Beware the bargains….

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I made it to Suzhou eventually…  only a week later than originally planned and maybe the trip was just a condensed version of what I had in mind.  But I made it and that is what counts!!

Suzhou is a picturesque little town, a tourist magnet just outside Shanghai and definitely on the list of attractions for visitors to the area, not unlike Hangzhou.  So it was inevitable that I would want to see what all the fuss was about.   The weekend trip, which is deemed long enough to cover essential Suzhou, had to be curtailed to just a Saturday as my Italian friend had a birthday party to attend that evening.  And as she still had to buy a birthday cake and get spruced up for the party,  we were left with about six hours to do it all.

Time being of the essence, we whizzed to Suzhou on a high speed train, racing ahead of the grey skies bursting with rain.  Rather than making use of cheap public transport, we put a smile on a local taxi driver’s face paying probably just a little over the odds.  But it got us into the touristy heart of the town, ready for our exploration at break-neck speed.

Touts crowded the area, eagerly pointing to their display boards flaunting generous discounts for all the town’s features of interest: its famed  gardens, towering pagodas and temples; its quaint waterways lined with age-old houses;  its interesting museums and freshwater lakes.  We counted our blessings at being able to buy  access to our three destinations of choice for a fraction of the advertised price.  A bargain… or so we thought.

After parting with our money, we were herded to an assembly point, with a horde of other Chinese tourists waiting to get onto a bus..  A bus???  The garden and pagoda we had come to see were nearby and Pingjiang Road and Shantang Street just around the corner.  It would at least save our feet, we mused, and followed the flag obediently.

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The tour took us around Suzhou town, that is to the newer parts full of shops and high rise blocks of flats, not the charming old buildings we were expecting to see.  We were treated to a boat ride (we paid for this one…), studying sights that had not made it onto our list of ‘must-sees’.  We quizzed the tour leader.  The gardens and pagoda we had the tickers for???  Next, she mumbled, we’ll be getting there next…

But another detour beckoned.  We passed Suzhou’s Silk Museum, which clearly warranted a visit and the entry was free.  To be fair, it was interesting to see the exquisite work produced by the humble silk worm  and to marvel at the elasticity of the seemingly fragile thread spun by such a delicate creature.  And we took the liberty to take an abundance of photographs before being told this was forbidden…  How were we supposed to know as there was no notice to alert us???  And obviously, the ‘Chinese Masters of Copying’ have understood the powers of guiding visitors through a well-stocked shop.  Silks of all hues, woven into pillows, underwear, nightgowns, classical and modern Chinese dresses and shirts screamed to be purchased.   We talked to our tour guide…. Yes, she confirmed, the gardens were next…

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Only she forgot to mention that is was ‘next’ after stopping at a pearl factory, no entrance fee to be paid.   I believe the expression that most accurately reflects our sentiment at the time was: ‘We saw RED’.   With only a few hours left to enjoy Suzhou, pearls were not on our agenda as the time frame allowed in the ‘museum’ suggested a generous amount of time allotted for checking out the shop near the exit…  We were not born yesterday, so we left, clutching our tickets to the pagoda and gardens…

In the end we did not make it to the Humble Garden of The Administrator, nor the pagoda, but mustered up just enough energy and enthusiasm to join the throng of tourists in the old part of town: Shantang Street and Pingjiang Road.  We passed some of the pretty waterways and narrow cobbled roads, vibrant umbrellas dancing on the pavements along the canals and bringing colourful cheer to a dismal day.

On the upside, we may have missed out on most of the sights we had set our heart on, but that’s just a reason to come back another time… on a day when the sun laughs at us and no umbrellas obscure the delightful old town.  And then, we will just pay full price for the attractions we really want to visit, and leave the ticket touts shouting themselves hoarse…  There are such things as false economies and falling into the trap of peddlers is just one of them…

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