There go the boats.. (or The Ballad of Shanghai Annie)
Both our guide books described Wuxi as an industrial wart!! - not really very accurate but it suited us as we were looking for an industrial city on the banks of the Grand Canal in order to have a closer look at Chinese inland waterways. In this respect it didn't let us down. The inner city is ringed by small canals which see some boating activity - much like you can see in most Dutch cities. It didn't take us long to follow one of these canals out of the city centre a little and discover some larger barges being unloaded and a few 'live aboard' communities. Further out still and we came to the main line of the Grand Canal. We were expecting this to be busy but were in no way prepared for the sheer volume of traffic we encountered - literally head to tail barges loaded with all manner of goods in both directions. It was easy to see how this thriving economy is being driven - a fantastic sight which was to be repeated over and over again as we travelled around the Yangtze delta.
I would have been happy to spend a couple of days in Wuxi just watching the traffic but Anne wanted to visit one of the famous 'water towns' which dot the region. There is an argument that every town in the Yangtze delta is a water town, but some are more photogenic than others and the Chinese tourist industry has been quick to jump on the bandwagon. Most of the pretty towns are now so overrun and charge such exorbitant admission charges that they are not worth bothering with. One however, Tongli, seemed to be worth a visit - our guidebooks didn't mention entrance fees, but did say that it wasn't as overrun as the others.
To visit Tongli we had to stay in another Chinese tourist trap - Suzhou - for a couple of days. This turned out to be a busy and bustling (yet untypically low rise) city notable for it's 'suspect' hotel staff! Tongli, when we eventually worked out how to get there, had introduced a stinging 80 Yuan (5.00GBP) entrance fee - about 3 times more than we were willing to pay just to walk around the village. Fortunately we found another way in (right from the main entrance and second left if anyone is following) where the ticket staff were asleep. The village was quite pretty but completely given over to tourism and not really what we were hoping to see. We did however get some excellent views of the Grand Canal from the bus on the way there.
Next day we caught the train to Shanghai (soft seat class - much more comfortable than hard seat). This was significant as it completed our crossing of the continent and marked the furthest east that we will be travelling on this trip. To mark this achievement we decided to spend a bit of money on a 'posh' hotel and duly booked into the Astor House Hotel (the oldest hotel in China - frequented by US presidents, Einstein and Charlie Chaplin) for the outrageous sum of 33GPB a night. The hotel was really nice - not exactly 5 star, but full of old world charm and style. We even splashed out on western style breakfasts in the bar for 2 GBP each!!
Shanghai itself was everything you've probably heard about - very very modern with a very impressive (and as yet incomplete) skyline. On our first day in the city we took a boat trip down the Huangpu River to the mouth of the Yangtze, partly to have a look at the shipping and partly to technically complete the trip. Again a stupendous amount of river traffic makes even Rotterdam pale in comparison, plenty of barges but also very large sea-going vessels right in the centre of the city. Lots of shipbuilding and heavy industry lining the banks - the latter causing the already thick air to degenerate into a sort of petro-chemical soup which infiltrated our clothes and hair. By the time we reached the mouth of the Yangtze we could barely see 400 metres which made for some exciting manoeuvring around the coasters.
Next day we travelled south to the new South Railway Station (very impressive) to buy tickets for the next day and then by bus to the new Pudong Airport. The journey took about an hour. The reason for this was because we wanted to have a 'play' on the new Maglev link back into Shanghai. I did have a go on the Maglev at the NEC in the 1980's which bumped and bounced it's way over to the airport at about 10mph. The one in Shanghai is a bit smarter - and quite a bit faster. The top speed we reached was 430kph (about 265 mph) - not completely smooth but you could walk around if you had time - the journey back into Shanghai took about 7 minutes. We also had a look around the city planning departments exhibition centre which gives an overview of the plans for the future of the city. These seem to include moving all of the shipping out of town onto an artificial island in the mouth of the river connected to the mainland by an elevated motorway. They are also well on their way to completing the worlds highest building - that's as long they finish it before the even higher one in Dubai!
Also in Shanghai we arranged our flights back to the UK - back on 13 December after a two week break in Thailand. We will be leaving China via Hong Kong, and have left ourselves around two weeks to get there. This will give us a chance for some backroads travel (my favourite way of seeing China), maybe spend a few days by the sea and also to have a look at the Hakka roundhouses in the south of Fujian province. Helpfully neither of our guidebooks have anything to say about the area between Hangzhou and Xiamen so we are on our own at the moment.
We spent a couple of days in Hangzhou, another big bustling city with a very nice lake right in the centre. The city has what is probably the most useless public transport in China - buses that don't stop and those that do don't go anywhere remotely useful. South of Hangzhou we have just been following our map - having fun trying to work out the Chinese characters for the towns that we want to visit (with varying degrees of success!!). People have been very helpful particularly in getting from one bus station to another across large uncharted cities.