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Suzhou Day 1

A horde of zombies shuffled mindlessly out of the hotel in the wee hours of the morning. It was us. We'd all been driven out of our warm, comfortable beds at five minutes to five by the Morning Call (and some  had even gotten up at half past four so that they wouldn't have to fight for bathroom time)  so that we could be on the coach at half past five to catch the eight o'clock flight to Shanghai. Mercifully, the hotel kitchen staff had agreed to rise early to pack breakfast for us (buns, jam, cherry tomatoes, boiled eggs, sausages and milk) because the food we were served on board China Eastern would've appealed only to a masochist on a diet.

This wins Farsky Fusspot's Award for Worst Food Ever Served on an Airplane: Congee, seaweed, and a bun that tasted like compressed layers of old, mildewed cardboard, stuffed with mystery meat.

In Shanghai, we picked up our new guide, Michael, who would accompany us all the way to Hangzhou and back; we picked up a second, local guide, Tim, at lunchtime in Suzhou. It turned out  that Tim had been to Malaysia often enough to pick up certain, ahem, innocuous Malay words and phrases, which he gleefully mangled in Mandarin for our pleasure. (I won't bother translating the jokes since they require dual proficiency in Malay and Mandarin to fully appreciate, but suffice it to say that quite a number of them involve "yo mama" <grin>).

Our first stop was the Golden Rooster Lake (Jinji Hu), the largest inland city lake in China, around which lies the Suzhou Industrial Park.

The idea was that we could take pictures like this...

And this... (check out the fake pink flamingoes at the water's edge)...

Only, because my family and family friends are several kinds of crazy, we spent most of our time taking increasingly bizarre photographs with one particular statue by the road:

Methinks you'd be more comfortable if those jugs were real, Marshall.

[Our tour leader was both exasperated and highly tickled by our antics, exclaiming, "This is a statue, and already you've spent so much time taking pictures with it! If it had been a real woman, she'd have been good for nothing else by the time you were done mauling her!"]

We then spent a considerable amount of time at Shizhi Ling (Lion Grove Garden), a tourist attraction I'd already visited two years ago. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shizi Lin is a gorgeous Yuan-Dynasty Garden and residence boasting a labyrinthine (manmade) limestone rockery at its heart.

The Shizi Lin buildings are, themselves, arranged in a similar labyrinthine manner (since it's supposedly bad Feng Shui to lay buildings and paths in a linear fashion). Here you can see the entrance to the grove.

A closeup shot of the Fu Lu Shou (Fortune, Prosperity, Longevity) figures on the roof.

The Great Hall.

The Hall of Joyous Feasts. (Aka The Hall of Peace and Happiness. Full belly = happiness? The ancient Chinese certainly got it right!).

Back in the day, young girls would catch a peek of their potential suitors from this side of the elaborately painted silk screen, as said suitors sat outside drinking tea and making small talk with the male relatives.

This shot shows the screen details a little better.

(It should be noted that in the past, the rich Chinese used a great deal of silk, particularly for their lanterns. This was because silk effectively blocked wind, and you'd have to be pretty determined to set silk on fire!).

The True Delight Pavillion (which overlooks the lotus-infested pond in the Rockery) features ornate gold trim.

A bunch of tourists navigate the limestone maze in the Rockery. Our guide warned us it was possible to get lost in said maze, but (having navigated it without trouble), I suppose you'd have to have the intelligence of an oyster for that to actually happen.

One thing our previous guide told us that Tim forgot, concerning the construction of the maze: the rocks were fished out of Taihu (the third largest freshwater lake in China), and held together with a glue largely made of glutinous rice. (And cement, but why ruin things?).

At the end of the tunnel there's a light...

We made one more stop before dinnertime: Hanshan Temple, a Buddhist temple and monastery, supposedly founded during the reign of Emperor Wu of Liang in the Tianjian era (502-519). However, if I heard correctly, the temple we visited was a relatively modern reconstruction. (Its five-storey pagoda is only 16 years old, at any rate!). The temple features two large bells forged during the late Qing Dynasty, which visitors can ring for luck for a paltry sum of money.

One of the many canals in Suzhou. This one happened to be right outside Hanshan Temple.

At the temple, religious visitors can buy red ribbons to write their names on and tie to the temple's trees and incense holder (or whatever you call that hulking thing) for luck/blessing.

The 16-year old pagoda. ;)

The archway leading to (and out of) Hanshan Temple. A beggar woman stands to one side, hoping for alms. They're such a common sight in China, but half of them (according to our guide) are professionals, and the other half are pitiable, but you simply can't help because they'll swarm like leeches.

Our evening programme was a relaxing change of pace: shopping at Guanqing Night Street, home to the latest Chinese fashion - and candy. Our group probably bought enough Chinese candy to start a store back home... but surprisingly little else. Oh, and we managed to lose one guy on the way back to the coach, but the guides went back out and found him, so all was good.

Suzhou Day 2

Technically, we only hald another half-day in Suzhou (since we'd move down to Hangzhou after lunch), so we got to sleep in in the morning, and then gorge ourselves on a very satisfying Western breakfast in the hotel cafeteria (thank the Force for Holiday Inn, and its pancakes and bacon and cheese!) - something that I've sorely missed after six days of Chinese food. The rest of the morning was spent at the silk factory, where, (I think) thanks to my nuclear family's aggressive promotion of silk duvets (and how decadently comfortable they were), just about everybody in the group bought some manner of silk bedding.

Mulberry trees: manna for silkworms.

(I'd have liked to take photos of the little silkworms - actually caterpillars - because they were terribly adorable. Adorable enough that one of my friends, who's about the most squeamish guy I know when it comes to bugs, cuddled and repeatedly stroked one in the palm of his hand, and was quite reluctant to relinquish it when we had to move on. But of course, there's a strict "no photography" rule that far into the factory...).

At this point, I somehow attracted the interest of Aaron, our resident three-year-old, who engaged me in a 20-or-so lap race through the silk bedding section of the factory. Having done so, he decided that anybody who ran with him had to be his friend (to quote him verbatim, when asked by a relative why he liked me: "Because he run with me and I run with him!"), and so clung to me like a limpet for the rest of our trip. (That meant clutching my finger in a vise-like grip, and insisting on sitting with me in the coach and at mealtimes). ... And just in case you feel the need to exclaim, "But Far, you don't even like children! You don't even go near them!", let me assure you that the irony was not lost on me. <grin> But he's the most outgoing, well-socialised and well-behaved little kid I've ever met, and it's hard not to like someone who's cheerful all the time, and makes no fuss when he hurts himself.

[An interesting fact: Aaron has a bizarre fascination for (1) Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, and (2) accidents involving very sharp objects, which result in the geysering of arterial blood. I swear, half the time we were playing what I can only describe as "throwing around a battered old pillow case, pretending it was blood gushing all over us". <grin>]

Next: Hangzhou.

Previously: Beijing.
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