Posts Tagged ‘Wuxi’

Remembering China # 6: Suzhou

July 21, 2013

Garden of the Master of Nets, Suzhou, China

Suzhou is one of China’s most popular tourist cities, and because of this, you’re either recommended to go…or stay away. When we think of cities as being magnets for tourists, we generally think of westerners, but the Chinese love to travel, and while increasingly many can now afford to travel overseas, due to the high cost of exit visas, most are still limited to traveling within China itself, and for famous cities such as Suzhou, you’re going to encounter thousands of them.

Suzhou is known as being the Venice of China, due to the numerous waterways that intersect the city (specifically the older inner city). These waterways vary in quality from quite beautiful bands of water amongst the buildings, to stinking polluted and stagnant mosquito homelands.

But more than the canals, Suzhou is most known for its ancient gardens, of which there are many still in their original forms. I was lucky enough to explore several, from the most popular Humble Administrators garden, to the Lion Grove garden with its interesting rock formations, to the one pictured above, the Garden of the Master of Nets, which supposedly once belonged to a fisherman.

Each garden is quite different from the next, but one thing they have in common is they are all crawling with Chinese tourists – and worse – tour groups. For the Chinese predominantly travel in large groups led by a leader –  the one waving the coloured flag and speaking into a megaphone – yes, a megaphone. There’s nothing like enjoying the beautifully sculpted gardens to the sound of a distorted Chinese voice yapping incessantly.

The Chinese tour groups are also highly excitable. Happy to be away and enjoying what their 5000 year old, rich culture has to offer, they like to get off the paths and onto the the gardens themselves, ignoring the ‘keep off!’ signs and climbing onto the base of ancient trees to have their photos taken with their victory pose.

To be honest, in many cases it was intolerable. Attempting to photograph some of these gardens minus the people was a feat in itself. I would recommend skipping breakfast and heading to the gardens super early, or possibly during winter where catching them beneath a coat of snow would be mesmerizing.

As for the rest of Suzhou, well it was nothing special really. In many regards, it was a very typical Chinese city, though the whitewashed buildings are somewhat unique to the area. It was a mere 15 minutes by train away from Wuxi, on the way to Shanghai, and is also on located alongside lake Taihu.

Due to the predominance of old buildings and gardens in the older part of the city, the roads are narrow and holy crap are they busy. There’s a abundance of bicycle rickshaws in the area, which tends to be the best way to get around, but be prepared to be clenching your butt-cheeks the entire trip as the way they cut in and out of the cars and pedestrians alike has to be seen to be believed.

But all in all, Suzhou was a fun city to explore, and if you’re visiting Jiangsu by all means check it out.

Remembering China # 5: Shanghai

June 27, 2013


Shanghai. Wonderful, amazing Shanghai. I truly love this city, and when I think about China, it’s here that I miss the most. I would give anything to go back there, to live and work.

Shanghai is a city that’s rapidly changing – and not necessarily for the better. This formerly European concession was unlike any other place that I experienced in China. Of the 10 or so cities that I visited, Shanghai had the most distinctive personality.

The thing that makes Shanghai so special, is the old vs new. Beyond the amazing skyline, full of some of the most amazing buildings you’ll ever see, lies a facade of 18th century style European buildings that are truly beautiful. As I walked along a street that ran behind the tourist infested Bund, when I squinted my eyes and the people became just people, and not Chinese, I could have easily been in Melbourne. At night, when the Bund is lit up to the nines, and the old style buildings are glowing yellow with the snapping Chinese flags above each of them, it truly is an amazing sight. Across the river, the Pudong is also aglow, with the famous Pearl tower with its distinctive shape taking centre stage.

But what I loved most about shanghai was its feel. When you really get in there among the twisting roads and lane ways, it’s an amazing place. From the French concession, with its twisted trees stumps before old colonial style buildings, to the older streets lined with alleyways that could easily have been movie sets. There’s power lines and washing hanging above dusty bicycles and old Chinese characters painted on the walls. It’s simply intoxicating.

But unfortunately much of the old Chinese charm is also disappearing. Great blocks of old Chinese houses are being torn down in favour of skyrises. It was among these districts where you would find those amazing laneways, and snapshots of what the older city would have been like. The reality unfortunately is that while these places are visually amazing, the living conditions inside them are the opposite. Many old Shanghai citizens have been relocated out of the central city district into the suburbs, and relocated into high rise apartments.

