A Travellerspoint blog

April 1985

exploring Chongquing in 1985

eat well for once

overcast 13 °C
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Tuesday 2nd April
Spend day wandering up and down hilly Chongquing. Much more character to the town than the grand but desolate wastes of Beijing.
Street vendor making toffee dragon

Street vendor making toffee dragon

Greater toffee artists in a street market. Pouring elaborate creations onto a marble slab and sticking them on a bamboo stick for 10f.
Watch 12 year old boy methodically butcher live eels. Knock on the head, skewer through the eye, slit open, another cut out comes the spine and guts, chop off head and toss into customers bowl. Very bloody and wriggly, feel sick. Further up the market a street sign advertises Dr Chow, expert in cancer.

Fail to locate museum and find old temple instead. But disappointing. Eat steamed, fist sized, dumplings with savoury filling--baozi. Good, 14f.
 Unable to sleep on dock side ferry tonight so have to traipse back to hotel. Meet the four Swedes again, they have tomorrow morning departure to, but on a different ferry. Eat a truly delicious pork dish, more than I can manage, but I force it down, I will be many days on that ferry. The ladies at the next table gives me a bowl of their soup, then some men insist I go over and drink their beer. We drink innumerable small toasts from bowls. One to one. I propose 'chin chin', and this becomes the toast for the evening. Not one spoken word in common but lots of laughter. We are thrown out at the unusually late hour of 9.30.

This morning my tooth paste and razor were stolen from the bathroom, which was shared with another dormitory. In the afternoon I replace tooth paste, but cannot find a razor. Tooth paste tastes strongly of bubble gum. Revolting.

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board the ferry, see a corpse

and set off down the Yangtze river to Shanghai, this will take a week.

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Wednesday 3rd April
Up at 5 am for the dock. Retrieve soap from the other dormitory where I had left it yesterday. The Swedes are in situ and getting up for their boat. Catch bus number one, the first one is at 5.20. Dock side by 6 am. have some rice gruel and baoxi from a street vendor. Very warming on cold foggy morning. Join the shuffling queue, already very long, at pier two. It is just beginning to break dawn.
My home for the next week

My home for the next week

Far below, it's a steep descent to the river, the long bellows of ships sirens echo around the smokey river. They sound like whales singing in the ocean. Sometimes they almost start a tune, I imagine a giant organ rising from the deep swirling waters vibrating the air with a gutteral rendering of Bach's Toccata.
The queue is about 1 hour, we board at 7.30 and depart at 8. Quickly shown where to go. A lady exchanges our tickets for a bed number, she gives me an outside top bunk. Good view of the passing scenery through the door and large square windows. There are six two-man bunks in this 4th class dormitory. Two blankets, and two fans for the summer.

We are on a large modern steel ferry with five decks. Most accommodation is in 12 bedded 4th Class dormitorys-472 people like mine. Third Class in 8 bedded dormitory-96 people, fifth Class 18 beds-111. Plus a few people in second Class, whose lounge I have sneaked into at the moment. There maybe up to a hundred others camping on the stairs and in the corridors.
 Grub is served at speed to all 800 of us three times a day. You have to purchase meal vouchers in advance. One yuan will get a meat dish and rice. Filling and tasty, someone usually gives up a seat. Outside of second Class there are only four foreigners, myself, an Australian, a German, and a Japanese medical student. I pass the peanut test for chopsticks.
 The river is wide and fast flowing, full of eddies and swirls. The countryside is steep limestone hills, up ended Swiss rolls of rock strata exposed by the river. Little allotments cling to the slopes. In the afternoon much excitement as a very dead corpse floats past. His skin taut and oedematous and coloured a bilious green.
 Plenty of hot water for tea, and in the communal showers. The loos are very public as usual, we all squat in a row over a trough. A two foot partition enables one to chat with one’s neighbour.
 Sleep a lot. Ferry moors for the night, but cannot get off.

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rush through the Yangtze gorges

4th class cabin

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Thursday 4th April
Day 114

We rush through the Yangtze gorges

We rush through the Yangtze gorges

Everyone leaps out of bed at 6 am. as we go through the first of the gorges. The Yangtze narrows to 100 yards, rushing through on the torrent of water, fog horn blaring, and scattering little wooden boats before us. Steep mountains rise to 900 metres either side. Rush through all the famous gorges in the morning. Those Chinese who have cameras take many posed pictures of their friends.

