The next day was mostly wasted wandering about laden down with our rucksacks trying to get on the right public transport to take us to the pretty canal town of Tongli, near Suzhou. After a series of trains and buses and finally a rickshaw taxi with a very strong driver, we arrived at our hostel, which, unbeknownst to us was home to a demon kitten. Our room had bright orange walls and an ancient looking four poster bed with fetching pink net curtains. The young man in charge was quite a funny character, and quite deprecating about the town. He had been cycling around China and had taken the job to make a bit more money. Along the way he had taken some fantastic photographs and we talked about our route plans with him and he gave us some advice. He told us Tibet is the best place in China, but that we wouldn’t be able to get the same experience as the Chinese as due to political reasons, foreigners can only visit as part of an organised tour. We had already been resigned to the fact that it was a bit too far away for our trip and certainly the tours would be beyond our budget. Obviously we knew Tibet was a zone of contention, but what we hadn’t realised was quite how fond the Chinese people are of the region.
We had some tea in the bar and met the kitten, which was a small but feisty black and white tornado. It loved to pounce on anything that moved, including body parts, so we sat, nervously drinking tea and trying not to make any sudden movements in case it launched itself needles first on to our thighs. Eventually, when it got a bit over-exuberant and chasing string was no longer cutting the mustard and we had prised it off one too many times, I had to have stern words with it. After this, it climbed up onto my shoulder and licked my face and then curled up on my lap and slept, as if butter wouldn’t melt. Needless to say, the following day it was just as naughty, so I think it had worn itself out rather than actually been obedient!
Tongli town is actually a reasonable size, but the old town centre is very small and during the day you have to pay to get in. Our hostel was right in the thick of it, so we didn’t have to pay. We heard live music playing from a bar nearby, so that evening I took my flute and we went for a wander around the old town. It was refreshingly quiet out on the streets that lined the narrow canals. At the centre, there were three attractive little stone bridges which spanned the canals and faced each other something like the sides of a triangle. Walking over the three bridges is supposed to give you luck – each bridge signifies a different thing, good fortune, happiness… I can’t recall them all! We did it though, so we have it covered! There were still some Christmas lights up whose reflections twinkled pleasantly on the water, and a giant lit-up snowman looked as if he was regarding himself in a mirror. The old whitewashed buildings hooded with black tiles huddled around and willow trees draped their branches languorously into the canal. It was a lovely setting and no one else was around, so having my flute with me, I decided to play some mournful tunes on one of the bridges, feeling a little like I was in a film set, or possibly a novel by T.E. Shepherd. (That’s your first plug, Thomas! To everyone else: you can buy Mr Tumnal on Amazon, it’s a snip and very good!)
After dinner at a fast food dumpling place, we headed back to the source of the live music, the Riverside Bar, which was just next to the bridge which led over the river into the old town. There was a young Chinese boy with a blonde bowl cut and trendy clothes sat on a stool playing guitar and singing and the music was being pumped out into the street. He had a good voice and a pleasant, mellow sort of repertoire. We sat down with a beer and watched for a while, until I had the courage to get my flute out. I played along with him, improvising for a few songs, and then sang a couple of things on my own, including a song my sister Joanna wrote, called Jukebox Lover. It was a fun evening, and very quiet in the bar so not too intimidating. I noticed the guitarist’s friend singing along quietly in the background to one of his pieces and I asked her if she would get up and sing. She said she was shy, but when she did, she had the most beautiful voice; so rich and sonorous. At the end of the evening, the owner, a very friendly young man, asked us if we would return the following evening so that he could give us a free pizza each! Of course, we agreed!
We had a relaxing day meandering through the streets, following no particular plan, just going where it looked interesting. We passed a gondola full of black cormorants, perched morosely around the rim of the boat, and saw villagers washing clothes and preparing food by the canal outside their small houses. We ended up wandering out of the centre and into a sleepy backwater with small plots of land where straggly vegetables were growing. Every so often we would come across bundles of straw, which were sometimes covered with a tarpaulin. At the end of the path we reached another section of the river, where there were some small ramshackle boats moored to the bank. These boats looked like they were homes, but very poorly equipped ones. There were no proper living quarters, just a motley array of blankets draped around a frame. They didn’t look as though they would keep the elements out. This was the first time we had seen dwellings indicative of such extreme poverty in China and it was a stark reminder that there still a huge divide in the country.
On our way back up the path, we saw a well-dressed young lady with her little boy; a very cute, chubby little toddler who had clearly only just learnt how to walk. Every so often he would turn and gaze at us solemnly. It was quite a cold day, so he was bundled up well, except for his plump little bum cheeks which poked out of the slit in his trousers! Many children don’t wear nappies here and when they look like they need the loo, the slit is held open so they can relieve themselves, which seems to work pretty well, although their bottoms must get quite nippy! It was a funny sight walking behind this toddler with his little bare bottom and his serious looks.
