Saturday, 22 May 2010

Suzhou - Day 1

Eastern Garden of Eden

semi-overcast 24 °C
Suzhou classical Chinese garden, China
Suzhou classical Chinese garden

In Chinese, there's the saying,
上有天堂 (Shang yo tiantang),
下有苏杭 (Xia yo Suhang).

In English (my crude translation),
Up above there's Heaven,
Down below there's SuHang.

More succinctly,
Heaven above,
SuHang below.

SuHang refers to Suzhou (苏州) and Hangzhou (杭州).

These 2 places are often mentioned in the same breath as seen in the saying above for 2 reasons. They're both places that inspired many Chinese poets, and part of Jiangnan.

I've been to Hangzhou last time when I visited Shanghai about 8 years ago, but missed Suzhou. So we made up the missed opportunity this time round. If Suzhou is as good as Hangzhou, it should be a must see.

We're going to spend 2 days in Suzhou. Actually, 1.5 days in Suzhou, and half a day in Zhouzhuang (周庄).

CRH, HSR, Bullet Train, High Speed Rail
Shanghai railway station
Bought our tickets from Shanghai Railway Station on the day. Didn't get the ticket for the time slot we wanted; the tickets for the next three trains to Suzhou were sold out. The earliest was for a train that run 1 hour and 40 mins later, which wasn't bad because we took this time for a leisurely lunch. There are restaurants opposite as well as within the station. This silly sausage found out that we can buy the tickets ahead.

From what I can see from the ticketing machine, one can buy these tickets as many as 6 days ahead. The self-service ticketing machine's menu system is easy if you're computer literate. The Chinese country folks queued in front of us struggled with the menu system, not surprisingly. The people in the queue behind us were getting a little restless, and rowdy, we had to come to their aid before a full riot broke out.

The technology challenged folks could've made their lives easier by lining up at one the tickets windows (they were probably here by mistake). I'm sure the computer savvy tourists wouldn't have much problem operating it except that all the place names are in Chinese only (that might change in the future). Some instructions are in both Chinese and English (If I remember correctly). If you're not comfy about buying tickets from the ticketing machine, buy it from a human operator in ticket windows in the station, or the authorised ticketing agents elsewhere for a fee of 5 yuans (I have no idea where they're). It's likely that the authorised agents don't speak English. Maybe you can get your hotel staff to help you. I saw there're ticket window(s) with English operators. Look for window(s) with English signage, and queue up.

Our tickets were for a CRH train (和谐号, aka bullet train) that departed for Nanjing, with a stop at Suzhou. The trip took about 35 minutes that covers the distance of about 85 kms between Shanghai and Suzhou (similar distance between Sydney to Wollongong), and the damage (if you can call it that) came to 36 Yuans for the First Class (aka Soft seats) Coach, which has very spacious seat (even for Kevin James in "The King of Queens". It's a king size seat). Lots of leg room and butt room. The operation was quiet and smooth, and the seats and carriages are clean. And we spent a bit of time looking at the speed indicators (with top speed reached 280km from memory) like a couple of country folks just arrived at the big smoke. And when I said to Etta that I was going to have some shut eyes after tiring from all that reading, the PA announced its arrival. Bugger!

Oh, our tickets are for the fastest category of train with its train numbers start with 'D', the one starts with 'K' is slower train and cheaper. I believe 'D' are the top-line trains. If you have taken the Japanese bullet trains before, you would familiar with the different speeds for the different trains. And the interior are also quite similar, except that the Chinese CRH trains are in general faster than the Japanese bullet trains.

According to government's plan, "by 2012, the length of China's high speed rail (250 km/hour or above) network will reach 13,000 km and is expected to be greater than the rest of the world combined!!!" (the quoted is pinched from wikipedia. The exclamations are mine).

The Suzhou train station was old and dilapidated (but not the train), and a new station was being built right next to the existing station. All part of the stimulus package that China unleashed during the GFC in 2008 to keep China growing above 8% p.a (party's official policy). This kinda high speed infrastructure buildings had been happened in the last three decades anyway, with or without the stimulus package.

Wugong, Pan Pacific Hotel at night, Suzhou, China
WuGong @ night

inside Wugong, Pan Pacific Hotel, Suzhou, China
We stayed at Pan Pacific in Suzhou. When I told the cab driver at the train station we wanted to get to Pan Pacific Hotel, she didn't seem to click, which led me to think that it isn't well-known in Suzhou. So I showed her the address, and when we got there, I realised I was wrong. It has to be well-known.

I soon realised why the cabbie didn't know the name of the hotel. Because I told her the literal Chinese translation of Pan Pacific (泛太平洋), which was correct. But the hotel is better known to locals as Wu Palace (吴宫). In fact its full name in Chinese is Wu Palace Pan Pacific Hotel (吴宫泛太平洋). And it isn't hard to understand why it's called Wu Palace when you see it. You also understand why it has to be well known here. It's anything but laying low. It screams with ostentation to motorists driving past (and I doubt our polite and nice cabbie had never driven past this hotel. She's no spring chicken).

Suzhou is used to be the capital of the State of Wu in the Spring and Autumn Period (春秋时代). Loved this kinda period names, it's so much more poetic and memorable than saying "the period between 722 and 479BC". Wu started as a barbarian state, and Wu was to know that they end up as the cultural, and artistic (as well as economic) centre of China? This area produced more gifted scholars, arts luminaries, and literary masters than any other region in China. Tang Bohu (唐伯虎) leaps to mind (aka Number 1 Talent of Jiangnan). Although the State of Wu had long gone, but the area still refers to as Wu today, bounded by the Yangtze in the North, Hangzhou to the south, and Nanjing to the West. Jiangnan is an area covers most of Wu. You can say that the most refined aspect of Chinese culture is Wu culture. Kunqu (崑曲 aka kunju) opera, which originated in Wu, is the mother of all Chinese operas (Beijing opera can be considered an upstart). Shanghai had been the cultural and economic backwater of Wu region until its status was boosted by the Treaty of Nanking (or Nanjing) in 1842, and the rest is history. Wu would have known? Now Suzhou, which had taken centre stage for many centuries, now takes a back seat to Shanghai. It's very much an 800 year old upstart city of the Wu.

aerial view of the ground of Wugong, Pan Pacific Hotel, Suzhou, ChinaAfter checking in, we tried to locate our room. It's called 吴宫 (Wugong), but it might as well be renamed to 迷宫 (Migong, Chinese for Maze). Despite its loud exterior, I like it because it's quite different from your usual boring international style tower block. It's designed according to the principles of Suzhou classical gardens, which characterised by what Chinese call "9 twists and 13 bends" (九曲十三弯), creating an ever changing vistas for the viewers. The bridge in such garden is one such example, it doesn't move in a straight line; it zigzags its tortuous path above a pond (like the one just outside Shanghai's Yu Yuan garden). Straight lines are antithesis in classical gardens. The hotel is designed along that principle.

Hotel staff cleaning windows, Wugong, Pan Pacific Hotel, Suzhou, China
Not acrobatic troupe had come to town, but daredevil hotel staff 
cleaning windows without safety harness

One last big selling point for this hotel is that it's located right next to the Panmen Gate Garden. It's literally next door, and the hotel has doors that lead straight into Panmen Gate Garden, and admission is free for hotel guests. This proximity is probably the prime reason for the hotel to model on Panmen Gate Garden's ancient architecture to blend nicely into its historical neighbour. It would be an eyesore, and kills a perfectly good photo of Penmen Gate if the background is a modern skyscraper.

I did enjoy staying here (when I'm not lost). The compass app in the iPhone came in handy.

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