DSC0000236.jpgMeet an Urgur. From the far West of China, near the USSR, north of Tibet. He is travelling around China, his brother is in Australia. He has wavy black hair and Western eyes. I try to talk about a yurt but get nowhere.

Suddenly the mountains drop away and we arrive at the top of a vast dam bristling with cranes. We edge slowly into a huge dock along with a few other boats. The drop is about 60 metres. Two sections of railway track are lifted vertically by enormous gantries to let the boats in. The bottom gates take 15 minutes to open. Awesome. People here have the “Speechless” phrase book, very useful, wish I had one.
 Beautiful sunny day. I feel warm for almost the first time whilst in China. This is the way to travel. The Australian gets off as we dock in the evening. The ferry only stops once or perhaps twice a day.
 The two Chinese in my bunk and the one opposite have befriended me. We get on very well with sign language, drawings, and lots of hot tea. Usually I eat with the Japanese guy, the German girl has befriended a business man in 2nd class.

4th class 33 yuan,
3rd class 8 bed, sink, desk, communal trough loos, 58 yuan,
2nd class double rooms, shared private cubicle pedestal loo, 120 yuan.

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change ferries at Wuhan

break the ice of the ticket dragon

rain 14 °C
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Friday 5th April
 up early to catch breakfast.
A hot steaming bowl of rice gruel - congee. Surprisingly nice to sip on a chilly morning. It’s grey and cloudy with a hint of rain. Today is world economics day for my friends in the dormitory. How much I earn? how much my trousers? how much my padded silk jacket? 50 to 100 yuan a month seems to be their salaries. Plus food vouchers, and a flat.
Write up diary in 2nd class lounge. It’s a mistake to lean over the rails on the fourth deck, there is a continual light drizzle of gob from the decks above.
Fellow travellers

Fellow travellers

Arrive at Wuhan late afternoon, my friends take me in hand as they are also continuing down the river. There’s a ticket office on the pontoon at which we moor so I’m directed over and we join the queue. After a while the lady shepherding the queue starts giving me the big 'no no' about sleeping on the boat tonight-it leaves in the morning. (It could have been the big no no for a ticket for all I knew, but mates explained to me later) however her a rock like face begins to crack after five minutes of good humoured persuasion from my friends. A smile breaks through, out comes my money, and she gets me a ticket to Shanghai 4th class plus sleeping overnight for 17.50 Yuan.
Wander around Wuhan with my companions for a few hours. Eat bowl of noodles, two baozi, fried black beans and Chinese vodka for 0.5 Yuan in a dock side Café.
Board, ferry, a different one, older and tattier. But I am in a different dorm to my pals.

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sneak into 2nd class toilets

sneak into 2nd class toilets

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Saturday 6th April
Steam out of Wuhan with the tannoy singing Colonel bogey! The on ship music is quite good, a mixture of classical, dance tunes, and the occasional Chinese wail. A bonus is that it is turned off for long periods.
Noodles for breakfast.
Miserable day. One other Englishmen on board, getting off tonight. He has no books to swap and I’ve finished both The Honorary Consul and The Dogs of War. He is only half way through Tess of the D’Aubervilles.
Meet Professor Zui of Shanghai Fudian university, physics and electricity. He speaks good English. He was at a conference in London in 1982, and is going again this year. Disappointed to find that the second Class lounge is shut, but enjoy a private shit in a second Class toilet.
Discuss the details of the world tour with my new dorm friends. The eldest fellow is 53 and tall, he smokes and drinks a lot of vodka. He was in the army 20 years ago. The youngest looks like a teddy bear, round and innocent, he is a driving instructor in the People’s Liberation Army. They all have woolly underwear. The third is 51 and quiet and serious. He is a teacher of some sort and speaks Russian.
My cold is better, although I still run to snot in wind. More interesting is the patch of eczema two inches above my navel. Well, it was obviously a herald patch of Pityriasis. I now look quite alarming in the pale morning light.
Write several letters with a big crowd watching.

