This was a holiday weekend in China, so I spent a couple of days in Suzhou, which is about 15 minutes from Kunshan by high speed train. The city is called in tourist brochures the “Venice of China.” I haven’t been to Venice, so can’t comment on the accuracy of this comparison, but it is an interesting city with lots to do, so I’ll definitely go back.
Although I usually like to explore on my own, this time I hired a guide and was glad I did. “Mr. Yu” was a local of indeterminate age (probably in his late 60s or early 70s) who had been an English teacher, and I gather that he has been a tour guide for many years, rising up to the highest, yellow level in the tour guide hierarchy. He ferried me around to a number of spots, very informative, that I likely would have found only with great difficulty on my own---and as it turned out, even more so because of transportation problems
The person who made my reservation with Mr. Yu asked me, by the way, did I want a car as well? Expecting that I would be spending the whole day with someone who had a car, and thinking that if I needed to go anywhere else, I could simply take a taxi, I said, no--I would take a taxi from the train station. The response: ok. Well, it turned out that because there are few taxis in Suzhou to begin with and it was also a holiday weekend, this was not a wise move. At the train station, I waited in a long line for more than a half hour for one---not a lot different from New York at one of the airports at times, so initially I was not that concerned. However, the next morning Mr Yu arrived; we left the hotel and he immediately tried to hail a cab, with some difficulty. I now realized the reason for the question about hiring a car. Unlike tour guides in other places I’ve been, he didn’t himself drive. Mr. Yu later told me that he had told the person who had booked his services for me that due to the holiday we definitely should have a hired car, but--likely because she did not speak English well, and my Chinese has not advanced to this level of understanding-- she did not pass this information on to me. Somehow, we did manage to flag cabs during the day, sometimes waiting up to ten minutes, until the very end of the day, when there simply were none to be found in the area of town we were in. We wound up returning to the hotel by pedi-cab (as autorickshaws are called here.) No big deal for me, having lived three years in India, but Mr. Yu was obviously quite chagrined.
Nonetheless, it was a worthwhile day. We toured two of Suzhou's over 70 gardens, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. The first was the largest in the city, called the "Humble Administrator's Garden" , which was actually built up by a rather cheeky cultural minister during the Ming dynasty (14-17th centuries), who became "humble" only after a fall from grace. The garden was packed and there were probably over a hundred tour buses there with masses of people from various parts of China as well as foreign countries. The second garden, the Master of Nets (the nets refer to fishing nets) I liked much better. It was a lot quieter and more like a private estate. Plus, there was an art gallery on site with very reasonably priced silk paintings, woodblock prints, and water colors.
It started to rain in the afternoon, so we rented a boat and toured down the canals that traverse the city---down a main one called "the Grand Canal" and then off into some neighborhood canals, where people's back windows face the canal and their front door the street. Some of the stone bridges --some foot bridges and others that allow larger traffic--are hundreds of years old. Along the steps is a small groove that allows people to move bicycles up and down the bridges.
At one point we stopped and got off the boat to tour a small market area. China is famous for the unusual things that people eat, and you could see them in all their variety here---in addition to vegetables and fruits, there were live snakes, eels, pigeons, frogs (pretty good sized ones), turtles and the usual chickens and ducks, as well as pig's feet, intestines, etc. No monkeys though. Probably too low in this part of the country.