The day had come. The decadent, pampered days of the transpacific cruise were over. Goodbye cabin stewards cleaning our rooms, goodbye Donut of the Day, goodbye drinkable water from the faucet, goodbye a/c, familiar food, knowing where we are sleeping each night. Sigh. But, also, hello, China! Or should I say ni hao?
Debarkation was a bit chaotic. We were organized into groups by the cruise line, but then it all devolved into a crowd moving towards a very few immigration kiosks. After all that work to get Chinese visas, the immigration officer barely glanced at them. I kept thinking there was another step in the process, but there was only an exit sign and out the door we went. Next was taxi chaos where a man yelled in Chinese and my family got divided into two taxis, which we hoped were bound for the train station. The taxi ride was long enough to make me seriously concerned that we might not reunite at the station. Also, I had no Chinese currency- no yuan. All I could do was sit back in the bustling Sunday morning Shanghai traffic and hope for the best! We got there eventually and as I turned to ask the driver about my husband and two other children, he gestured towards the taxi right behind us and there we were- The Fantastic Six again! It was a big relief!
But we were a hot mess! We had a large backpack each, plus a couple of other bags, the train station was massive and confusing with most signage only in Chinese characters, it was hot and muggy, the kids’ feet hurt, their backpacks were uncomfortable, and Truly had mysteriously sprouted a facial rash overnight. For all the disdain I had felt thinking about other cruise-goers with their detailed itinerary, limos, planned excursions, etc., I envied them now. They were probably in air conditioning in clean, ironed, color-coordinated outfits sipping a cold beverage while someone else schlepped their luggage around and asked what they’d like for lunch.
Back to our reality. We asked a bunch of people (trying English and a Chinese phrase book) and walked up and down staircases and followed directions from other people and eventually found a train to Suzhou, the location of our pre-planned hotel, which we had to arrange a few months ago in order to get the Chinese visas (a harrowing process). We took an excellent bullet train in under 1/2 hour to Suzhou. It was so awesome- clean and fast and cheaper than the taxi ride we had just taken!
We found a taxi driver with a minivan who happily loaded ourselves and our luggage and found our hotel. It seemed fine until we realized we had booked the same hotel but a different location. We were able to get the same driver to return and take us to the correct location, but we quickly saw it was far from the historic district we were interested in, so we cancelled the reservation and reversed course again. The taxi driver suggested another hotel, which was wonderful and had elaborate fancy breakfast included and where we stayed for 2 nights until they raised their prices.
We walked around the canals with their lovely bridges and cozy alleyways, as well as the Temple of Mystery! There were electric scooters everywhere! They are silent and they do not necessarily stop for red lights, so we had to cross streets carefully. There are beautiful pebble patterned walkways.
The next day, we went walking around with someone we met on couchsurfing.com. He is an American there for 4 months with his wife and young daughter while his wife teaches at a kindergarten. He had been there 3 weeks and we walked around the canal area some more, went to a pagoda building, and also a market where we had Indian food for lunch. We saw Buddha gourds which are grown in special molds.
There are canal streets and canal alleys and even smaller canal back alleys. We saw people fishing, hanging laundry, bride and groom photo shoots, and wonderful historic architecture. The weather was perfect.
We ate amazing street food! Noodle soups, and these crepe-like egg&vegetable things in a bag. And dumplings. And roasted chestnuts. And more noodle soup!
It seems we landed at a challenging season for travelers. It is the time of the mid-autumn festival, the second biggest holiday in China and a time when almost a billion people travel to be with family. That’s right, almost a billion. We were unable to get tickets to our next destination for 6 days! While our first hotel- Yitel in the Gusu district- was wonderful and only $40/ night, we had to get 2 rooms due to having 6 of us. Then their prices doubled the 2 nights after that, and they had no vacancies for 2 nights after that.
So, to keep it real, I must report that in our first 24 hours traveling for real, we had to deal with: unavailable train tickets, price-gouging hotels, severe bouts of homesickness from more than one child, our helplessness that we cannot speak or read mandarin, a facial rash that appeared out of nowhere on one of the twins (looks like poison ivy but we had been on a boat for 2 weeks!!), and head lice. Gah!
What to do? The rash and homesickness eventually faded, I treated the lice with diatomaceous earth powder I happened to have, to communicate we drew pictures and used the phrases we had in the back of a 2007 China guide book I got at a thrift store, and I just stayed giddy that we were actually RTWing and nothing could really get me down. Mr. Fantastic found a motel two blocks away with better prices, but even theirs doubled our last two nights as well. We turned to couchsurfing and found a budget hotel room in Shanghai for the last two nights. The catch was, we had to get to Shanghai to meet the host before 9am. We barely made it, but we made it and we are forever grateful to Rasa the couchsurfing host who connected us with that room!
In Suzhou, we kept exploring the town, eating and walking around. It rained heavily one day and we enjoyed the specialized scooter umbrellas and rain jackets we saw.
We spent a day with Liu, a local we met on couchsurfing. We walked around a different historic area and he also generously helped us translate a few things and plan how to get to Shanghai.
And so we passed a few days in Suzhou. It was a nice place to start our adventures, and I would definitely return. The people were so friendly and sweet despite the massive language barrier, and it felt so safe. It was clean and quiet, too, despite having a population of over five million people. There were quiet places and historic homes with people living in them. The subway system was sparkling new, clean, and reliable. Getting out was a bit chaotic, but that is for another post. Until then, zhao tien!