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chinese foxtrot in 2nd class lounge

sunny 18 °C
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Sunday 7th April
The Yangtze widens

The Yangtze widens

A glorious sunny day. The river is very wide now. The banks are indistinct and there is big ship traffic as well as small junks. Noodles for breakfast.
The young couple in the bunk next to mine have a hyperactive over intelligent and moody three-year-old. The father also has a very loud voice. The mother wants me to teach her to disco dance.
I am much gawped at all day. Unlike Indonesia you have to initiate the smile and then have the satisfaction of seeing their faces crack wide and flash their teeth. It’s quite innocent gawping of surprise, and if you catch their eye they snap out of it and look away. You are sure of to catch them having a second look though. I look a right mess now with a scruffy five-day beard.
Chinese slapstick video in the canteen and dance party in the reading room. As I can neither foxtrot nor samba, and since I would stop the party with my presence, I content myself with peaking through the curtains. It’s mostly men dancing. Stiff and proud. A little round 40 year-old woman, who worked as a railings painter, was standing aside. I asked to why she didn’t join in. 'When I was young it was the Cultural Revolution, and I don’t know how to dance.' She explained. I was the first foreigner she had ever spoken to. Her English was good enough to have a conversation with, and learnt from the BBC World Service. The number of people who try to start a conversation with great enthusiasm, and then peter out in the middle of a horribly mispronounced second sentence. We both end up staring out at the ships wake in silence, remembering the past.

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ferry ensnared by junk

sail up the Bund, Shanghai at last.

sunny 18 °C
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Monday 8th April
day 118


Fog bound and idle. There is a small fishing junk tethered to the stern. It’s nets have fouled our ferries propeller. Who is guilty? The ferry for running down the fishermen? The fishermen for fishing in the ferry lane? A big row.
It takes until after lunch to free the propeller, with several fishing boats clustered around the ferries stern end. This means we won’t get into Shanghai until after nine in the evening. This is a very stupid time to arrive in a city famous for its bed shortages.
However the night-time cruise through Shanghai is well worth it. Huge cargo ship’s bristling with cranes, stark deep shadows in the arc lights, big metal hulks, rows of the little illuminated windows. It takes us an hour or more of pass all this, then we steam right along the centre of Shanghai, straight up the Bund. What away to arrive!
Our stewardess leads us up and down corridors, over rails, down ladders and then out through the hold to bypass the masses clamouring to be first onto the ship. Hop straight on to bus 65, and get off at the Pujiang hotel just over Suzhou creek which I had spotted from the ferry. Check into the male dormitory 7 yuan, paid in Remninbees (my last) and FEC’s. Hot bath and bed. Wasn’t so difficult after all. Receptionist said there was no room, but ignored her.

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lemon meringue pie

with chopsticks

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Tuesday 9th April
DSC0000244.jpgUp by 7am and down to Nanjing Lee outside the Peace Hotel, wander up and down waiting for 'change money' to be whispered in my ear. Walkabout for at least an hour, must be too early. Ignore the first swarthy looking character, as he will not shift from 160. The money changers look more Turkish and Chinese. The second one won’t either, but I fall for his winning grin and wink. Change 100 foreign exchange certificates. Buy a spring loaded sun hat for Deborah at 2.50Y
Buy ticket for this SS Shanghai cruise ship to Hong Kong, departing 19th, 145 FEC. Have a tremendous haircut, scalp massage, and cut throat razor smooth shave in a busy old-fashioned barbers near the Park hotel. Feel like one million dollars.
Buy blue peaked cotton cap with red star, 2 yuan, in a massive tatty department store. An American in the department store asks advice about his urethral discharge acquired in Thailand. It seems we had met before in Chongquing. I tell him to return to Hong Kong for his test results.
Coffee, sticky bun and large wedge of lemon meringue pie, One yuan. Eaten with chopsticks! Hilarious spectacle, as lemon meringue pie is the shops speciality, and everybody is struggling.
Bowl of red soup and a thin fried pork escalope. Delicious. Spend the day window shopping and wearing out my legs. Take a liking to Shanghai. Go to four theatres as directed by the tourist office, looking for Chinese opera. Surprise surprise no opera found. However tout outside one sells me ticket for the acrobat show. This was excellent, and very cheap.

