None in Suzhou, one in Shanxi and two in Shaanxi
My solo trip to China was primarily so that I could visit the site of Taosi in Shanxi, the location for much of the second of my first trilogy of novels on Chinese history. Obviously I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues in Suzhou and the holiday turned into one of very much contrasting halves.
Now having returned to Qatar and being able to consider the visit as a whole it was somewhat weird. I was lonely without Andrea and missed her considerably while she smooched up to the turtles in the Filipino resort of Moalboal. Staying in a hotel in Suzhou, rather than our own apartment, led me to forget important things like eating, and travelling around in the north made me realise how much I’ve come to depend on Andrea to knock ideas around; I think my observations up there were less for her absence.
I’ve made a careful note of the places I stayed and transport arrangements in the references on the last page of this piece. The first page deals with Suzhou, the second with Xian and Shaanxi, the third with Shanxi and the fourth with Shanxi’s economic base; coal. I decided to spin off my detailed observations on Taosi into a second, more academic piece that will be available shortly and I’ve put so much material together on the Chinese Coal Crisis that I’ll probably put an article together on that as well.
Stuck Inside of Suzhou with the Jiangsu Blues Again
I guess the one question I was asked most while I was away was, “How much has China changed?” Obviously we’ve only been away two years and for most countries the expectations of change over two years would hardly register. But China, being China, has changed. There are subtle differences, these mostly exhibit themselves in peoples’ attitudes, and there are more blatant differences, the scale of which can smack you in the face from time to time, represented by the completion of large scale building schemes for example.
In Suzhou the construction of the massive East Gate complex is near to topping out, although I guess it will be a year or so before it is occupied. The structure looms above Jinji Hu and is probably most impressive when viewed from the centre of Suzhou, some 5 kilometres away. The design, intended to imitate a portal, will make it the largest “gate” structure in China, something that was planned many years before, indeed we viewed a model in 2004 that featured the structure.
My own favourites, the twin towers, which were constructed in full view of our kitchen window, are now finished and occupied. In some respects they look older than they are; obviously they have been designed, like so many other skyscrapers, with inadequate cleaning devices for their exteriors. Both the twin towers and the East Gate sit atop the new underground railways system, which was days off opening when my holiday finished. It was disappointing not to have travelled on the Metro as it will make such a difference to the city of Suzhou. For several years residents have had to put up with massive disruption on the city’s east-west axis, but this is now finished and the roads are much clearer. There’s still work continuing on other lines but, although this didn’t affect me at all, I’m sure the locals are still fed up with it.
It would have been useful to have the Metro operating for my visit to Ye Mei at Suzhou China Travel Service. I had considered making all my bookings online, which would, on balance, have been a similar price, but as a tourist to China it really helps with the visa to have an incoming agent to sort stuff out. Ye Mei booked my internal flights, my hotels in Suzhou and Linfen, my translator and driver in Linfen and a rail ticket from Linfen to Taiyuan. To be honest all this saved me a lot of hassle and everything she booked for me went perfectly, which was not the case with some of the things I did myself! It was great to meet her again. Ye Mei has been handling bookings for Andrea and I over a period of eight years and it was good to see they had finally moved into a nice new office. A Metro station is right outside, making transportation to S.I.P. very, very easy, once it has opened.
My old haunts were all still open, though some have changed and my articles on pubs and restaurants in Suzhou and S.I.P. are beginning to look outdated. The Black Mirage continues as it ever has and the welcome from Santel, Ben, Ron and others was lovely; it seems some of them like me a little bit, even if they would vehemently deny it in public! The place now has big screen TV, which would be very pleasant if I liked baseball, basketball or that other American sport they play wearing tights...American Ballet or American Football...one of the two? A couple of years on and I found it was difficult to win a game of pool; how times change!
Mr. Pizza still serves cheap drinks, although I didn’t recognise any of the staff, nor did I meet the owners. Ebony has changed hands and is now more of a nightclub/bar than a restaurant. The Blue Marlin is even more expensive than it was and there seems to have been a steady drift of the old punters away from it. But I must have a little rave about an establishment that has appeared since we left, Heidi’s.
Heidi’s is a great little restaurant, serving mainly European food, to a very high standard. It has a patio area outside, reminiscent of how Singha Plaza used to be before it became too overcrowded, and serves beer at sensible prices; still 10RMB for a pint of Tsingtao. I had a chat with Heidi, the co-owner, who previous ran La Rose on Singha Plaza; they’re doing very well and deservedly so. She ran a very tight ship at La Rose and has brought that expertise and warmth with her to Heidi’s. If one restaurant deserves a visit in the S.I.P. it is Heidi’s, either for the excellent food or just a pleasant pint outside.
For an altogether different purpose I also revisited Youya Tailor Shop, sometimes known as the Cashmere Monopoly, in central Suzhou. I’ve had suits, coats and shirts made here in the past, and whilst I am absolutely convinced that there are cheaper places to go for tailoring, the quality is first rate. On this occasion I wanted two jackets and five shirts, the price of £200 (US$320) was about the same as if I bought them off the peg in the UK but the material nor the workmanship would have been as good. The black jacket is a cashmere and wool mix, whilst the cream one is linen and the shirts cotton. The other obvious advantage is that you get what you want without searching for it and the things fit properly!
Decathalon drew me into its warm embrace as there is nowhere cheaper to purchase decent walking clothes. A few wick away shirts, trousers, coat and a compass, cost me less than half of the prices in the U.K. Decathalon is one of those very few stores that I really love shopping in!
And then there was the important purchase, most important as it wasn’t just for me, of a silk duvet. Our own was washed by our cleaner, not something you should do to silk duvets, and we needed a lightweight one urgently for summer. The cheapest place turned out to be Auchan, where I also picked up some sheets and, by now, a completely necessary additional suitcase. All were excellent value for money and of a high standard; I guess Auchan has changed in the last two years!
On a personal front I met up with the SSIS crowd, although a few of them are going to be hanging up their boots this summer or next. The school appears to be doing quite well; they’ve stabilised their decline in numbers and their IB Diploma results are amongst the best in China. Congratulations are called for all round but Dexter Phillips’ results in Business and Management are truly exceptional. It was great to catch up with everyone at SSIS but Melodie Greene, with whom I shared a classroom in her first year, and Chuck Pollard (& family), with whom I’ve worked very closely over the years, really made for great reunions. Outside the school fraternity I didn’t get to see enough of Bruce (my 73rd favourite American) nor Phillip Leatherwood (everyone’s favourite cyclist) but did get to spend some serious time with Peter Fagerlund, Finland’s own answer to the e-bike problem, as well as May, his partner, and their new baby Fiona (Lin Ling). I haven’t mentioned everyone, the list would be too long, but to all of you, thanks for the welcome and thanks for spending time with me.
Suzhou: polite, efficient, easy, friendly; it was a cool place to live for five years and great to revisit, but I did come to the conclusion I would not want to work there again. New pastures!