That evening we made it to the Riverside Bar in time for our free pizza at 6pm, and very tasty it was too! We finished up with popcorn and fruit platter and listened to the guitarist again. We were soon joined by a young Chinese man who had moved to Australia and was back in China visiting his wife’s family. He was there with his wife’s brother who spoke no English, and we felt a bit sorry for him as he was side-lined from the conversation and eventually got up and left. However, as time wore on, and we found we were party to essentially a one-way conversation, we began to think he might be relishing the peace and quiet! He was a nice enough chap, but he really could talk the hind legs off a donkey!
We were so enjoying the laidback atmosphere of Tongli that we decided to stay another night. On our final full day, we borrowed a bicycle from the hostel so we could visit Tongli Lake, situated at the east of the ancient town. Luke pedalled the bike through the town with me perched precariously on the back and the locals laughed at us as we passed by. When we got to the lakeside I had a go at pedalling Luke, and after a few wobbles I was doing okay, but I wouldn’t have dared to do it in the town! We took the short boat trip across to Luoxing Islet, a tiny piece of land crammed with temples, the oldest of which was built in the Yuan dynasty. It has now known as a holy land of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, with a temple for each religion. The Confucian temple had a huge old bell, which for once you were allowed to dong for yourself with a heavy swinging wooden plank. It is always so tempting to ring the bells, and it is most satisfying when you do! There were very few visitors and we spent a pleasant and relaxing hour drawing and reading before taking the boat back.
We paid a final visit to the Riverside Bar to say goodbye and Luke helped out with a few programming issues for their website. We tried to get an early night as we had a long day ahead of us and we were both very tired; whilst I didn’t help much with the lack of sleep by setting the alarm an hour early, it at least meant we were off fairly promptly in the morning!
After a bit of a trek back to the station in Shanghai, we head to the ticket office to purchase tickets for our trip to Yulin, in Shaanxi province. This is not to be confused with Shanxi province, which is just over the Yellow River from Shanxi. The pronunciation sounds identical to us, but is clearly vastly different to the Chinese – ShanSEE vs Shansee – or something like that. You can guarantee that when we say it to a native speaker we will be unintelligible anyway, so pointing at a map works much better! Sadly for us, the only tickets left for our 20 hour journey were standing ones. The lady at the counter laughed at us and wished us luck when we said that we had to get that train and couldn’t wait another day. However, we had arranged to meet the family we would be staying with the following day, so had no option.
Feeling slightly worried, but determined to make the best of it, we left our bags at the station and went in search of gifts for the family, food for our journey and body warmers as we anticipated it would be very cold in Shaanxi. A couple of hours later, having found ourselves a 2 for 1 bargain deal on body warmers, we headed off with some trepidation to catch our train.
We had prepared the Google translated ‘please can we have an upgrade?’ on my phone and showed it to the attendant as we boarded the train. They sent us to the restaurant car, where we sat and waited, thinking that we would be very grateful if we got to stay there for 20 hours. The staff found us quite amusing and we could hear them practising English words and laughing – ‘romantic’, ‘come here’, ‘no’, ‘hello’. After a short wait, a man came and we paid for our upgrade – we were to have beds after all! We couldn’t believe our luck! We had to walk 17 carriages down the narrow corridors of the train, bumping our bags along and being stared at as we squeezed by, but it was worth it when we got there. It was lovely and quiet at the far end, and our cabin was clean and cosy.
Shortly after we had settled ourselves in, a member of staff came to speak to us. Simin was a strikingly beautiful girl from Hohhot in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia and she was keen to practise her English. She helped us contact the family we were staying with to inform them of our train arrival time, and then we set to chatting generally. We told her we were from England, and before we had said whereabouts we lived, thinking we would say near Oxford as usual, she exclaimed, ‘Oh, England! I would love to go to Bicester Village!’ We couldn’t believe it! Of all the places in the UK, she picked out the shopping village in the small town we lived in. I knew Bicester Village was popular with Asian tourists, but I hadn’t realised quite how far its fame had travelled! I thought it was somewhere you heard about when you arrived in London. Of course, we said that if she ever got to go to that shopping paradise, she would be very welcome to stay with us.
We slept fairly well – certainly much better than if we had been standing up all night. At around midday, the train pulled into Yulin station and we disembarked, walking the length of the platform until we spied a small crowd of happy smiling faces holding up a sign saying, ‘Lucy and Luck’. Cue our next adventure!