But i have found that among people who have been to Shanghai, it is a polarising place. Some people love it, others, not so much. I think that it can come down to how you view the city, and what efforts you make to really get in among it. I had the luxury or visiting it on a quite regular basis. Compared to Wuxi, Shanghai was the closest ‘big’ city (they’re all big in China, really), and had the highest prospect of finding foreign goods such as English language novels and various other products. But beyond that, I also had a chance to walk around it like a local – with no agenda, and i think that made the difference. From simple tasks to just going in search of good coffee (which rocked in the French district incidentally) to finding a decent hairdressor, to enjoying watching all the locals do their tai chi and folk dancing in one of the many parks.
I hope to return to China in 2014, and it’s Shanghai that I am most excited to return to, and this time photograph with a proper SLR.

Remembering China # 4: Tai Hu

June 2, 2013

Lake Tai, or Tài Hú is not only China’s 3rd largest freshwater lake, but one of the main reasons that Wuxi is a popular Chinese tourist city. Wuxi is a pretty cool place really, with lots of things to do and see, but for the foreign tourist to China, there’s definitely other places you’d be better off visiting – such as Suzhou next door – or Hangzhou just a short distance away.

Funnily enough, we only went to Tai Hu one time. It was the end of winter and absolutely freezing, but the guy who was charged with babysitting us in those early days, Pan Zili, graciously drove us down there for a look. It was quite pretty actually, and if you pretended that the haze was mist and not smog, you could go so far as to say it was picturesque.

Most of the surrounding trees and grasses were brown and flattened from the recent snow, but there was a nice vibe down there – plus a few pagoda style teahouses (you know, like the ones we imagined as our stereotypical China).

One of the best things about our visit to Tai Hu, was walking across an old looking Chinese bridge(that was probably only recently built) to a small island. On that island, a pack of around 5 feral cats were absolutely going to town on a rubbish bin. Whenever we travel, we always try and find cats – so these feral, scrawny little beasts made our day.

I don’t know why we didn’t go down there more often to be honest. There are several touristy locations, such as Turtle Head park, and a Chinese movie studio where they still film period drama’s and movies, while putting on live shows. I guess all told, without access to a car, it was a bit of a pain in the ass – particularly seeing it wasn’t on the same side of Wuxi as the school where we lived.

The only other time we were going to go there, was a few days before our kiwi friends, Matt & Abby, were about to head home to New Zealand. As the four of us hopped in a taxi and made our way towards the lake, it became darker and darker, until it was what we officially call ‘scary dark’ – in that, it looked like the weather in the USA just prior to a tornado touching down. It then proceeded to dump down rain for the rest of the day, so we just returned to Wuxi city centre and walked around, enjoying the surprised water attacks that would pop out from beneath the tiled pathways.

Tai Hu was actually a very prominent part of Chinese news a few years before we were there. Large algae blooms were appearing in the water, which was a massive issue as it’s still used as one of Wuxi’s primary drinking water sources. There’s even a beer called Tai Hu Shui – meaning literally ‘Tai Hu water’ –  a pretty good beer at that!

The son of one of the owners of the Aussie expat bar in Wuxi said it was terrible. He said that when they turned the taps on, the water coming out was a horrible thick green sludge – mm, mmh! And what causes algae blooms you might ask? None other than pollution – and likely industrial waste dumped directly into the lake from any of the numerous factories in the area.

If you happen to get to Wuxi, do make the effort to visit Tai Hu, and if you do get there, please send me a photo of you in the paddleboat – i’ll appreciate it on multiple levels.

Lake Tai Hu, Wuxi

Lake Tai Hu, Wuxi

Remembering China # 3: Dong Ting

May 26, 2013
Dong Ting

Dong Ting, Wuxi

Before arriving in China, I dreamed that the country consisted of beautiful, whispering bamboo groves, full of quaint little tea pavilion’s and lakes. The above photo was the reality.

This photo was taken in Dong Ting – our home while we lived in China. We could never actually tell what it’s name was, as it was either Xisan (or XiShan) district, or Dong Ting. Dong Ting we were told at one point, was where the local government of the district was – and there was in fact a government building of some description several blocks away – but in China, unless you speak Chinese (and possibly even then) – nothing is every completely certain or assured.

