Suzhou to Shanghai

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…the observation deck on the 88th floor. The views of the city are wonderful.

In transforming backward agricultural China into an advanced industrialized country, we are confronted with arduous tasks and our experience is far from adequate. So we must be good at learning. Mao Zedong’s opening address at the eighth National Congress of the Communist Party of China. (September 15, 1956).

25 October Pan Pacific Hotel

We awake around 8.00. There’s genteel start today, breakfast lasts till ten.

Made out of large granite blocks, the Pan Pacific hotel has an inclined ramp up to the top, third, floor giving it the feel of a Mayan temple. But inside, it has the complexity of a pharaoh’s pyramid with false passages and little straightforward. We did find our bedroom eventually after visiting a boiler room and confronting a ‘No Entry, Staff’ sign.

However, the hotel does have some elegance and it fits well with low housing all around. Its downfall is the staff who seem at best indolent and at worst downright unhelpful. The evening pianist played more on her mobile phone than the piano during our brief stay, and at breakfast, Amy, our waitress stared into spaced ignoring her guests.

Francis is very quiet this morning, Chris said the hotel had been rather snooty and refused him a room. Finally, they found him a store cupboard at about three in the morning, apparently. Although he looks weary, he is with us doing his duty.

We have round-faced, black-haired Selina (Liu Yu Jia) to lead us to the canal. The red-lipped former schoolteacher in the clearest English tells us the famous Chinese general Sun Tzu, beloved of management consultants and military strategists, was born here two and half thousand years ago. Some things endure.

Around seven hundred years ago, Marco Polo came here and called Suzhou the Venice of the East

We climb into a long narrow canal boat and cruise up the city moat lined with weeping willows dipping their trailing fingers into the murky waters. Small houses with faded white paint line the canal which is crossed by a narrow pedestrian bridge. Some houses are built on stilts directly into the moat or canal. It’s a brief vision of old China, which has mostly been swept away by the tall towers beloved of Chinese architects. The trip is relaxing, apart from Selina’s persistent monologue, and at least we only see an occasional boat.

The exquisite workmanship of The Embroidery Exhibition Museum (good name for a shop) staggers me. The finest coloured threads expertly and painstaking stitched make a picture as good as a painting. However, prices are in the hundreds of thousands of yuan. Our stop was brief, lunch beckoned.

Pink tablecloths, white china and a hushed elegance greet us for lunch at the Garden Hotel.

After lunch, Selina led us to her ‘favourite’ garden in Suzhou. The Garden of the Nets is compact and lies behind an old house up an alley. It formerly belonged to an imperial official. The house feels severe, no soft furnishings only delicately carved hard chairs. What did the Chinese do in days of old? The garden is full of tourists snapping photos of the small lake, the irregular, Swiss-cheese limestone rocks and the Acer trees. It is pretty and I can see how the willow pattern plate design originated.

The silkworm factory visit was briefly interesting. Silkworms will only eat the leaves of the white mulberry tree, although the guide did not know this when asked or, perhaps, she didn’t understand the question. After a brief sight of how they get the fine strand of silk from a cocoon, we arrived in a sales room. Once again we bought nothing.

For supper, we walked out of the Pan Pacific hotel to the Quingha restaurant where a thin Chinese maitre d’hôte in an unpressed dark grey suit greeted us with delight written all over his face. He speaks no English. We hear Yīngyǔ (English) and pointing at him, reply, ‘Chingua’ (Chinese – but probably wrong!). This time the menu is a picture book and ordering is becoming easier.

Beijing duck pancakes, crispy pork and pineapple, mushrooms, greens and sticky rice washed down with two beers comes to 133 Yuan.

We stroll up and down the road, but it is of little interest except for the large container of live frogs outside a restaurant, and a group of four policemen stopping motorcyclists at random. Thursday night in Suzhou.

26 October Pan Pacific Hotel

Another poor night’s sleep. We are ready for breakfast before 7.00am. By 7.30 we are walking around the much more interesting park at the back of the hotel. We see one group dressed in Cambridge blue doing tai chi and another singing songs from sheets of music.

Then we mount the old, noisy and uncomfortable coach for the two-hour trip to Shanghai. Francis had been unable to change it despite a telephone request. There’s little leg room as well. It’s somewhat unsatisfactory.

The prospect of arriving at a great city with 4300 buildings over twenty stories high, according to Francis, has our expectations like the buildings sky high.

