Canal pleasures

The hotel’s buffet breakfast had baked beans. And watermelon. Alex was so happy!

My stomach has ceased to tell me if it’s hungry or not. It doesn’t know what time zone it is in. We are in this holiday state where the only times that matter are openings, closings and airport departures.

Shanghai shophouses as seen from the hotel

I love Chinese gardens and the best of them are supposed to be found in Suzhou, about an hour out of Shanghai. I really wanted to visit this garden and canal city back in 2007, but we ran out of time. So today we planned to catch a train there.

The subway took us from East Nanjing Road station to Shanghai’s main railway station via People’s Square. The train was packed, the stations crowded. The Chinese passengers just push their way in and I have to be careful that Alex isn’t squashed.

Major Chinese railway stations can be scary places, with huge hordes of rough mannered rural migrants milling around. On this sunny day it just looked like a crowd enjoying themselves.

B asked a policeman in front of the row of automated ticket machines how to book a ticket to Suzhou and he directed us to a nearby Expo Volunteers table. A friendly young man there offered to help us once we reached the end of the queue.

Actually, it didn’t look too difficult, with the machine showing English displays as well as Chinese. Certainly the result was clear enough; all trains to Suzhou booked out until the afternoon.

Oh well, scratch Suzhou for this trip. Fortunately, I had some alternate destinations handy.

We reasoned that the Expo queues would be enormous considering that it was a weekend with such fantastic weather, so we discarded that idea.

Hidden away in the Lonely Planet’s Shanghai City Guide was a short description of Qibao, a historic remnant of Shanghai out towards the old Hongqiao airport. Sure it mentioned crowds, but it sounded nice.

A couple of long and very stuffy metro rides took us to the station at Qibao. I couldn’t wait to arrive as I had no seat, the train was packed and I felt like there was not enough oxygen in the cabin.

Behind the big Famos shopping centre atop the metro station was the Xincheng Silver Bowl Footbath Club. My feet could certainly have done with a good soaking and I tried to imagine a group of men and women swapping stories (or playing the pokies) while bathing their feet in expensive bowls of water.

We had no map of the area, but a giant billboard made it obvious which direction the Qibao old street lay in while a decorated archway welcomed us in. I bought ticket with a map from the small ticket office. These aren’t necessary, but include access to a number of museums along the way.

I purchased a clear peppermint flavoured soft drink thinking it was water. Nice!

The real entrance to the street was fronted by a decorative pond and an ornate bell tower, which we climbed up and let Alex ring the bell, to his delight.

By the pond a small mobile stall was selling various pets: crickets in round wicker cages, tiny orange fish in baubles, salamanders, turtles and crabs. Animal activists would have been appalled.

The narrow alleyways of the old town were lined with shops selling souvenirs and mass produced craft items, the paths packed with sightseers. Alex was tired, thirsty and a bit hungry and I don’t think he likes dense crowds. He began screaming and crying. Fortunately, the entrance to the Old Textile Mill, one of the included sights on our ticket, suddenly appeared.

Inside was an oasis of calm, a sheltered spot overlooking a pond of goldfish and small garden. We let Alex loose and fed him and were rewarded with big smiles. The museum itself is very interesting, with displays of the equipment used at each part of the cotton milling process, manned with realistic models of workers.

Continuing on, the alleyway exited into an open square by the side of a canal. Ahead of us a stone arch bridge crossed the canal. Rather than cross it directly, we turned right seeking sights. While B purchased some tea a shopkeeper gave a whinging Alex a toy musical keyboard to play with. I ended up buying it, despite the annoying offkey tunes it played, because it kept him happy.

Crossing over the canal we were greeted with a site as pretty as the canal towns like that of Zhouzhang, which we had visited in 2007, with waterside shophouses and boats punted down the canal. It was more enjoyable than Zhouzhang because we weren’t constantly accosted by shopkeepers and restaurateurs chasing business.

As we wandered the area we stopped by a couple more sights. The pawnshop was fairly empty of goods, but Zhou’s Miniature Carving House is a must-see. I had thought the miniature Shanghai of yesterday was fantastic, but Zhou and his daughter’s tiny models of pots, bonsai, furniture and other items was simply exquisite. The daughter had also carved amazingly tiny Buddhist texts on small stone steles.

B was hungry and purchased some skewered food to eat (though not the birds pictured below).

We looped around through the town and eventually crossed the big stone bridge. Rather than take the direct route back to the station we followed the canal for a little way longer, down to a bridge weir. There the canal met another branch. On the opposite bank was a picturesque temple complex, but we followed a path past a rundown housing estate that seemed to be in the process of being demolished. At least it was removed from the crowds.

The subway ride back to East Nanjing Street was a lot quieter and I had a seat most of the way. We were naughty and stopped at McDonalds to get some of their foods only available here. We had purple hot taro pie, pineapple sundae, tiny chicken wings and a Coke. Local food of a different sort.

On our way back to the hotel we stopped by a restaurant for a dinner of chicken and thin slices of beef stewed at your table in a flavoured soup, a bit like shabu-shabu but not as nice. I was a bit disappointed by the meal after some of the others we have eaten.

It looks like we have messed up Alex’s routine already as it was a struggle getting him to be early, despite the early night back at the hotel. Tomorrow we depart for Hong Kong. I’ll be glad to get there. I’ve enjoyed Shanghai, but I don’t love the city or its inhabitants in the same way as some other cities. It will be nice to be somewhere where the water is clean enough to drink and the net isn’t filtered.

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