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rain 15 °C
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Wednesday 10th April
Grey and wet. Set off gamely in search of the old Chinese quarter and gardens of Yuyuan. Feel bloody awful. See the gardens with several hundred thousand others, can’t walk another step. Get the bus back to Pujiang hotel and start sneezing. It’s Chinese cold number two. Mooch around drinking cups of tea, aspirins and having hot baths. Sleep badly. Have a lonely glass of Chinese sweet red wine, rather like pork, in the international seamen’s club opposite the hotel. Sleep badly again.

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stroll into posh Jinjiang club

well it was once

sunny 20 °C
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Thursday 11th April
Cold in full flood. Set off with a new lavatory roll in my bag. A precious commodity. Wander into a local café and strike it lucky with deep fried battered pork and two glasses of house beer, and an excellent and strong lager. 1.50 yuan.
Wander slowly down to the French quarter. Shanghai’s paraplegics have collected in one corner of Renmin Park. Several of them have hand pedal wheelchairs, I imagined they are discussing the rights of the disabled in a socialist state. All maybe the lack of them. Certainly the Chinese have an out of sight and out of mind attitude to disability.
Locate the massive Jinjiang hotel. Actually it is about three hotels, and a supermarket, international business office, bars, discos, gardens etc. The supermarket has an extensive and frightening help yourself pharmacy. Just opposite is the Shanghai Arts Theatre, the photographs outside suggest a magic show which one chap in the dormitory had mentioned. I invest 30 F. in the matinee and rest my legs through an incomprehensible Chinese film.
Emerge to search for the Shanghai arts research centre with its inhouse craftsmen. Find the music centre, but the nearby number 79 referred to in the guide book seems to be the Embassy of a small African republic. Retire to lounge in the Jinjiang and fall asleep until someone tinkles on the grand piano.
Eat in the vast banqueting hall with art nouveau plaster work, crenellated pillars, and heavy bronze chandeliers. The staff here have their act together, this hotel must be under foreign management. They call my bluff and refuse my Renminbe. I say take it or leave it, and leave them looking aghast.
Walk over to the Jinjiang club. The admission charge was waived, do I look that poor, probably by now. Like the hotels and clubs in China from the concession days this place is a museum, the overseas businessmen, the chipped paintwork and grubby original carpets only hint of what must have gone before. Grand dining-room, reading room, small Tudor bar, gymnasium and fancy modern 10 pin electronic bowling alley in the basement. Up the marble staircase there are more banqueting suites and an enormous and impressive oval ballroom, well worth seeing. Bus home. Pay hotel bill, could not get out of paying foreign exchange certificates. Damn.

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Chris Hough cycles in,

into publishing deal of traveller's tales.

rain 16 °C
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Friday 12th April
Wake up feeling a little brighter. Have a chat with Chris from the UK and Don from Australia in the dormitory. Don is in his fifties and has recently been living in Japan, he is a teacher. This morning the young Japanese student in the next bed is giving him some acupuncture for his cold. He is quick, with dry quips, and travels with a grubby canvas holdall. Chris Hough arrived on his bike yesterday, after three weeks cycling up from Hong Kong. He’s a barrister at Middle Temple and is starting in new chambers in 1986. He has a £5000 publishers advance for his book. He has cycled through Europe Turkey Syria India and Thailand. Raves about Turkey, was shot at in Syria. Had bloody diarrhoea in India, who hasn’t?
The Japanese guys buyout half of Shanghai and leave. There is a high turnover in this dormitory. I write five more letters in the lobby of the Peace hotel, and snooze in the afternoon, I still feel very tired. Wet day.

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meet an entrepreneur

one day Shanghai will rule the world

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Saturday 13th April 1985
Congee and dumplings at the Pujiang. Stroll down the Bund, a pleasant enthusiastic well spoken postgraduate business student joins me, we talk about China, England, travel, the blackmarket etc. I have difficulty getting him in to the Dongjeng, the old Shanghai club. Moderately interesting interior.
The Premier recently extolled the people not to waste their time, as time is money. This piece of dogma was previously despised as capitalism. My student friend is telling me all this with some amusement. He compares Shanghai and the Huangpo to London’s river front on the Thames, there is a distinct resemblance. He regards Shanghai traffic as appalling, I tell him he should come to London were the traffic as much worse.
He recently embarked on a little private enterprise and a college project. He got some girls in his year to sew some simple calico bags with a draw string. He paid them 4Fen per bag, with other costs of about 20 Fen. He sold them around the College for 30 Fen. They are for the students to carry their bowls and chopsticks in. He sold 200 in one week and made 20 yuan. He is very well informed on world affairs and international politics, he knows more about European industrial output is than I do. After the club we walk around enchanting back streets in the older part of town. We watch a rice crispie man dry roasting rice in a heavy black iron pressure cooker mounted on a trolley with a small charcoal stove. It opens with a loud bang and a puff of smoke. This noise is his traders call. We eventually say goodbye in the Yuyuan gardens.
Yuyuan gardens

