From Suzhou we drove directly the industrial city of Wuxi, a satellite town that has been built up around an ancient Chinese fishing village on the northern bank of Lake Tai
, a large inland lake famous for fresh water pearls and fast becoming a manufacturing hub in this region.
We picked up our local guide, Fay fay, who grew up in the region and was very knowledgable about its history. Our first stop was to a picturesque lakeside park called Liyuan Scenic Garden
from where we could see the newly developed bank over the Lihu lake which, until recently was undeveloped farmland. However, with the construction of a new Lihu bridge that was donated by expatriate residents, development of the new part of Wuxi into a high cost residential area as well as new industries like a film studio, a modern theatre and outlet malls. We also saw an exclusive floating restaurant that is only open for 3 days in the year when officials from Beijing visit. The restaurant is not open to the public but rumour has it that they have a 300 item menu with most of the produce and seafood sourced locally.
From there we were taken to a local Yixing tea pot factory
where artisans train diligently and doggedly for 30 years of their lives to create teapots! We saw some of their tools of the trade and their working area, which for many is a 6x6 living/working space where they toil. We were then introduced to a brief tea pot demonstration with different styles of pot with ingenious cover and pouring devices which would aid in the tea ceremonies they were intended for.
Ultimately several sets were displayed with their prices which went from the sublime to the ridiculous! However, the hit of the evening were the clay lined portable drinking flasks which were the most usable and reasonably priced when considering the BOGO offer. After several purchases, we were escorted out of the building via a gift/grocery store (where my attempt to purchase a bag of roasted silkworm larvae was rejected after tasting a rancid sample) that led out to a local vendors market where the prices were geared to foreign tourists. However, several from our group found bargains there too.
We were treated to a state sponsored dinner at a large but seedy restaurant close to our hotel. The offerings were insipid and even the requisite hot sauce did little to alleviate our disappointment. However, we gained a reprieve with a trip to the scenic pedestrian Nanchang street
which was full of life, restaurants and people. This was a trendy space with cafes, restaurants, pubs and clubs interspersed between some traditional venues. From the brands of upscale foreign vehicles in the premium parking lot, this was where the elite Wuxi residents came to hang out. Before crossing over a quaint bridge over a venetian style canal, we took a chance to try out our dancing shoes with a dozen or so other couples square dancing in the park.
We returned to the appointed meeting place well in time for a much needed 'susu' break at the local Starbucks and then made our way back to the well appointed Swiss-BelHotel
for our evening sojourn. The hotel consisted of 4 blocks, each finished in modern marble and fixtures. We decided to indulge in a night cap before hitting the pillow. In the bar, we met up with Mario's cousin who had driven an hour to visit him from a neighbouring town where he has worked for the last 10 years. Since I was already exhausted, I decided to skip the alcohol while the rest indulged.
The next morning we checked out after the buffet breakfast
that was always interesting. My favourite section was the dimsum baskets where steaming hot corn-on-the-cob, yams, tapioca and boiled groundnuts-in-shell were stashed. That and the variety of conjee - corn, red bean, millet or rice - with several pickled accompanyments started my day off right. Besides the regular fare of eggs (done to your liking) sausage, bacon, fries etc. there was always a full hot buffet of chinese vegetables, fried rice, noodles and hot pots for a full morning meal. A variety of cold cereals and several diced fruit were available to round out the meal.
Our morning tour/shopping trip was chaperoned by FayFay to the local pearl factory and accompanying jewellery store where special designs used the myriad of unique freshwater pearls from the local lake. We were tutored on the way pearls are graded and used (size, symmetry, colour, lustre), how to recognize authentic from fake pearls (a gritty friction when rubbed together producing a white dust regardless of the colour of the pearl) as well as some byproducts from pearl dust (facial creams). A guessing game as to how many pearls are in a single fresh water oyster
revealed 34, with Tim winning the game at his upcoming age being the closest. We did not get to see the whole process
but it was explained to us briefly before being guided into the showroom.
After having a chance to purchase some beautiful jewelry (if you're into pearls) and viewing some extravagant pieces in the VIP room (through what seemed to be bullet-proof glass), we headed to the dining hall sprinting across the parking lot in the rain for our lunch. We worked up an appetite climbing up 2 floors to our designated area to enjoy a cold one with the regular fare. An hour later we were ready to head back to the bus and the long 3 hour drive on to our next destination, Hungzhou.