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September 27, 2001
Suzhou to Guilin: a Chinese whirlwind (Russell)

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A sign of the times: an empty plane from Shanghai to Guilin

After a leisurely tour of China's four classic capitals (Bejing, Xi'an, Luoyang, and Nanjing), we are now in the midst of a whirlwind tour of the rest of China.  It's as if the planners suddenly ran out of time and tried stuffing everything else into the last week.

On September 26, we bid goodbye to Nanjing and took a three-hour train ride to Suzhou.  Actually, it ended up being four hours because the train stopped inexplicably for an entire hour halfway through the voyage.  (We say "inexplicably" because it was not explained to us.  We actually asked the conductor why we had stopped, but she replied in Chinese.)  Gail chatted with a young Australian woman named Carly who was traveling on her own.  At 2:30 PM we arrived and were met by our guide Lisa and our driver Mr. Han, both members of the Chinese Youth Travel Service.  Lisa was the most bubbly and friendly guide we've had so far, and it was a shame that we didn't get to spend more time with her in Suzhou.

Suzhou is known as the "Venice of the East" (due to its canals) and the "Garden City" (due to its gardens -- there are more than 90, of which 7 are open to the public).  Because of our shortened day, we skipped the planned Garden of the Master of the Nets and went instead to the Lingering Gardens, which happened to be Lisa's favorite (each of our guides has been native-born to their tour city).  We were treated to gigantic and amazing river rocks of unusual character.

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Suzhou's Lingering Gardens: this rock is supposed to be an eagle fighting a wolf

But the highlight of Suzhou was the Silk Factory.  The boys were so eager to get there that they zoomed through the preceding Silk Embroidery Factory, the only one in the world that can produce embroidered screens with a different picture on each side.  At the factory itself, we saw armies of silkworm cocoons being spun off into reels to produce silk thread.  We witnessed the entire process that goes into making a silk quilt (Gail bought one), which requires 700,000 cocoons.

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At Suzhou's silk factory

Thanks to Lisa's help, we were able to get another two-room suite at the Nanlin Hotel, although half of the lights and power outlets did not function.  From here on out, we are responsible for our own dinners, so we have been trying to fill ourselves up at the lunch banquets.  Today's lunch was a buffet -- one of the few times that we didn't have to waste any food.  On the other hand, we were the only four people in the entire dining room until a French tour showed up.

Our Suzhou visit came to an abrupt end on September 27, when we had to get up at 5:00 AM to meet Lisa at 6:00 AM.  Because of our customized schedule, we had to drive two and a half hours from Suzhou to Shanghai in order to take a plane back down to Guilin (Guilin was not on the original "See China by Train" package, but we had asked to go there instead of Shanghai).  Unfortunately, the expected road construction delays were nonexistent, and we reached the Shanghai airport an hour early.  We used the extra time to mail a box home to the U.S. and shop for English newspapers and a book on Chinese chess.

Our flight was non-eventful, except that we were just about the only people on the airplane.  There was also a small group of French tourists (possibly the same one), and our seats were all assigned around the wing exit doors.  We had been concerned about our large amount of luggage, but we experienced no problems at all.  Upon our arrival in Guilin at noon, we were met by Joe (our first male guide) and whisked off to the restaurant for lunch.  It was obviously a Western-oriented restaurant; forks and knives were set and they even had chocolate mousse for the boys.

(The boys have asked why there are so many French tourists here -- we explained that it just seems that way because there are hardly any American tourists here.  We are benefiting from the lack of crowds, and the Chinese greatly appreciate our business.  On the other hand, Gail is constantly being bombarded by street vendors.)

Guilin is one of the three biggest anticipated highlights of our entire China trip (the other two were Beijing's Great Wall and Xi'an's terra-cotta warriors), but arriving here also means that our China adventure is soon coming to an end.  For today's tour, we visited Elephant Trunk Hill (the elephant represents "benevolence" in Buddhism) and the huge and stunning Reed Flute Caves.  Joe has been a tour guide since 1987, and he had obviously tired of the usual patter.  Instead, he shared stories of Chinese delicacies, including snake bile wine and a dish called "squeak squeak" that consists of rat embryos, in an attempt to gross us out.  (As far as Gail is concerned, he succeeded.)

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With Joe in Guilin's Reed Flute Caves

The boys were mostly interested in returning to the hotel early so that they could go swimming.  But they didn't last long because the water was so cold (Guilin was 81 degrees today with high humidity) and the pool was soon overrun with German tourists.  Nevertheless, the Park Hotel is the first one where we actually got two separate rooms with a connecting door (instead of a two-room suite).  Gail was pleased to have a bathtub.  Russell was happy just to have a showerhead that worked and a curtain that covered the entire stall.  As usual, we had a small in-room dinner of sandwiches, fruit, and other small snacks (we had the benefit of Lisa's Suzhou boxed breakfasts and leftover airplane food).

Tomorrow we will take a scenic cruise down the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo.  Another day, another hotel.


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