Suzhou had never really been on our list of places to go in China. In fact, we hadn’t even heard of it aside from a recommendation that we got and then immediately forgot from some Chinese tourists we met in Azerbaijan. Only after looking over our options on how we could get to Shanghai from Zhangjiajie did we remember that we had heard that we should visit Suzhou before. A quick image search, and its proximity to Shanghai, backed this up for us.
We got off the fast train at the central station and took the metro to our hostel. The sun had gone down long before, and we were looking forward to settling in and getting something to eat. We checked into our hostel, which was architecturally quite nice, and right in the old town among the canals. As with many (every?) other hostels we’ve experienced in China, the overall structure and aesthetics of the place were nice, but it was very lacking in any sort of culture or vibe.
We wandered around for what felt like hours trying to find some food. Typical Jiangsu fare was everywhere to be found, but we weren’t feeling like crab and sweet vinegar, so we walked on. This seemed like the only place in China which didn’t have a decent noodle shop on every corner.
The town is well-known for its old architecture, canals, and gardens dotting the streets. The canals are everywhere around the old town, and, while quaint and beautiful, demanded little attention in terms of sightseeing. We spent our first full day on the west side of town, checking out the Hanshan Temple and the Lingering Gardens. Both were nice, but not particularly spectacular. The temple houses and pretty massive bell, that can be rung (for 10¥) with a giant wooden battering ram hanging from the ceiling by ropes, and the gardens were unimpressive compared to those that we visited in Shanghai
The weather was beautiful, if a bit cold, the following day, so we headed out to Jinji Lake to the east. Our plan was to walk down to Ligondi road, which is a green causeway with water on both sides (purportedly) lined with shops and cafes. What would have been a long walk at around 3km became a short bike ride as we rented a tandem bike for 40¥ per hour from a waterfront kiosk near the metro station. The path along the water was lovely, but Ligongdi itself was fairly uninspiring, with far fewer attractions than we anticipated. Nevertheless, we spent some time sipping tea at a cafe. As usual, we misinterpreted the rapid stream of Chinese from the server when asked about an item on the menu, so we ended up with four slices of cake and six cookies, to boot. Fortified by much more sugar than we would have liked, we headed back before the weather got too cold.
We realized that our northbound train ticket to Beijing departed from Suzhou North, which is considerably farther than the station at which we arrived, but still on the metro line. After a restless night, we headed to the station on the first metro of the morning at a little after 6am. We flew across the countryside at the familiar, yet blisteringly fast pace of the Chinese bullet trains, and arrived in Beijing, some 1200km away only 4.5 hours later.
Our time in Beijing was to be something of a break from traveling. We arrived around midday, and headed to the hotel. Oona’s parents booked us a room at a pretty upscale place just south of Sanlitun. We had plans for the next eight days, like the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, and for Oona’s parents, the Forbidden City. Being our second time in Beijing, we were seasoned veterans of the Forbidden City and decided to skip it. Nevertheless, our time in Beijing was very much like a holiday taken from the daily grind of traveling, which has become the norm for us.
Our plans, in addition to soaking up the luxuries of our hotel and its surroundings, included niceties such as a trip to the renowned Beijing Opera House for a rendition of Don Pasquale as well as reservations at Da Dong, Beijing’s best restaurant for Peking duck.
How were such niceties, you ask? Well, they were quite nice. The opera was entertaining, and our dinner at Da Dong was fantastic. In addition, it was great to catch up with Oona’s parents, and the companionship of people other than either of us was welcome for a change of pace. Beyond that, much time was spent sipping cocktails and ordering the finest of foods. A week well-spent to rejuvenate our souls in preparation for our re-emersion into the world of budget travel.
One such instance of fine food ordering happened at Transit, in Sanlitun. Transit is a modern –and decidedly fancy– take on Sichuan cuisine, which our readership will be familiar with our affinity towards. We ordered round after round of cocktail, which were particularly well-suited to relieving our burning mouths, and dish after dish of some of the best, albeit somewhat “modern”, Sichuan we have tried. Our initial estimates of how much we could eat and drink were woefully insufficient, and we found ourselves ordering seconds of our favorites or new dishes altogether on several occassions. The night was an exercise in the greatest aspects of Chinese cuisine, and we left happy and numb in the mouth.
We visited the Temple of Heaven on our first full day in Beijing, and aside from the crippling pollution of Beijing, found it quite pleasant. The park itself requires an entry fee, but then many places inside the park’s walls also require an entry fee, apparently not covered by what we paid to get in, so we skipped some places. The nicest aspect of the place, however, was simply wandering the forested pathways, now bare from leaves for the winter.
The Panjiayuan antique market was another highlight. We spent only an hour or so exploring the market, but one could easily spend a half day there just looking at all the wares. They’re not all antiques, necessarily, but practically everything can be found there, from gargantuan, multi-ton stone carvings of lions (for sale, of course, although we’re not sure how shipping would work) to Mao propaganda posters.
We managed to squeeze in two trips to the Great Wall as well, one to a more easily-accessible portion with Oona’s parents and another, farther out yet much less crowded section on our own. The first trip, to Badaling, was certainly enjoyable, but that section of wall is crawling with tourists, even in December. Several days after Oona’s parents left, we headed to Jinshanling, about 130km northeast of Beijing. Jinshanling was something special indeed, and we ran into only a few other travelers while there. We were treated to peaceful solitude as we hiked the swelling ridges and undulating valleys of the wall, and the sun shone brightly through the light fog.
Our second and last visit to Beijing concluded with another high speed train trip out of town. After 10 days there, we were quite ready to leave. We will certainly miss the lively hutongs and countless noodle shops of the sprawling behemoth of a city, but the gridlocked traffic and asphyxiating smog can not be escaped soon enough.
Our last stop in China is Qingdao, the home city of the homophonous (yet alternatively-spelled) Tsingtao beer. Qingdao is actually quite a charming place, and had we known this, we probably would have spent a few more days there. Its German colonial roots give it a decidedly European feel in terms of architecture, complete with a handful of Catholic and Protestant churches, and the folks have a natural affinity for beer. All told, we had less than 24 hours to explore it before our ferry to Incheon left, but we were positively surprised.
After booking ferry tickets in advance via Facebook chat with the ferry company, Weidong, we headed to the terminal, which turned out to be quite difficult to find (coordinates: 36°05’02.6″N 120°18’45.2″E) to pick them up and ready ourselves for departure. The journey was quite pleasant, and the tickets were much cheaper than we had seen online (480¥ per person for an economy bunk). Likewise, the old gender-segregated system has apparently been abandoned, and women and men can be in the same cabin, which was good news for us. The ferry itself was sparsely populated, with only a hundred or so other travelers, the vast majority of whom were Chinese (we were the only westerners). Our trip was delayed a bit due to high winds and current, but we ended up arriving in Korea only a few hours late.