Monday, December 7, 2009


Suzhou is one of those little Chinese cities of only 5 million people. Thankfully the city centre is a low-level and low-key place, famous for its canals and gardens and provides us with a few days of easy strolling and low-level, low-key tourist sights. As it's December we skip the gardens (even resisting the temptation of The Humble Administrator's Garden, which is made easier when we see the entry price of a not-so-humble 10 quid) but make a bee-line for the small silk museum that explains Suzhou's role as one of China's major silk-producing centres. There are silkworms munching on mulberry leaves, a collection of old and very old silk textiles and clothing and a couple of large handlooms in operation producing different styles of silk cloth. In the city's funky modern museum there are an assortment of archaeological finds from the area, including some fancy treasures plucked out of buddhist pagodas, and some fantastic silk coats fit for an emperor, or probably a very wealthy merchant. And out on the street it's sunny, the trees are in their autumnal phase, and we're happy to wander around.
Once again we are stymied with our onward travel plans. We want to catch a train from nearby Shanghai to Hong Kong, but to do so we have to go to Shanghai in advance to buy it. For all it's fame and glamour we're not so keen on a day trip there, but at least there are express train connections that make it easier. As soon as we arrive we head to the large Ticket Hall and within minutes have two tickets in our sweaty palms. Now we can go out and enjoy ourselves and we head straight for a stroll along the Bund, the riverside stretch of old colonial buildings built by the foreign traders and businesses that operated for so long in Shanghai. And what was their business? Well, one of the grandest buildings was put up by a bloke who specialised in the opium trade. The British were particularly adept at this trade as they had a ready supply of the drug from India. How ironic that we are trying to prevent this trade these days. When the Chinese tried to stop the sale of opium the British and French waged a little war and by force won concessions to trade in other parts of China, and Britain took Hong Kong Island to use as a trading and shipping base. Nowadays these grand buildings are in various states of repair, but as Shanghai will host the World Expo in 2010 there's an army of construction workers refurbishing and polishing them up. I'm sure it will look lovely, but on this particular day it is all a bit dusty and scaffolded. We seek solace in a park and backstreets through one of the few old neighbourhoods still standing. Part of the area has the city's most popular temple - dedicated to wealth of course - and is surrounded by hundreds of tourist shops. Uh-oh. We take another lane and find a tiny place doing food for locals. We squeeze in with some relief at finding something rather normal at last.
Since we've suddenly got a taste for museums we head for Shanghai's big modern one. There's a stunning collection of statues, buddhas and other figurative pieces, but what impresses me more is the collection of Ming-dynasty furniture - 400 year-old stuff that looks so modern and graceful, including possibly the most comfortable bed in the whole of the Middle Kingdom. Outside we're surrounded by the tall skyscrapers that now symbolise Shanghai's position as the most modern and international city. It's also thought to be the largest. Everyone looks a little wealthier and a little more western, but maybe we're just imagining it. Down one pedestrian shopping street we're assailed by touts trying to sell us handbags, watches, more handbags, marijuana. Marijuana? A South Asian man gives me a conspiratorial wink when I turn in surprise. So the drugs trade is still alive in Shanghai after all.
We have a couple more quiet days in Suzhou before returning to catch our luxury night train southwards. In Shanghai station we pass through immigration control and are formerly stamped out of China before we board the train. We are sharing with a couple of older women, one of whom has been to Manchester in the woolly jumper trade. Her friend has a son teaching English at Hong Kong University and she's planning to see out the winter with him. Wise woman. We ask them whether they speak Cantonese or English in Hong Kong. One of them replies with a smile "We speak Mandarin - it's part of our country now!"

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