Rails to Suzhou

Good day/Namaste/S’mae/How do/Hello/Nihao,

I’ve never done the U.K.’s longest train journey. If you depart Aberdeen at 08:20 you can be stepping into the Cornish night at 21:43 that same day. The destination of Penzance is around 13.5 hours (1162km/722 miles) from Aberdeen station (built 1867), via about 33 stops. The CrossCountry train costs £102.50 in advance or £241.00 on the day. It isn’t a sleeper train. It sounds tortuous.

So, boarding the sleeper train from Humen (Dongguan) via Shenzhen North (深圳北站) to Shanghai was a little less daunting. I could spend most of the journey kipping. I departed at 19:43 and arrived by 06:50 in Shanghai Hongqiao (上海虹桥站). Aside from a man taking my photos and two girls playing on their bright phones in the shared bedroom cubicle, it was an unremarkable but comfortable journey. Wearing a mask for the duration was a necessary evil. The return journey (10:20 from Hangzhou East[(杭州东站) to Shenzhen at 20:39) was much tougher, having to be seated for so long with little chance to stretch. The connecting journeys at either end made for a short wander (less than an hour each time). Considering Shenzhen’s station opened in 2011, Shanghai’s station the year before, and Hangzhou was built in 1992, but refitted in 2013, and all the trains were modern, it was surprisingly easy to scan my passport and travel ticketless, all for about 700rmb each way (around £79.10). Modern rail network. Fair prices – even if they were inflated for the Golden Week holiday period (黄金周).

Why did I travel so far? Well, madness. I haven’t left Dongguan’s city prefecture boundaries since March 26th 2020. The post-COVID-19 restrictions and worries haven’t helped. The first holiday of the school year gave me 8 days to play with. So, armed with an invitation by Tina, my coffee shop friend, off I trotted. The ancient city of Sūzhōu [苏州] is twinned with and often compared to Venice. It is in the same province as Nanjing, a walled-city I visited last summer. I liked there. I was certain that with everyone’s love for Suzhou that I wouldn’t be disappointed. For years I have been hearing from Tom, Dick and Harry how good the city is for travelling around. The hotel selected was the swanky Pan Pacific Suzhou (苏州吴宫泛太平洋酒店). Located close to the Auspicious Light Pagoda (1004 B.C.) it included access to the Panmen gardens and original South Gate of the once-walled-city. Built in 1996, the hotel bizarrely has U.K. plug sockets and other western trimmings but is now undergoing a substantial refurbishment. The location is ideal and relaxing with a great Xinjiang restaurant over the road, and restaurants onsite. The swimming pool looked good, but I didn’t take my trunks.

Suzhou’s tourist areas are colourful and lively. They’re a blend of the old world and new. There’re heaps of plastic and mass-produced goods claiming to be handmade and local. The shops that sell them, and snacks, are numerous. It can feel like Groundhog Day going by the frontages but amongst the clutter there are some genuine brilliant pieces of gold dust. There are collectible shops offering keepsakes and relics, coffee shops that have art galleries and art galleries that have coffee shops. There are hidden away alleys with tiny teashops and real dabs of history throughout the city. There’s a Finnish restaurant, the usual array of western food (Sera Nera [十全街吴衙场40-1号, 近迎枫桥弄] is one Italian place I will recommend), Ann’s teahouse offers English-style food, and then there’s local bites from bugs to great fish to choose from. Suzhou seems green and spread out, it’s rather like Norfolk in that hills and mountains are rare (as goes most of that general region to Hangzhou and Shanghai). It isn’t a terrible place to be, but it isn’t amazing either. Perhaps I hanker for the sea and mountains more.

So after a few days, I am sat back in Dongguan. Echobelly’s Great Things has just played on BBC Radio 6 Music. The bass and treble were just perfect for a summer’s day. It’s not summer here. It’s 24°C. This is autumn. It’s cooler and much more comfortable than other days this year. Yesterday’s walk around Dalingshan (from Cháng’ān [长安] town’s Lotus Mountain) was nevertheless a little sweaty and warm. I’d ate an excellent breakfast (English, of course) at Ziggy’s American Diner before zipping past Chang’an Park, and heading for what’s know as Lotus Mountain. Here I spotted a lake by the Lotus Villa Hotel (莲花山庄酒店, 长安镇莲花山). Within seconds the familiar flash of a kingfisher whisked by, and disappeared into a tree. Various herons, bitterns and egrets scattered around the quiet lakeside. A smell of sewage ruined the impression.

From the lakeside I headed upwards along a road, gently winding its way to a temple under restoration. Beyond that steps and a clearly marked-path guided me to numerous summits, but not the main peak (capped by radio masts and fenced off). The huge advantage of walking to the peak is that you can carry on towards Dalingshan Forest Park (大岭山森林公园)/. That is a far quieter and greener route, however like the Lotus Mountain litter lined many pathways and piled up hugely at rubbish bins. For a country with so many plastic reusable water bottles, single use plastics really do ruin parks. The reward of a wander through Dalingshan gave me the sight of the worst camouflaged moth ever and a pretty green mantid. That and a good stretch after the long train journey back from Suzhou via Hangzhou, Shenzhen North station and Humen town.

I’ve lived in China for six and a bit years. Too many flash bars pop up, look shiny and then go. Ziggy’s Bar has come, evolved and carries on, withing Chang’an town. With the nearby diner, and a proper set aside bar, it is a refreshing collective. Mitch, the boss, and his team are welcoming. The bar has great decor with movies, music and western culture slipping between a touch of the east. Expect great ciders and beers (domestic and imported). There’s Boddingtons Bitter from Manchester (well, now Luton), cider from Beijing, great ales on tap and in bottles. Spirits needed? Plenty here. Worth a ride out of central Dongguan or other areas for a proper knees-up, pool game, board game or a chill out session. Live music is also available. I didn’t visit the bar before the walk. I stopped by the diner. Joining friends, I grabbed the English breakfast and supped good coffee. The breakfast had great bacon, hash browns, warm beans, proper black pudding and filled my belly nicely. I can also recommend the fish and chips or the burger range, having been a few times in recent weeks. I don’t too much like the colour red, but the mood of the diner, with a jukebox, appears like an advertisement for Coca Cola. There’s other décor that makes you feel you’re no longer in China. It’s an oddity to step from the footpath of Chang’an into a different world. The good thing was that my belly enjoyed the leap of faith.

The world’s first purpose-built railway station terminus was Liverpool Road in Manchester. It opened in 1830. It was the start of the first true railway too. Two tracks, timetables and proper stations accompanied the steam locomotives. Not surprisingly the first railway warehouse, Liverpool Road Railway Warehouse followed. It houses much of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry now. Looking at that example, it’s amazing to see the speed at which China slaps railway lines across its national soil. That day when Manchester and Liverpool opened their railway, the MP for Liverpool William Huskisson slipped and was ran over by Robert Stephenson’s Rocket. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) was the first of its kind, and just 50 kilometres long (31 miles). Now, in China, the network of rail covers 121,000 km (75,186 miles) and it is growing every year. It plans to plan to expand the network to 274,000 km (170,000 miles) by the year 2050. I am just thankful that the 1,758 kilometres (1,091 miles) from Dongguan (Humen) to Suzhou involved music by Los Lobos and the latest Doves album, alongside John Bude’s The Lake District Murder novel (a classical detective yarn with plenty of detail and little happening).

Thank you kindly for your time.