The above street was very typical for most cities we travelled through. Rows of low-rise apartment buildings, and beneath them, small, garage-like shops, which had anything from scooter/bike repair shops, to restaurants, to general stores. Many of these shops were permanently dark, making you think they were closed, when in fact they were only saving power. At night, they were generally only illuminated by the most minimal lighting possible.

These stores tended to change on a very regular basis. The buildings above them were often dirty – just like the roads and the sidewalks. The smog in the air often collected in the grout between tiles, or in the sills above windows, so that the grime would streak down the windows themselves.

The sidewalks were always small, intricate bricks – the type of thing that could only be put down in such quantities in a country like China, where there were no shortage of hands to do the work. Because people like to ride their scooters on the sidewalks as often as the road, many of the bricks were broken.

If you look closely, on the left hand sidewalk there’s a brick sticking out  – somehow when it’s been laid, it’s just been put in around the wrong way. All the bricks around it moved closer to fill the void. I feel quite close to this particular brick, as I stubbed my toe on it no less than 3 times – and each time bloody hurt thanks!

You’d often see manhole covers in the middle of the road open, with a few sticks of bamboo jammed into them to warn people. The same with potholes – when they got too deep – the old bamboo stick method worked a treat.

Behind these rows of buildings were often more rows of buildings. They are generally placed so that they form a compound of sorts. In the middle of them, you’d find a few courtyards, often with outdoor gym equipment in them. At night, many of the Chinese would gather to socialise, dance and do exercises. In the morning, these places were for tai chi.

Remembering China # 1: Where it all began

May 18, 2013

I recently entered the World Nomad’s 2013 travel writing scholarship contest, and while I didn’t win – or hell, I didn’t even get shortlisted, god how I wanted to. The prize this year was 2 weeks in Beijing under the mentorship of various travel writers in what would have been something of a dream come true experience. Of course, actually winning a heavily subjective competition like this one is comparable to your chances of winning the lotto – I mean, who the hell really knows what they’re looking for year to year. Anyhow, I didn’t win, and I have moved on – I promise!

While I was spending time on the competition, it had me reminiscing again of my own time spent in China. I went through my old photos, many of which I hadn’t looked at for many years now, and have decided to pull a few out and write about them. While living in China – stupidly – I didn’t recognize the need to have a really good camera, and so while many of our shots reflect our experience, I am still kicking myself today that I didn’t take over a proper digital SLR – the night shots we missed out on – gah!

This first shot is particularly average, but it’s also very meaningful for me. It was one of a handful of shots we took just after arriving, while heading back to the school in a minivan. This shot shows the real China – a China that we did not expect. Deep down we knew that it would be a heavily industrialized, very smoggy environment, but we also were still trying to fool ourselves that we would in fact be driven through bamboo forests, past teahouses and pagodas until at our final destination we were served delicious steaming dumplings by none other than a panda.

The reality? This photo:



It was winter and just beyond some unseasonably heavy snowfalls. It does not always snow in Wuxi, but this year it had. In fact in 2008, China experienced such heavy snowfalls that it caused chaos across the country – made all the worse by the fact that half the population was on the move for Chinese New Year. It bordered on disaster.

Anyhow, for us newbies to the country, it meant that the country was freezing cold, both foggy and smoggy, and universally brown. All the foliage was flattened and brown. The grass – brown. The trees – not that there were any real trees – more shrubs, were partially bare and all brown.

It was grey and desolate and a depressing landscape. It was also eye-opening in its sheer size. Everywhere we looked were bamboo scaffold clad buildings such as in the image. On the horizon, random high-rise apartments and factories.

As we travelled across this landscape, through lines of identical blue trucks and flat-bed vehicles laden with yellow helmeted workers, we began to question if we had made a mistake coming here.

China, take our money!

May 3, 2013

I read this interesting article earlier which discussed how Hollywood is beginning to edit its movies in order to try and capture the Chinese dollar. It seems that everyone’s chasing those same dollars. Every second day there’ll be an article about the boom in Chinese tourism, or China suddenly exploding into our music markets, or car markets, or you name it whatever else. Of course that’s when they’re not purchasing all of our raw materials, or entire continents (hello Africa!).

This particular article mentioned Iron Man 3 which reminds me of the time I saw Iron Man 1 when it was first released, at a local cinema in Wuxi, China.

My memories of the movie – beyond the fact half of the people present were not watching the movie but pissing around on their mobile phones – was that it was edited in a really bizarre way.