We go directly to the Shanghai Museum, considered to be world-class, where we encounter Johnny. He’s the most camp person we’ve met with a voice to match and several ladies speculated the plaster around the back of his neck was hiding a recently cut tattoo. The museum’s collection of pottery and porcelain goes back over four thousand years. Exhibits are well displayed with information in English.

Our hotel Equatorial is on the sixteen-lane (eight lanes each way) Yunan Road and a short distance from the golden-domed Jingan Buddhist temple. We are keen to explore and pay the entry fee of 50 yuan per person. It is worth it.

Confusion over east and west on Nanjing Road (West) walking east (or was it the other way round?) led us to walk the wrong way. We spotted the error after some time and resolved to do better after dinner, which we took in La Creperie – a break from Chinese food. We were struck by the number of young people around. In the restaurant, we were the only old people until two Belgians walked in, thank goodness. In addition, the mobile phone is in evidence at every table with some people even using it and eating at the same time!

Nanjing Road (West) has the smartest shopping in Asia. Shopping malls with seven floors offer everything, while small bespoke Swiss jewellers offer exclusivity and prestige in the form of watches and diamonds. The plane trees in the road are decorated with lights, which do change colour from time to time, the effect is to make the road a stairway to nirvana or a passage to paradise. Oxford Street is dull by comparison. Occasionally, a pre-war mansion which has resisted the developer stands elegant and well restored like a grandmother at a family gathering.

Shanghai is a young town with all the vibrancy of youth, we do not have enough time here.

27 October Equatorial Hotel

Our room in the hotel is on the eleventh floor and faces east. At 7.00 am, the sun welcomes us to a new day. We can see a forest of tower blocks all around and hear the hum of Shanghai traffic below.

We join ‘JCB’ John for breakfast, he looks tired and confirms he went to a nightclub to see “lovely ladies” with a fellow JCB employee who lives in Shanghai. He got to bed at 3.00am.

Colin is wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt today. I look forward to his sartorial choices.

On the coach, Johnny’s voice irritates as he gives us facts, facts, facts, but the beautiful weather is some compensation.

The Yugan Garden’s rocks, trees, ponds and charming buildings are a small piece of unspoilt old Shanghai. However, it is quite busy even at nine o’clock. Next comes the chaos of the bazaar on a Saturday morning and we have one hour’s shopping time. We manage to buy a jade pendant down from the 6850 Yuan ticket price to 1400 Yuan. It’s just a massive rip off all around.

There’s a holiday feeling as we walk northwards up the riverside promenade known as the Bund. To our left, there’s the old waterfront lined with the buildings of the former colonial powers constructed of solid and square limestone blocks with small windows, to our right is the new ambitious China of tall twisting and leaning buildings made in glass supported by steel.

Young newly-weds pose on the railings before the busy Huangpu river with the skyscrapers of the Pudong district in the background. There are five couples, three brides conventionally dressed in white, one in black and one in red. The times are changing and the young are as usual driving the changes.

An endless procession of long thin barges buffet their way up the river carrying ammunition to the front in China’s economic war with the world. I think of John Masefield’s poem, ‘Cargoes’, yet it’s not smoke stacked steamers and cheap tin trays, but long low barges and ores, timber and iron coils.

After lunch, we ascend the Jinmao Tower to the observation deck on the 88th floor. The views of the city are wonderful.

This is the moment to end my story at the top looking down on a magnificent China, a China that opened my eyes to its economic power and vaulting ambition.

Farewell Shanghai and your complex spaghetti of raised motorways and multi-lane roads, your tall buildings, hutongs, Huangpu river and your growing, striving people.

Epilogue

The success of any trip into the unknown depends on the guide and we had a first-class chap in Francis. The Han Chinese, who sported black rimmed glass and who perpetually wore a black North Face fleece, had determination, charm, and sensitivity of the highest order. Cheerful John (of Kay fame) made a fine (humorous and short) speech as he handed Francis our whip round. And Francis responded with modesty.

I’ll remember his gift of a terracotta archer and his joke about a Chinese coach driver and an English parson before St Peter’s gates. ‘Why,’ asked the English parson of St Peter, ‘did you let him in rather than me?’

Because,’ said St Peter, ‘Every time he steps on the brake, thirty four English men and women cry out “Oh, my God”’.

Two dollar were his final words to us.

 

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