Around the world travel, Backpacking, China, Compass Holidays, Suzhou, Travel, Travelzoo

Seeking Authenticity in Suzhou

We arrived in Shanghai last night and were greeted by Michael, not “Follow Michael” but a new, younger, more hip Michael, who will be our tour guide for the second part of our trip. We reconvened with the few people who had taken the early flight and waited for the others who were arriving on the later flight… Then we make our way to the Grand Metro Park Hotel in Suzhou, which is a 2 hour bus ride. We arrive late, get our room keys and are told we have an 8am start the following morning.

We’ll be on the move the next few days, traveling from Suzhou to Wuxi to Hangzhou, and we’ll have little free time until we arrive in Shanghai on the 24th. But for today, we’re exploring Suzhou, called the ‘Venice of the Orient’, and we’re greeted after breakfast by Michael and Jenny, our local tour guide.

I visit the Family Mart to buy more chocolate before boarding the tour bus, and Jenny begins to give us some background on Suzhou. It’s one of China’s wealthiest cities, and has also become a home base for tech companies, including Philips, Samsung, Seagate and Microsoft have. In turn, this has birthed a large expat community, so English is more widely spoken here and international schools are very common. Suzhou is also known for its classical gardens, and is home to one of China’s most famous, The Lingering Garden, which we are on our way to visit.

The Lingering Garden

The Lingering Garden

Originally constructed in 1593 during the Ming Dynasty, this now public UNESCO sight is a collection of temples, courtyards and corridors connected by winding footpaths that surround a large pond. Despite the gray day we’re visiting on, it’s still a beautiful, serene sight.

Jenny leads us all back to days of Mings and Qings, of opium dens and past emperor’s reigns.



Suzhou’s largest silk factory.

The early stages of a silkworm’s life.

Suzhou is also known for its silk, and our next stop is one of the largest silk factories in the city. En route,  Jenny gives us the lowdown on the benefits of silk, telling us that silk pillowcases are the secret to why Suzhou’s women are the prettiest. She also shows us the latest “bargains” she’s found at the factory. A Gucci scarf that she says has the slightest imperfection and therefore can’t be sent to Gucci. But it can be sold to us for a mere $98!

We arrive at the silk factory and we’re greeted by an enthusiastic lady who you guessed it, shuffles us in to a demonstration room. We learn all about silk production, as she hands around sealed glass tubes that contain the different stages of the silk worm’s life, from the ‘pup’a to an actual full size worm. We then head to the factory to see how the minute strands of silk are threaded onto a silk spool and eventually spun into a final product.

The silk spinning machine.

What’s for lunch??

Someone asks what happens to the pupa, and she jokingly says, “Well, wait and see what you’re having for lunch. They are great protein.”

From the factory line, we’re taken to a showroom. Our guide’s enthusiasm is put to shame compared to the efforts of the sales staff. They flock to us, explaining that each purchase of a comforter and pillow set comes with a free suitcase.

The finished product.

They explain how these silk comforters cure ailments like rheumatoid arthritis and eczema, and  Matthew, a member of our group, who was diagnosed with liver problems at the medical institute pipes up and asks “Will it cure my fatty liver?” We all have a chuckle, and despite the fact that the showroom is the only heated room in the building, I sneak out to see what else there is to be seen. I’m not buying any silk and I’m really not buying into any of this anymore.

I head up to the second floor, which is home to a clothing store, full of silk dresses, coats, ties, pashminas and pyjamas. It doesn’t take long to figure out that again, it’s a rip off. I walk up to the third floor, and there’s a restaurant where a group of people are having lunch. It’s freezing and I try to order tea. The lady brings me a glass of hot water. The boys venture up, and she tries to sell us alcohol from a huge glass jar at the front of the restaurant. A preserved snake sits in the jar. She says, “This make you warm.” I think I’ll pass.

A Suzhou side street.

The market.

Kids wait for their mum to finish work in Suzhou.

We find Katherine and decide to venture out on the streets to see what’s around. We stumble on a food market, full of fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. To the side is a dumpling stand, where we have no choice but to indulge. Who knows what they will be serving for lunch? Pulpa?? We walk back towards the silk factory and pass an impressive number of hair salons. Literally every other storefront is a salon… We chat with a few kids whose mum is working inside, and then we are back at the factory.

What a $1,000 silk comforter looks like.

It’s literally two hours later and people are still shopping. Our factory guide sees me and I decide to entertain the idea of finding out how much a silk comforter costs… only because I see one I actually like. I point at model A-3 on the wall and say, “How much would that cost me?”

“Oh, you have good taste,” She says.

I look around at the bags and suitcases on the floor and realize just how much shopping has been done. Maybe since it’s the end of our visit, she will make me a good deal.

She continues, “This is the finest silk, take two year to make. Only comforter cover, no insert, no pillow.”

She picks up the calculator. And then says to me. “Comforter cover $974, but we give you bigger suitcase as a gift.”

I don’t know if I choke or choke back a laugh. I’m wondering where the bargain “Made in China” stuff is ??? She follows me for the next 10 minutes, lowering the price, but even any significant reduction wouldn’t get her a sale. I’m officially over it as we head to another mediocre factory lunch.