During the opening scenes, Tony Stark was captured in the desert and forced to work on his first Iron Man armour suit. These scenes were choppy and random and leapt from one thing to another – sometimes mid-dialogue. It was not until sometime later that I discovered that this was not the editors trying to be funky with some kind of ADD-inducing new method – but Chinese editing.

There had been no attempt to make the removed scenes seamless. Anything deemed inappropriate was simply cut. The end result was a jumpy, stuttery series of segments that truly baffled.

Early into the movie, Tony Stark brought a reporter back to his room to sleep with. The sex scene wasn’t shown in the main movie other than the two of them kissing on the bed, then rolling over and falling onto the floor. This scene too was edited out.

The final scene I recall missing (and I am sure there were others mixed in there) was during the climactic battle between Iron Man and…whoever that other armoured baddie was. The two jetted super high into the air until Iron Man’s power source was disabled and he fell to the earth. When he fell, he landed in a small crater – nothing really amazing here – yet this fall was edited out. I really can’t understand this omission.

The moral of this story? There isn’t one – other than don’t go and watch movies in Chinese cinemas if you’re one of those people who can’t handle other people talking during a flick (aka all of us).

Made in China

December 30, 2012

There was a hillarious news story during the week, where a huge aquarium in a Shanghai shopping centre promptly exploded. The few shoppers watching the tank had to leap into the clear as a torrent of water and glass burst into the shopping centre. Something like 16 people recieved minor injuries from the glass shards, while several small sharks and a bunch of turtles met their end. In true Chinese fashion, people were back in the scene mere seconds later, standing amongst the glass to take those all important mobile phone photos of the poor sharks as they flapped around and gasped for air.

The tank had been installed in the shopping centre for two years, and its failure was blamed on cold conditions and poor materials – key word being poor materials.

It is an unfortunately common trend in China, that things are simply not made very well. There are constantly stories reported in the news where bridges or similar large structures have collapsed as they are not only built as fast as possible, but with the cheapest materials possible. I was thinking of many of these stories as I stood in line to ride a chair lift to the top of a small mountain in Xi Hui park, Wuxi. I was specifically looking into the control room, where a giant, dusty old wheel powered the chairlift, and looked like it hadn’t’ been maintained since the Qing dynasty. Likewise, outside the park, as i stood on the wide bridge that leads over the Grand Canal – the bridge that bumps and moves every time a large truck (and there are considerable large trucks) crosses over it – I wondered if I might soon be getting a firsthand view of this famous old canal.

China is advancing alright, but they simply don’t have the same level of care that many other countries employ when building things. Face is often only a facade, and as long as it looks good, it passes the test. In Australia, the utterly stringent rules for rules policies that affects practically everything, tends to avoid problems like this. Of course, even the most prudent countries will still not be beyond the odd disaster occurring, but in China, you can practically lay somewhat safe bets on this happening.

As a point of interest, the main reason so many school students died in the Sichuan Earthquake disaster was due to the poor quality of the classrooms in which they were studying. The buildings, that are often five stories high with at least 5 classrooms across – each with 50+ kids inside, simply collapsed like a deck of cards on top of themselves. I was in China when the Sichuan earthquake occurred. I remember standing on the fifth and top level of a building that would have been very similar and just imagining what might happen should an earthquake of such magnitude hit Wuxi. Thankfully, it didn’t.


River Town; rekindling those memories.

September 2, 2011

I have been reading a book named River Town, by Peter Hessler. It recounts the two years Peter spent serving in the Peace Corps – namely, teaching English in the remote city of Fuling. Situated along the banks of the Yangtze, Fuling is biding its time until part of the town is flooded as part of the Three Gorges Dam project, and the impending rising of the river is a repeating theme throughout the book.

While I have not yet finished the book, I am really enjoying it. I am constantly surprised by how similar Peter’s experiences are to my own. For much of his time in China, he was one of only two foreigners in the entire city – something I can distinctly relate to. While we lived in the city of Wuxi – or rather the CBD was a 20 minute bus ride away, our day to day life was in the suburb of Dong Ting – or Xishan district – different depending on who you asked.

While the locals considered this area ‘country/rural’, it was built up and busy. There are many expats living in Wuxi, though not many in some of the more local suburbs. Many expats stick to the expat compounds or high rises closer to the city itself. Those of us who lived in places like Dong Ting got to experience a very local China. In particular, we were always the centre of attention. It was normal for us to walk down the street to the local supermarket, and have every single eye within a 100 metre radius focusing on us.

