Friday, November 23, 2007

Silk Road

We decided to take a day trip away from Shanghai today. So far, I've found Shanghai somewhat underwhelming so I was hoping that getting away from the city might help. We arrived at the Shanghai Rail Station around 9 am. The station did nothing to improve my opinion of Shanghai. It's a dilapadated example of typical soul-crushing socialist architecture. We purchased our tickets for the historic city of Suzhou in the equally depressing ticket office next door and waited for the train.

Suzhou is a city of 5.7 million people, so it's kind of small by Chinese standards. It prospered as a center of trade throughout most of Chinese Imperial history due to its strategic location on China's Grand Canal. It was at one time (and perhaps, still is) the center of China's silk industry. Marco Polo even visited Suzhou on his travels through Asia, so it's not exactly your typical provincial city.

The train ride out was interesting. The countryside between Shanghai and Suzhou, which is about 50 miles to the west, is sparse and comprised of open fields, dingy apartment blocks, factories, and brand new roadways completely devoid of traffic. The train station in Suzhou is much nicer than Shanghai's, but the surrounding area is not very attractive. Once we got to the main street, Remin Lu (People's Street), things started looking a little better.

While looking for the Silk Museum, we were approached by a man with barely serviceable English skills who was trying to get us to take a tour of a silk factory. I was going to pass on it, but Michelle was interested so we decided to check it out. Upon entering, we were met by a young man in a suit who spoke English well and gave us a tour of the factory. The tour was very interesting; we learned a little bit about the lifecycle of the silkworm, handled silkworm cocoons, watched the workers operate the machinery and learned about the two kinds of silk they processed in the factory. The tour was ultimately a sales pitch, as it wound up in their factory store, but it was a very informative and low pressure sales pitch, more like a tour of a Napa Valley vineyard than the street vendors waiting outside of every train station and tourist attraction to accost any white person they see. We wound up purchasing a silk quilt before leaving.

After touring the factory, we headed up the street for the Silk Museum. The museum, like most museums in China, was not very impressive or interesting. The highlight was the live silkworms munching on mulberry leaves that they had on display. After breezing through the museum, we were standing on the street contemplating where to get lunch when we were approached by two young women, presumably from Suzhou. One of them was holding a camera so we first though they wanted us to take a picture for them, but we quickly figured out that they wanted to have their picture taken with us. Alan and I posed for the photo while Michelle took a picture of the girl taking a picture of her friend with us. We definitely got a lot more looks from the locals walking the streets of Suzhou than we have gotten in Shanghai or Hong Kong. I'm sure most people in Suzhou have encountered westerns before, but it's probably still not that common to see us on the streets. We weren't
the only western tourists in town today, but there were very few tourists in town from the west or the east who weren't there with a tour group.

After lunch, we visited one of the many gardens for which Suzhou is famous. We went to the largest and, at least according to our guidebook, most impressive - The Humble Administrator's Garden. The garden was quite nice, albeit quite crowded. Still, it was large enough that we occasionally had a small corner of it to ourselves, which was a welcome respite from the crowds and noise that have pervaded nearly every moment of our trip so far.

We then trudged our way back to the train station. When we arrived at 5pm, it was jam packed. The area outside of the station had the aura of a concert or some sort of large outdoor festival, with people gathered into small groups eating, talking, and playing games. We boarded the fast train at 6pm and were back in Shanghai by 6:30. We enjoyed another night of excellent Shanghainese cuisine at a restaurant called 1221. Unlike Wednesday's restaurant, this place was packed, mostly with expats and western tourists, but the food was excellent. After dinner drinks at an expat bar were a fitting end to my favorite day in (and around) Shanghai so far.

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