We took an overnight train from Zhengzhou to Suzhou. When planning our itinerary, we considered going to Shanghai first, but we did not want to be in Suzhou on the day we were to leave China and the transportation from Zhengzhou to Suzhou by train was easier than flying into Shanghai and then getting to Suzhou. We arrived early a.m. in Suzhou, before 7 a.m. The first thing we did was buy our tickets from Suzhou to Shanghai. There is an area of self-service machines which offer English and are incredibly easy to use. You choose the route and it shows all the possible trains and times, although we knew which train we wanted, and then the cost for each class of service available on the train you have selected. We then got a taxi from the queue to the hotel (name and address written in Chinese sent to us by email).
We stayed at the Pan Pacific Suzhou (previously a Sheraton). We made the original reservation on the Pan Pacific website and the local manager then emailed confirming the details. I said we would be arriving around 7:30 a.m. and he assured me a room would be available for early check-in. We had booked a room under their Spring Indulgence package. It was supposed to include a buffet dinner for two for one night. We were upgraded to a Club level room and were given vouchers for two nights of the buffet dinner which was excellent, with a carving station, sushi bar, Chinese soup station, fresh shellfish, in addition to dozens of entrees and side dishes, salads, fruit, desserts and even an ice cream bar. The room was also fabulous. The marble bathroom had a jacuzzi tub and separate frameless glass shower with both a rainhead and handheld. Everything about this hotel -- at least in the Club wing where we stayed -- is first class, especially the staff. At $200 a night the hotel was going to be a splurge, but with all our meals included, it turned out to be very reasonable.
After unpacking, resting and having a great breakfast (actually an extra because we normally would not have even checked in until the afternoon), we got a taxi to the Humble Administrator’s Garden. We opted for an official guide at Y100 and were glad we did. Joy was very knowledgeable and entertaining as we toured the buildings and enjoyed the exquisite landscaping. From there we planned to go to the Silk Museum. Joy told us she was done working for the day and would accompany us, at no cost, but that we should go to the #1 Silk Factory rather than the museum because it had the same exhibits and the museum charges admission.
We said no thanks and went to find a taxi. A young man with a car offered to help and we again said no thanks, but after being unable to get a taxi for ten minutes, he approached us again offering transportation. We asked how much and he said 10 yuan, which we knew was what a taxi would cost. We had a map with the museum’s location and followed it as he drove to within a block of the museum and brought us to a silk factory rather than the museum. We knew we were in the wrong place, but went along to see what they had to show us.
There was, in fact, an interesting demonstration area of how the silk worm cocoons are used. We then walked through the store for all of five minutes and left. The young man was standing outside next to his car, obviously waiting to obtain a commission on the purchases we made. So sorry to disappoint him. Using the map and street numbers, we walked the block to the Silk Museum, paid our Y15 admission and went in. It turns out that the exhibit at the factory complimented the exhibits at the museum and we got a better understanding of the silk worm process by having seen both.
We took a taxi back to the hotel to rest and eat and later went to the Garden of the Master of the Nets for their evening entertainment. We had gotten the tickets from the hotel. The cost was Y100 each, and according to the concierge did not include a service charge. The taxi dropped us off at the exit, rather than the entrance and the girl accepted our tickets. It was still light and we wandered around, not really knowing what we were supposed to do. We eventually wandered to the entrance where other people were also waiting and where there were maps of the garden.
A hostess assembled a group from those waiting and escorted us to one of the buildings where there was a dramatic performance of less than 10 minutes. Our group was then taken to the next location for a music performance, and then a dance performance, and so on. Altogether there were six performances of traditional entertainment which we enjoyed. The entertainment was worth the admission, but in retrospect we could have arrived earlier and had time to tour the garden in daylight.
We ended up in a shop near the garden exit and were given a gift in a small box. We left and walked out to the main street to find a taxi, showing the driver the name and address in Chinese characters. I opened the gift box in the taxi and it was a fan. The driver asked more or less in English how much the fan cost. With some difficulty I communicated that it was free. I asked if he had a daughter. He said he did and I indicated I wanted to give him the fans. He was grateful and when we arrived he did not want us to pay for the ride. It was 11 yuan, less than $2, and we insisted on paying. With taxi fares being so low, the cost of gas being more in China than in the US, and a driver having to pay a lease fee for his cab each day, we calculated that it is almost impossible for drivers to make a living.
We had found a guide on Synotrip who was to come to the hotel at 9 a.m. the next day to accompany us to Tongli, a nearby water town. We went to the main building of the hotel and when no one came, I tried to call. Not knowing the correct prefix to dial, I reached a recording in Chinese and needed one of the hotel staff to help out. The guide we had engaged had sent a substitute who was waiting on the hotel’s lower level. We connected with “Angelina” and got a taxi for the 40 minute ride to Tongli. The taxi was Y75. We thought Angelina had arranged with the taxi driver to wait and take us back. When we arrived we negotiated with him and he wanted Y300 to wait. That was much too much, so we sent him on his way. Angelina was our only disappointment of the trip. She was pleasant enough but totally unenthusiastic, not very knowledgeable and did little more than keep us from getting lost.
The taxi brought us to the ticket office from where a tram goes through a modern downtown to the restored area. Old Tongli was worth seeing, the highlights being a gondola ride on the canal and the Sex Culture Museum. The gondola ride is Y70 for up to six people. When we went to buy tickets, there was a young couple and we asked them if they wanted to share, which they agreed to. Although it is a tourist site with restored buildings, people live in old Tongli,and we saw laundry hanging out and the occasional woman washing clothes or cooking utensils in the canal. There are also a number of gardens, a museum of carved wood and a gallery with amazing artworks by one artist that are not art at all, but slices of rock with natural formations that make them appear to be landscapes.
When we finished touring, we took the tram back to the ticket office to find a taxi. There is a tourist bus that leaves from there to Suzhou that was our fallback. Tongli taxis have their company phone numbers on them, and we tried calling for a taxi with no luck, but we only waited about five minutes before a taxi came along.
The next morning we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the train station for our short ride to Shanghai and the last stop of our tour.