Yuyuan gardens

Tour the museum. Beautiful collection of Chinese paintings on the top floor. Get another shave. Razor not as sharp as the first barbers I visited, but he still has a great routine.
Spends the evening with Chris, Don, Melia and Amanda in Shanghai’s liveliest night spot. The bar of the Peace hotel where some old musicians from the 1930s have been resurrected from their previous, and premature, cultural retirement. Great atmosphere, restrained Japanese tourists, loud mouthed Texans adding vocals, rowdy Yugoslav sailors, and gawping Chinese in the doorway. Expensive coffee and beer, and admission 8 yuan, argued and paid in Remninbees.

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dead pig in the Huangpo

sunny 20 °C
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Sunday 14th April
Wander down the Bund, see a dead pig in the Huangpo, chat to physics student. Catch ferry to the other side for photograph of the front. Resembles Liverpool. Come back and have a long read in the foreign language book store. They have a few English paperbacks, and if you paid in Remninbees they are cheaper than in the UK.
We have a slap up meal in the posh Sichuan restaurant with the young chefs fooling about at the table. They laugh and joke while leaning on your shoulder with one arm, fag in the other hand. Meanwhile you are trying to manoeuvre some wobbly bean curd into your mouth with chopsticks. Excellent grub 6 yuan each including large bottle of beer. This is a splurge.
Make a date with Melia for the 6:30 a.m. tomorrow.

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the west lake at Hangzhou

battle of the bus, to add to battle of the hotel, but enjoying it all.

sunny 21 °C
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Monday 15th April - day 124

Up early pack and slip out of the dormitory. Meet Melia on the grand staircase. The Pujiang hotel is like an old public school, long dark corridors wooden paneling halfway up the walls. Catch bus 65 to central railway station. Thousands of people as always. I am led a merry song dance by three of these people in quick succession as they try to help me find the correct ticket office for Hangzhou. Somehow we find it halfway down the street, outside the railway station. Train departs 9 a.m., report back to Melia who has found her way into the foreigner's waiting room, a welcome oasis. Helpful old China man speaks good English and sells us a painless 6.40 yuan Remninbees ticket hard seat three hours to Hangzhou. Escorted to the train way we startled the carriage guard lady by getting into hard seat carriage. There’s a lady for each carriage.
I am the usual quintessence of international relations for the entire journey, although it tries my patience sorely.
At Hangzhou and enthusiastic young man helps us with bus information to the Jiefeng hotel (51 then a 4). At this point I realise that I’ve left my Mao cap on the train and cause a scene as I burst through the ticket barrier and rundown the platform chased by several lady guards screaming abuse. All smiles as my hat is passed out of the window. The entire train of 12 carriages is bristling with gawping faces pressed to windows.
The worst rugby scrum ever to get on bus number 51. Fear that Melia is left behind but I bellow down the bus and she answers back. Big fight to get off the bus. The old Chinese ladies are fierce. Fight our way onto number four bus. We are now on the town front by the famous West lake, it is beautiful especially as the sun is shining at last, after three weeks of rain and cloud. But everywhere is packed out with elderly Chinese tourists. These hardy folk make the Battle of the Bus more vicious even than in Beijing. Little old Chinese ladies are very tough and when packed like anchovies into a bus the resulting din is almost unbearable. Somewhat misjudged when to get off and have to catch another number four bus to retrace are steps. Walk to the Hanzhou hotel, an imposing affair, surrounded by eight foot walled gardens. Melia’s back pack is heavy. Gets the usual big denial to all questions from the receptionist. Our last question for refreshment also receives the 'no no', we ignore her and finding an empty room nearby make tea from the hot Thermos in the room. The receptionist displays no interest in us once we move away from her ‘service counter'.
Walk a further 5 km in surprisingly good spirits considering the tribulations of the journey so far, China hassle? no problem! This is the first bit of Chinese countryside I’ve really tramped over and its very pleasant in the afternoon sun. The air is scented with tea bushes, a surprisingly strong and pleasant smell, and other flowers grow in the woods. Rape is in flower splashing colour on the hillsides. The houses are solid structures, grouped to bigger buildings. It looks rather like France.
The Zhejiang is like a large upmarket holiday camp. There is invasion as a weightlifting meeting is being housed here. North and South Koreans, Iranians and Iraqis all heaving together. We are put into block 6, in five bed dormitory with big comfortable beds. Ostensibly the price is eight yuan. It has taken is all day to get this far and I settle onto the bed with Melia’s First Among Equals by Jeffrey Archer. Read and snooze.
Have a row in the restaurant – my first in China! We are miles from any alternative restaurant and decide to settle for the set menu at 7 yuan. A La Carte not available today. We eat with an English fellow about to go up to Cambridge who I met earlier on the Yangtze river. He advises us that there is a local flavour restaurant hidden somewhere in the grounds. Melia however is a vegetarian which I explain to the waiter who brings a spiced cabbage dish. He goes off duty. At bill time the new waiter is quite adamant we should pay for two set meals. I stick to my guns, sporting a good humoured smile, explaining that the fellow is crazy asking for 7 yuan for a plate of cabbage. Which he was. The woman with better English arbitrates in a masterly manner we pay 8.20 yuan. However I’ve had much better meals for one yuan.
Sing loudly in the large showers.
My pityriasis is looking quite splendid.
Feel as high as a kite.