In his book, Peter explains that he went to lengths to study the language – something that I wish I had done. While I had enough Chinese to get by quite easily, I certainly didn’t have enough to breach the cultural barrier and really befriend anyone the way he did. I went to China hoping to come back with a ton of Chinese friends. I have a genuine interest in the culture, particularly in the cultural differences between my own culture and the Chinese, but could rarely explore this.

In fact, rather than coming home with a lot of Chinese friends, I came home with only a handful, and most of those were former students who I have kept touch with via email. In many ways I feel like the year we spent in China was a wasted opportunity, but in others it was something that was life changing. It gave me so many new perspectives, and more importantly, it created a solid link between myself and China. While there are many other places in the world I am looking forward to exploring, I absolutely can’t wait to return to China. If given the choice, I would fly back there tomorrow, if even for just a few days. I am almost positive it would feel as if I had never left.

The more I read Peter’s book, the more I am surprised by the amount of things that it answers for me – things that he has been able to come to understand thanks to his grasp of the language. I feel envious that he could do that, and hope that one day I can do something again similar. For anyone interested in a really accurate portrayal of China and the Chinese – from a down to earth, local perspective, I really recommend you check out River Town. If you have read it already, I would love to hear what you thought.

Not for all the smog in China

November 12, 2009

If there’s one thing China is well known for these days, it’s smog. As a direct result of almost inconcievable progress, the entire country is constantly submerged beneath a blanket of foul chemical mist. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a place in the country devoid of it, with even neighbours such as Japan complaining about being affected by it.

Whilst in China, I had the pleasure of exploring quite a few different parts of what is an absolutely massive country, though I don’t think we ever got away from the smog. There were certainly cities where it was better than others, such as Kunming in the south, and then the smaller, much higher places such as Dali, Lijiang and Zhongdian(Shangri-la) – the latter of those being right up in the mountains. Yet even in the mountainouse Zhongdian, I still always wondered if that beautiful mist was in fact mist, or smog.

The following link is eye-opening. To look at the level of black matter on the face mask shown after a mere four hours outdoors in Beijing….well just imagine that stuff lining your lungs. Whilst we were living in Wuxi, Courtney had an almost constant cough, and both of us had sore throats on a very regular basis.

China is a beautiful country, full of amazing culture and super friendly people. Its pollution however, is beyond bad, and I can only seeing it get much much worse before it begins to improve.

Those going there be warned – you are potentially risking your health breathing this stuff in. I used to think – heh, I quit smoking over five years ago, and now while I am here, my lungs are probably worse off than then. And to think, China has more smokers than anywhere else in the world. Double whammy anyone?

Hot hot hot!

July 29, 2009

Last night as I was watching the SBS world news, the weather came on where a 3D globe slowly rotates and they show the temperature of each individual country. As it rolled around to China, it showed both Shanghai and Beijing sitting at around 31 degrees; a big jump up from the 15 degrees that Melbourne is currently (not) enjoying. I thought back to when we were there, suffering through those few months of summer where the humidity had temperatures feeling a good 10+ degrees hotter than they actually were. While a day in Wuxi might have been 28-30 on the weather charts, when humidity was taken into account, the actual temperature really felt somewhere around the 43-45 degree mark.


There were days that were so hot it was unbearable. You would wake up in the morning afer a night of air-conditioning flicking – leaving the air-conditioner on lead to sore throats, and would often be too cold regardless. As soon as you hopped out of bed you would feel unpleasant, but as long as you had AC, it wasn’t too bad. You’d shower and feel somewhat refreshed, then get dressed and head out for the day in t-shirt, shorts and sandals. You could never wear socks and shoes, it was simply too hot. And then, as soon as you went outside, you felt the need to shower again.


The humidity was various degrees of disgusting. You became used to living with a constant sheen of sweat all over your body, with large wet patches beneath your armpits. You would reach around and feel your back beneath your top and it was completely soaked – dripping. As you walked around feeling uncomfortable, you would notice that the Chinese were wearing long pants and long shirts; completely dry. While some walked around in jeans and regular wear, others – mainly older men, walked around in rolled up singlets with their big bellies sticking out, fanning themselves with hand-made bamboo paddles.


Some days I miss China so much that it almost makes me feel anxious. I feel like I need to go back there to get it out of my system. Other days I remember specifics such as the almost unbearable Summer and I am happy to live in a country with a much more moderate temperature.


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