Hangzhou, Suzhou & NanjingApril 14, 2016 in China ⋅ 🌙 19 °C
After a zippy high speed train journey, we arrived in Hangzhou, known as one of China's most beautiful cities, in the early evening. We caught the metro to our hostel and then quickly headed out for dinner near the town's famous West Lake. We ended up having a lovely local meal, with the highlight being a whole duck, cold but cured with delicious salt and spices, before heading back to the hostel and eventually to sleep.
The next day we woke up late, so had to hurry to the 'Citizen Service Centre' where we needed to set up our smartcard to use the city's Boris bike scheme, the most extensive in the world. Soon we were off, cycling in the direction of West Lake. At our first stop we took in sweeping views of the lake, surrounded by pagodas and containing two islands connected to the mainland by causeways. Further round the lake, we arrived at the first island, where we visited the serene ruins of the first Qing emperor's summer palace, situated in a hillside park overlooking the lake. The park also contained the tomb of a famous Tang dynasty poet who became a recluse on the island, giving us an insight into the lake's literary and artistic influences. Leaving the park, we strolled down the weeping willow lined causeway, before hopping back on our bikes. We leisurely cycled round the lake, eventually reaching the next causeway, which was clogged with people but still incredibly scenic. Our final stop round the lake was in some beautiful gardens, filled with carp ponds and stunning blossoming trees. Tearing ourselves away from the bucolic beauty of the gardens, we cycled round the rest of the lake and back into town. Once we'd had a rest after our day of cycling, we met up with Zhu Ruoxi, a student friend of one of Mum and Dad's colleagues, who very generously treated us to a divine dinner, where we were joined by a couple of her friends. We feasted on melt in your mouth pork belly; sour and spicy prawns; sticky date cakes and best of all succulent Hunan style fish heads. After bidding fairwell to Zhu Ruoxi, we went out, ending up in a club full of super rich Chinese where we were given a table and free bottles of Hennesey cognac, which didn't bode well for getting up early the next morning to go to Suzhou.
Feeling incredibly grim, we dragged ourselves out of bed on Wednesday morning and after a lengthy journey stuck in traffic, arrived at the bus station, where we got the bus to Suzhou, the Venice of China, famous for its canals and gardens. We arrived at around 2pm and rushed into town, keen to visit the local museum and one of the most highly rated gardens before they closed. First we headed to the Suzhou museum, which contained some fascinating Buddhist artefacts recovered from local pagodas and some beautiful local pottery. But the main highlight was the building itself, designed by IM Pei as a modernist take on a Suzhou garden, complete with indoor water features, ordered geometric designs and a futuristic yet tranquil pond filled central courtyard. After marvelling at the modern architecture, we visited one of its inspirations, the Lion's Grove Garden, built in the 1360s by a Buddhist month. Appropriately, it felt extremely zen, with mesmerising rock formations, carefully manicured plants and ornate wooden pavilions creating a very relaxed atmosphere. After strolling around the garden for an hour or so, punctuated with plenty of breaks overlooking the placid central lake, the garden closed and we wandered down the attractive, albeit clearly reconstructed, canal lined streets in search of dinner. We eventually found a pleasant canal side restaurant where we enjoyed a simple twilight meal, before making our way to the train station for our nighttime high speed train to Nanjing. We arrived late in Nanjing and took the metro at our hostel, which bizarrely had a ludicrously expensive Belgian craft beer bar attached but was conveniently located in the touristy Confucius Temple area, a shopping district on the site of a giant former temple - very Chinese.
We woke up slightly later than planned (as usual) and, with only a day in Nanjing (China's former capital and site of the WW2 rape of Nanking), hurried to our first sight of the day, the Jiming Temple. The temple was not as impressive as the Tibetan temples we had seen, but still featured some attractive Buddhist architecture and an ornate pagoda, as well as a constant flow of worshippers which added to its authentic feel. Round the back of the temple was one of the city's iconic landmarks, the intact Ming city walls, the longest in the country not to have been significantly rebuilt. Our walk along the wall in the spring sunshine, with the pristine Xuanwu lake on one side and the modern city foregrounded by trees on the other, proved particularly enjoyable, with the stone walls dotted with Ming dynasty cannons evoking a long lost China. After meandering along the wall for around an hour, we climbed down the ramparts to catch the bus up the nearby hill to Sun Yat Sen's mausoleum, passing the Ming Xiaoling Tombs which due to lack of time and money we had to skip. Sun Yat Sen's mausoleum was thronged with visitors, understandable as after Mao he is considered the father of the nation, due to his founding of the Republic of China, although the government's promotion of his legacy is somewhat confusing as he was part of the KMT, the communists' civil war rivals. Perched on a hill, up steep steps designed to evoke the nearby Ming emperor's tomb, the mausoleum loomed above us. Forcing our way through the crowds, with a few photos taken of us along the way, we clambered up the steps to the entrance of the mausoleum, where even the sheer numbers of people couldn't detract from the reverential atmosphere. Entering the tomb, we saw the simple yet striking white statue of Sun Yat Sen, below a beautiful ceiling carved with the rather attractive blue and white Republic of China flag. After walking round the statue in silence we left the mausoleum, to sweeping views of the forested mountain below, which we contemplated for a while before descending the steps and returning to the city center. With some time to kill before dinner, we relaxed in the park housing the ruins of a former Ming palace, along with old people playing cards and practicing their ballroom dancing. We then enjoyed a meal of Bibimbap after our preferred restaurant, a local favourite situated in a luxury shopping mall, had an hour wait for a table and then made our way to the train station for our hard seat night train to Beijing. It proved to be as uncomfortable as it sounds, with most of us only getting a few hours sleep on our 10 hour journey, crammed into clusters of 3 seats opposite each other, with the train totally full due to it being a national holiday weekend...Read more