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cycle to Suzhou

beautiful town of ancient enclosed gardens

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Tuesday 16th April
Another lovely day. Sit and have tea on the balcony. Local flavour restaurant is just across the yard. Using brazen laugh and smiles the startled Chinese serve me, it seems to be mainly for staff. The waiter from the night before says hello, 'Nee-ha'
Catch bus 27 from the back of the complex with an English fellow who is off to get his thrice daily intramuscular penicillin from the local nurse. He has a sore throat. He'd be better off with an aspirin. Stroll around town, spend time in foreign language book store looking for a phrase book for Melia. Shanghai was her port of entry so she’s not been in China long.
Find bike rental and hired all four bikes for the outrageous fee of 50 Fen an hour with a 50 foreign exchange certificate deposit. Cycle out to the Suzhou canal boat booking office. Locate correct ticket desk and stand in line. A lot of people turned away without tickets, we want two berths on the night boat up the 2000 year old Grand Canal to Suzhou. My Chinese calligraphy amuses the ticket clerks, and after various permutations of today, 2 bed, tomorrow, 2 bed, one today, one tomorrow, are you married, we get invited behind-the-scenes. Queue gets angry and the shop is shut, we are not sure what is going on but keep quiet except when spoken to. They clearly have something up their sleeves. It turns out to be two berths for tonights boat 6.40yuan, but foreign exchange certificates only, and no bargaining. Much tze tzes and by now it’s lunchtime. Bikes get locked up for being in the wrong place. Cycle back to the lake and along the blossom long causeway to a big island, leave bikes in a bicycle park, lunch on the red bean cakes and wallpaper paste all hot and sweet. retire to a grassy knoll overlooking the lake with slightly fewer Chinese tourists and doze in the sun. Get burnt. Read and enjoy First Among Equals.
Canals of Suzhou in 1985

Canals of Suzhou in 1985

Take bikes back to shop. Melia checks out and settles for 12 yuan each! Bus 27 to railway station, wait nearly 40 minutes for Bus 54, in the end catch a Mitsubishi taxi for eight yuan in Remninbees to the boat dock. We are the last to board.
The boat is basically a metal cargo boat with a wooden superstructure erected within and over the hold. Lined with triple bunks we are shown to a private cubicle at the far end with our own table chair and spittoon. Feel very pleased at this unexpected turn of events. The canal turns out be very busy with many house boats plying their trade through the smelly waters. Read late into the night. The evening meal was cheap, filling but uninspiring. Your standard cheap meal in China is plenty of veggies with rice and some slivers of fat and bean curd.

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