The Boyfriend came over to Shanghai for the weekend and I wanted to take him somewhere scenic outside of Shanghai without a too-long travel time (so plan A, which was Xi’an, was out of the question). The 2-hour ride to Suzhou fit the bill.
I booked a 1-day coach tour via http://chinatour.net/1-day-coach-tour-to-suzhou-from-shanghai-back.html, which cost RMB450/person inclusive of a set lunch, admission fees, transportation to and from the hotel and an English-speaking guide.
Come Saturday we were pleased to find that our coach tour got converted to a private one, since no one else had booked the same tour as us. Our guide was a Chinese woman named Lily, and she picked us up around 30min behind schedule in a white van (traffic was the reason for the delay).
First stop was Tiger Hill, a large hillock covering 14,100 sqm and 36 meters in height. The hill has a number of historical sites, the more notable of which is the Tiger Hill Pagoda, which leans slightly to the right (kind of like a Chinese Leaning Tower of Pisa).
There was also a terrace called “the Heavenly Terrace Looking Forward Suzhou” that used to offer the best view of the city in ancient times. Nowadays most of the view is obscured by the greenery.
Afterwards we were taken to an embroidery factory, the first of the many “factories” and “markets” I’d be taken to for the next couple of weeks.
Apparently, the in-thing with tours in China (and Thailand, as I will later relate) is to take you to a jade market or a silk factory or a gem store, the visit to start off with someone explaining the unique properties of this-and-that, or how so-and-so is manufactured. It invariably ends up with the salesperson following you around the store encouraging you to buy their merchandise (or pointing out the “SALE!” section in case you look disinterested) at steep price tags. There are exceptions to the rule, and admittedly the products are all genuine, but the tour operators make money off bringing tourists to these markets and shops. They make even more money in case you actually bought something. Proof of the pudding: if you want to remove one of these compulsory stops in your itinerary you’ll be told to pay extra for the tour fee.
At any rate, you’re not required to buy anything, so best to just endure it.
Anyway, the place we went to was the Suzhou Lanli Garden Embroidery Research Institute, which was also where our lunch place would be (that’s another common feature: these places usually have restaurants attached to them).
The guide was informative enough, explaining the differences between one-sided (usually used for wall hangings) and double-sided embroidery (both sides are embroidered, meaning they could be used as screens or framed in rotating clear frames that showed both sides). She just got a tad pushy when it came to the actual purchasing, showing us embroidery from the students (cheaper) and the masters (totally expensive–some even worth a million yuan) alternately.
She was trying to point out how superior the masters’ work was compared to the students, and how it would make a lovely present considering shipping fees were included. We ended up buying a cute double-sided panda frame for just RMB180, which obviously disappointed her a bit.
Set lunch wasn’t half bad, as I’ve had worse on other tours. It consisted of a sweet and sour fish, ground pork with flakes, egg fried rice, spinach, clear tomato soup and watermelon for dessert.
The only drawback was to down all this food, you only had one glass of Sprite included in the meal. We didn’t know this at first, and tried to raise a fuss when the waitress wouldn’t give us the whole bottle. Haha.
Next stop was Hanshan (Chilly Hill) Temple, famous for a bell described long ago by poet Zhang Ji. The original bell has long since disappeared, and a replica was modeled on the previous one in 1904. Every Lunar New Year the bell is tolled to pray for happiness and safety in the coming year.
Of course, one has to recognize that the temple was named after Han Shan, a famous monk and poet that came to take charge of the temple in the Tang dynasty. He inscribed his poems on the rocks and temple walls in the vicinity, and someone had the mind to copy, translate, and add them to the definitive T’ang anthology (including poets Li Po and Tu Fu).
We did not stop by Ancient City Gate and Grand Canal, but saw these from the window passing by. We had the option to stop for pictures but as the weather that day was very hot and humid (when wasn’t it? phew) we decided to opt out and enjoy the view from the comfort of our air-conditioned van.
Next stop was the Suzhou No. 1 Silk Factory Co, which was another one of those markets I told you about earlier. This one was okay, given that silk isone of the products Suzhou is famous for.
We were given a pretty thorough tour of the process of making silk from the worm to the actual beddings. A useful takeaway is the tip from the guide on how to identify fake silk and real silk. One thing you can do is to burn your silk pj’s and check out the burns left. If the edges are rough and hard to the touch, it’s fake. The burnt edges of real silk are smooth, and look like they’ve just been scissored out.
Of course, no one wants to start burning their bedsheets and curtains just to check out if the stuff is real, so another tip is to take the silk in the palm of your hand and blow on it. If you can feel the air through the material, then it’s real.
Last tip: scratch the silk with your nails. The material shouldn’t run. Of course after all that there is the obligatory tour of the merchandise.
Last stop was the Master of the Nets Garden, reputedly the best and most celebrated Ming dynasty garden in Suzhou.
It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site and is “particularly regarded among garden connoisseurs”–which is saying something as Suzhou is full of beautiful gardens. It’s also home to the smallest arch bridge in China (photo below).