Suzhou (pronounced Sue – Joe) is a very easy day trip from Shanghai. We went on a very cold and rainy day yet we really enjoyed this water town. This was our first time we had left Shanghai since arriving and our first time buying a train ticket.
After a rather eventful day before (a whisky festival, followed by ending up helping a drunk get home who actually ended up sliding down the stairs into a wall head first and my phone being left in a taxi…) I was determined that being phoneless would not spoil my Sunday and I wanted to go on a day trip. Alex was a little bit tender from the night before and sad that he had lost my phone, even after I reassured him I didn’t mind as he didn’t do it on purpose (he didn’t know he had a hole in his pocket). It said it was going to rain but I looked outside and it looked fine. We googled and it said it was not going to rain till later. I was going to go by myself but Alex said he was going to come too. Super happy with that decision we got ready and headed to the Hongqiao train station.
Buying a train ticket
I was actually pretty nervous but excited about buying a train ticket. Mad how little things like that are so mundane at home but in China they are exciting! Your ID is required to do many things in China and buying a train ticket is one of them. Alex’s passport was with the police for his work visa. Mine was in a handbag that was sitting in our lounge as I had packed when I was originally going to go by myself. After deciding to go together we transferred (almost) everything but that to a rucksack. Neither of us had a passport.
When we got to the station, which is huge and feels like an airport, we tried to use the ticket machine. It wasn’t in English and you could only use it if you had a Chinese ID card anyway. So we tried to find a ticket booth. We found ticket section 2, 3 and 4 but all were shut! We found an ‘information guy’ and he directed us to section 1. We explained that we had no passports and he laughed. He said we could try to buy a ticket. Great…
The queues were pretty long but we only queued for about 15 mins. Alex had photos of our passports on his phone and a photo of a letter explaining his passport was with the police. The lady said no, she couldn’t do it. We desperately tried to show any other piece of ID we had. Alex showed his driving license and I showed my expired Warwick University student ID card. She eventually accepted these forms and typed in my student ID number on my train ticket. We brought return tickets so we wouldn’t have to queue in Suzhou and we would have a better chance of getting a seat ticket.
With the tickets in our hand we felt immensely proud of ourselves that that had worked! When I told colleagues later they were surprised they had accepted that but said it depends who you get at the booth. Anyway we now had to rush and try and find our platform. We had 20 mins. Turns out departures are upstairs and this place was gigantic. We had to go through security then search for our platform. We had 10 minutes left after we had made it through security. More running involved then we found it! You put your ticket in the barrier and you are allowed down onto the platform. We found our carriage and seats and could breath! We did it!
The train was very clean and modern. When the train started to move you could barely feel it. It was like riding on air. We zoomed through outer Shanghai. We passed grey apartment blocks which contrasted with the rare flashes of yellow of the rape seed fields. Within 30 minutes we had arrived at Suzhou.
With prior research we knew we had to find the number 1 bus to get into the historic centre. It was now chucking it down with rain (you cannot trust the weather reports here!) and Alex didn’t have any waterproofs on… so we dived into the coach station and with our phrase book tried to say where we wanted to go. A gentleman ushered for us to follow him. He led us through security and up 3 flights of stairs. This didn’t feel right. We just went in there to ask but now I was worried we would be directed to a long distance bus! But he had a map of the city centre and I pointed to where we wanted to go so was still hopeful. We went down a big escalator and we were shown onto a tourist bus. The conductor spoke perfect English and asked for 3 RMB. We got on. We were dropped off almost outside where I wanted to go.
The Humble Administrator’s garden
First thing we needed to do was to get Alex an umbrella. We brought an embarrassingly big yellow one but it had a cool thing to close it so it made the cut. We then walked to the biggest of the gardens in Suzhou; the Humble Administrator’s garden. It is a UNESCO world heritage site along with other gardens in Suzhou. Alex used his student card (mine was rejected as it had expired) and it was 30 RMB, I had to pay 70 RMB. The gardens were very nice. There were bigger than the Yu Gardens in Shanghai. Furthermore, a lot of it was actually under cover so we did not get completely drenched. There were also lots of pagodas to take shelter under which was nice.
Additionally, the bad weather provided a few benefits. For example, I enjoyed taking pictures of the flowers with water droplets on them. There were tourists but it was not overflowing due to the rain. We spent ages walking around. There are lots of little paths, pretty flowers, pagodas, wooden walkways and photo opportunities. Alex particularly enjoyed the bonsai tree garden. The gardens were really beautiful, even in the rain, so I am very pleased we visited them. But after a while Alex was shivering so badly and our stomachs were growling rather loudly therefore we decided to find the exit and try and find food.
Vegan/Vegetarian food please?
We had only eaten some oreos and pistachios on the train (plus a nice falafel wrap for a hangover breakfast) so we were pretty hungry. Alex had looked online to try and find a veggie place but they were all miles away. There was plenty of street food and some yummy looking tofu but as it was pretty cold and wet we wanted to go inside somewhere. We walked on not really seeing anywhere. We went in the tourist info centre and she suggested an area to look for food. We headed in that direction. Sure enough, we found a nice looking noodle place which had signs in English and pictures of the food. We pointed at one that said noodles with vegetables. We paid about 60 RMB for two dishes and sat down. We were served warm water and waited, praying it wouldn’t have random bits of meat in it. The couple next to us received their food in huge bowls, as it way bigger-than-your-head-sized-bowls. We were super hungry and super excited. When it arrived we also had huge bowls and it appeared to be noodles with seaweed. It looked nothing like the picture. We tried it. It was amazing. I had no idea seaweed could taste so good. There were plenty of noodles (whole grain not egg luckily!) and I couldn’t finish it. Alex was more than happy to help. We were given a soup as well with seaweed. This on the other hand tasted very salty and fishy that we were not entirely sure what it was. It could have been the flavours of the sea weed or it could have been fish stock. So neither of us finished that. Still 30 RMB for a giant bowl of delicious noodles was fantastic!
The rain had stopped and with full tummies we wandered down the very obvious touristy bit next to the main canal. We watched the boats and other tourists. I really liked seeing the traditional boats and how the boat men steered them. There were lots of cute little cafes and I loved the hanging red lanterns. There were no Western tourists at all and it felt more traditional than Shanghai.
Conscious of getting our train home, we started to try and find the bus stop. We found some doughnuts and purchased them for the journey home. Stopped off at the tourist centre again and we were directed to the bus stop. We found the bus stop for the number one bus! On the bus we showed the Chinese characters for train station and he nodded. In Chinese I said the number 2 assuming that 2 RMB would be the bus fare and he shook his head and said one and used his finger to ensure understanding. In Shanghai the buses tend to charge a flat rate of 2 RMB therefore Suzhou is a bit cheaper than Shanghai. So for 13p we got the bus to the train station.
Suzhou’s train station was equally huge and confusing to navigate so more running around, going down then coming back up. Through security then we found our gate but were not allowed on the platform yet. The train was actually late by about 5 mins, shock horror! We found our seats. This train was much busier. There were people leaning on our chairs who hadn’t managed to get seat tickets. We got back to Shanghai then after a long queue to get on the metro we were home within half an hour.
I liked Suzhou and I will definitely come back and go to Tiger hill and another garden. I am also pleased I know how to get a train ticket now!
Suzhou is a very easy day trip from Shanghai. If you left a little bit earlier than us and are luckier with the weather you could see a lot more than us. Yet even on a very cold and rainy day we really enjoyed the Humble Administrator’s Garden and seeing the canals.