What a LONG day today was – again! We really ought to have got in some training for it! Not sleeping well, so when 05:30 comes around it's something of a relief to get up. (Tip for travellers: I purchased some Vietnamese 3-in-1 packets of coffee called 'Vinacafe' before leaving Canada and it is SO much better than the Nescafe and Cow Dust we find in most hotel rooms and no, I don't get a kick-back from the coffee makers for the plug!)
So a brief explanation of our 'Shopping Trip'. We had failed to notice within the itinerary/information we received from the tour company the following snippet.
Quote: "As this is a sight-seeing and shopping tour, there are seven shopping excursions on this tour, and a minimum amount of time (60 mins) must be spent at each shopping site." Say what? It then went on to say "However, there is no obligation to purchase anything. For those who are not very keen on shopping, visits to shopping sites should be treated as cultural learning experiences ......." (again, say what?)
We thought, well okay, how much effort is that going to take? Read on!
Today we packed up and moved out of Shanghai and headed for Suzhou (pronounced 'shoe-joe'). We joined the crowds for the buffet breakfast at the hotel then, as instructed, had our luggage down to the Lobby by 08:10. We did so much today that, only 12 hours later, when I try to write some notes about it I simply can't remember how it all went. Our printed itinerary simply stated “After breakfast travel by coach to Suzhou, known as the ‘Garden City”. Sounds okay!
However ..... first we did a detour to take a short ride on the high speed Maglev train (fastest train in the world) that does the 30kms out to Shanghai's Pu Dong airport in only 8 minutes so that we could experience the thrill of traveling at 430 kms/hr without any wheels under the train (it's magnetic). It WAS fun – especially the part where our outbound train met the return train (the adjacent track was VERY close!), and then WHAM!!!! As the two opposing forces met it caused us all to jump out of our skin and Bruce to say "And I only brought one pair of shorts with me!" It was an excellent, unscheduled side trip.
Back on the coach we then headed over to the Bund area again for a one hour 'power tour' of the Shanghai Museum - bronzes, porcelain, etc. I love Asian art - all very interesting. Would have liked more time at the Museum, but then it was back to the coach to head for Suzhou and, as promised, a late lunch. They were right – lunch was very late – around 2:30pm. Big tables of ten and ‘Boarding House Rules” for snagging whatever you could get from the Lazy Susan as the dishes spun by, then into the nearby 'Silk Spinning Mill' (as the tour blurb called it). Turned out this was not to see silk being made but to shop (Shopping Tour No.1) for silk embroidery. First, however, we saw a couple of ladies working on the most stunning fine, silk embroidery, but we couldn't linger there. We were quickly moved on into a huge salesroom, with many sales people stalking us and we walked through display after display of exquisite works: some double sided, some 3D but all very beautiful, fine embroidery – I fell in love with so many pieces. Its a dying art though – to do the fine stitching and bending over it all day long (some works take up to a year to complete!) is very hard on a person, so not many make it past 40 yrs of age and young girls don't want to get into it nowadays because it's not a highly paid job and there is now factory embroidery. Photos were not allowed – more’s the pity - but it was amazing work and I didn't buy any because the jolly old 'shopping' budget didn't run to the prices that it was necessary to charge for it.
Back on our bus late afternoon but still we were not to be taken to our hotel, because then we picked up a local 'guide' – Jessica – a voluble, animated person who talked non stop but in excellent, colloquial English, in a meaty tone of voice that made her a pleasure to listen to. To begin with, that is! Jessica talks about herself in the third person and is obviously very high on Suzhou, her home town, where a short drive took us to the “Lingering Gardens”. We were given “whispers” – audio devices – to hear Jessica’s commentary which was full of humor, Western style, but her normal-tone voice could still be heard by passersby and she picked up some admiring hangers on, one young man in particular, who was obviously understanding & appreciating all she said. Back on the bus and a short hop through town, which is known as a “wedding dress central” (shop after shop of beautiful white dresses and traditional red ones, but we only saw them in passing by in the bus), because we were now going to “Venice of the East” (it’s now around 6:00pm). The old town part of Suzhou (there is a massive high rise city but we didn't see it) is built on a system of canals and we took a boat ride here along the Grand Canal, enjoying the "typical, ancient river town" and the houses built right down to the water's edge. It was interesting and we are glad that we sprang for the "extra" tour.
FINALLY, when it was quite dark and well past a normal supper time, our 'captors/guides' allowed us to be taken on the long bus ride to check in at the new, massive Qingshan Conference Centre complex with its ultra modern hotel in the heart of a new high-tech area of Suzhou. All the high-rises here (and there were many!), both apartments and commercial, have fantastic animated illuminations playing over the buildings. We had been told there was a restaurant with a buffet on the second floor of our hotel, but no-one was interested in bellying up to a huge trough – we just wanted something light by then. Our group had 38 people in it and, in dribs and drabs, we arrived at the restaurant to see a huge buffet laid out – with not a soul in there dining! Tried to explain to the very nice young hostess that we only wanted something light and she said we could order from room service. We asked if we could order from room service and eat it at a table in the restaurant, there being no table in our rooms. No, not possible. We found some bare tables in an area just outside the restaurant and said we'd like to order from room service and eat it there. Poor young woman was getting quite flustered but Maggie, our guide, was unavailable to help out since she was having to sort out a big problem about rooms for some of our group. They had been assigned to 'houses' outside of the main hotel, on the huge landscaped grounds - but there was no lighting to show the way along narrow, meandering paths through shrubbery and they got lost and didn't want to be "out there". The Hotel seems to be brand new and we didn't see any other guests there but our group. I guess the Registration people had thought it would be nice for what we were by now calling 'Family 10' (an-all female group of 10 friends) to have a house to themselves, but it really wasn't a good idea.
Anyway, the upshot was that about a dozen of us sat down to wait for ‘room service’ in the ante room outside the restaurant which took forever to come, while others went to the bar on the ground floor to also order from ‘room service’ to be delivered to the bar! The very funny part of it was that there was not one single customer eating inside the restaurant, whereas those that actually DID want something to eat had to sit outside the restaurant! My guess is that they were afraid we’d order something small from the menu then filch stuff from the available buffet, and maybe they wanted us to go away so that our ‘room service orders’ could then have been selected from buffet items that must have been prepared for this 38 passenger group that had no nearby alternative but to eat at their establishment. Very frustrating for all – especially as it was getting so late and we were all so tired.
Our rooms were excellent though - as I said, brand new - but with the strange oddity of having a full height and width clear glass wall between the bedroom and the bathroom! Fine if you have a really intimate relationship with your room-mate when it comes to bathrooms, but if you're sharing with, say, a business colleague ........ hmmmmm.