Thursday, 30 December 2010

Up the Creek without a Paddle (Dec 10, 2010)

9:30 am. The map in the guide book made it look like a short walk from Suzhou train station to the Bei Ta (Ta means Pagoda), the first of the many sights we had planned to take in on our first day trip outside of Shanghai. Lulled into a false sense of confidence, we had hopped off the bullet train after a 25 minute ride and stepped into the gigantic, ultra modern, state of the art train station of Suzhou – an industrial centre some 60 miles South West of Shanghai also home to some lovely temples, traditional Chinese gardens and tastefully renovated neighbourhoods dotted with canals. We walked to one end of the station and then to the other, no sight of the Pagoda, not even in the distance to give us a sense of direction. All the signs were in Chinese pictograms (no pin’yin, the roman alphabet transliteration that gives Westerners the illusion of familiarity even if you don’t understand it) and no one spoke any English other than the dozens of hawkers and beggars: “lady” “map” “taxi” “guide tour” “money”. It appeared that in spite of its already impressive scale, the station was being extended so we had trouble finding the taxi rank (we never did) let alone the bus station.

With a combination of determination fuelled by the thought that we might have to spend the day holed up at the station until our 5pm train back to Shanghai, and sheer luck, we found out the bus number we needed to take into town, the exact fare, and how to pay it (in coins when you got on the bus), and most importantly, we found the bus station itself. And after wandering all the way back into the train station looking for something to purchase to make some change and after a while realising that he already had plenty of change in his pocket we headed back out to the bus depot and boarded the number 103. Unless you have been to China you cannot comprehend the notion of vast which dwarfs even American standards of scale. This place was larger than most airports.

After much staring and giggling by the locals (he’s a 6 foot tall red head who’d elected to wear a Cookie Monster t-shirt – but I was getting most of the attention) – we alighted at the Pagoda. We had another Bill Bryson moment involving him realising his sunglasses were missing, running after the bus, getting back on the bus, ferreting behind our seats miming sunglasses at the bemused and amused locals, not finding the glasses, hopping back off the bus and finally discovering the glasses in the flower bed in which they had fallen in the first place. The day progressed fairly normally after that.

We had lunch (we pack a turkey and cheese whole meal bread sandwich every day - it’s not Chinese but it’s Dukan) in the Chinese rock garden behind the Pagoda and surprised more than one local with our near perfect pronunciation of the greeting “Ni Hao” (hello) but absence of any other vocabulary with which to engage in conversation. We proved to be a great source of mirth of which we were rather proud.

We walked for 5 or 6 hours. We managed to buy some “bottled” water and small cakes (not Dukan but needs must have – we were falling off our proverbial perches) as well as ask for our change in coins in anticipation of the bus trip back to the train station. We even went to the Zoo. We saw many Chinese tourists but not a single other Westerner.

The trip back was rather uneventful, we felt like old hands by then, even braving the Metro back to the hotel on the cusp of rush hour.

Next week: Beijing. Zaijian! (Goodbye.)

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