: Master of the Nets Garden Tour and overnight train to Shanghai
  6. Day 6: Shanghai: Orientation Walk of the Bund
  7. Day 7: Shanghai: Carte Blanche
  8. Day 8: Fly out of Shanghai

September 2017