Suzhou’s Grand Canal.

From lunch, we’re taken to the Grand Canal where we’re given the option of a $35 river cruise. We’re well past the point of understanding how this whole tour package is working now, so Katherine and I again, decide to opt out of the organized tour. Surely, we can walk alongside the canal and get the same views we would from the overpriced boat, right? I tell Michael our plans and he assures me there’s really nowhere to walk.

A street food vendor bakes a sweet bean curd dessert.

We still opt out. And, we end up taking a nice stroll along the canal, and find the public boat that costs less than $10 for a roundtrip excursion on the canal. We also find the street vendors, and that lovely scarf Jenny showed off this morning that was for sale at the factory for $98 is hanging up. I venture over and ask how much. After a little bartering, I get it for $8USD and feel like I’ve won a mini battle against this “organized tour.”

As it begins to rain, we meet a street food vendor who is cooking up a dough filled dessert, filled with sweetened bean curd. We take shelter under his little canopy, and despite that we’re still full from lunch, we buy the last cake on the platter. I try to force Katherine to eat most of it and she keeps handing it back to me.  We throw away the last bite.

We buy some roasted chestnuts and make our way back to the bus, where we wait for the others. Here, we part ways with Jenny and begin our journey to Wuxi, where we pick up Angela, our other local tour guide.

Lake Tai

We head to Lake Tai, and Angela tries to get us excited for our walk around Lake Tai, depsite the fact that it’s now pouring. I’m proud of the group, who don rain coats and share umbrellas so we can all comfortably partake in the tour.

Angela is a Wuxi native and of all tour guides does the best job of capturing the group’s attention. She is informative and full of knowledge about her home city, but remains approachable and welcoming.

At the end of our walk around Lake Tai, I ask her if she can make some recommendations for an authentic restaurant for dinner. She replies, “There are some very good restaurants within walking distance of the hotel. I will give you the names, but you are always welcome at my home for dinner.”

Mother and Father-in-law and Mr. Wong, cooking up dinner.

Well, after a few days in China, I think I’ve come to the understanding that people don’t say what they don’t mean here, and I think for a moment how awesome it would be to have dinner at a local’s home. But I don’t think more about it until it’s dinner time and the hotel room phone rings. It’s Ray and Warren, and they’re meeting Angela in the lobby in a few minutes to go to dinner. Do we want to join? Katherine is not feeling well, but I can’t miss this opportunity for what I know will be the most authentic meal of the trip, so I throw on my shoes that I literally just took off, grab my raincoat, and head to the elevator bank.

In the lobby, Ray and Warren are standing with Angela, who is waiting to see if anyone else wants to join. Michael, our tour guide is ordering a pizza delivery for the rest of the group, but Mr. Wong, our bus driver from the past couple of days is going to join us, so the five of us head out for Angela’s apartment, which is two blocks away from the hotel.

The only time I saw Mr. Wong smile!

We head up two blocks and over one in order to hit the market, where Mr. Wong buys what he wants to contribute to the evening’s meal. From what I can tell, he buys a couple of leeks, but they are bigger and longer than the leeks we get at home ? After a couple of other stops for vegetables, we reach Angela’s apartment building. We head up to the second floor and are welcomed inside. First, she gives us slippers and then we are introduced to her daughter and her mother and father-in-law who live with her. Her husband is away for work in The Philippines.

Angela and her daughter.

She ushers us in and pulls a few plastic chairs around the table in the main room so we can all sit. We all crack sunflower seeds as Angela and I peel garlic cloves, and in what seems a matter of minutes, dishes are ready to be served. The table is pulled to the center of the room, and more chairs are brought in to seat everyone, and mother and father-in-law sit down with us. They speak no English, so they seem to welcome us in the only way they know how. For mother-in-law, that is to feed us and smile at us, and for father-in-law-that is to fill our cups with as much ‘Medicine wine’ as we can take. I’ve had a taste and am sticking with beer, but the boys are stronger than me and rival him for a little while.

The crew at dinner.

We indulge in an amazing home cooked meal, where dumplings keep seem to appearing on our plate. If I eat too quickly, my plate is full again… with a fluffy egg dish, sauteed green beans, chicken and mushrooms, salted peanuts, and Mr. Wong’s leek dish, all of which we attempt to eat with our chopsticks. Grandpa gets a big kick out of the fact that the boys are very good at using chopsticks and congratulates them by filling their cups again.

We FaceTime with Angela’s husband and her cousin, and then we have the time to chat with Angela about her family, her line of work, tourism in China, her daughter, education and life in general. And although Angela is  our tour guide, for that moment she is a friend and we are just hanging out.

Tonight’s experience is what I seek when I travel. Not the visit to the silk factory, nor the comforter with the free suitcase, but sitting with the locals, learning about their way of life, eating their home made food, watching grandpa get drunk on baiju. As he gets more gregarious, Angela gives us the cue it’s time to go. We all have another early start in the morning. Grandma hugs us all goodbye and grandpa shakes everyone’s hands aggressively, and Mr. Wong, who seems much less affected than grandpa, finishes his last sip of baiju, and walks us back to the hotel.







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