Suzhou has Changed and changed a lot in 30 years. Lockdown has at least given me time to dig out my old photos from the store room and start to play around with them. It’s also given me plenty of time to reflect on the many ways in which life has changed.
It’s well known that Madrid was particularly badly hit by Covid 19 and while the first lockdown was brutally hard on everyone, a second one seems just around the corner.
It was against this depressing background that I turned to the photos we had taken during our 1990/91 trip to China. Nearly 6 months of hard and fascinating travel, which turned me into a China freak and changed my life too.
Our First Trip to China 1990
The trip started by crossing over the Karakorum Pass into China on a clapped out traders’ bus from Pakistan and eventually leaving China from Guangzhou on the gambling ferry to Macao, which has long since ceased to exist.
Sometime in late December we found ourselves in Suzhou. I recently came across our photos from that time in and around Suzhou and on the Grand Canal. Some of these had never been posted. So here they are.
The Photos Could have been Better
I don’t want to make too many excuses about the quality of the photos; however, the camera we used was a rusty piece of crap and we also made the mistake of having them developed in China (1991). I have tried to restore them the best I can.
So how has Suzhou changed? The somewhat deteriorated photos show that Suzhou was once a real, working water town. The barges came right into the town’s central waterways. Many of Suzhou’s trading markets actually took place on sampans on the canals.
Returning to Suzhou 2005
When we returned to Suzhou in 2005, all the river traffic had been moved away from the city center to the main artery of Grand Canal, several kilometers outside of town.
In 1990, the city’s canals were also a transport hub providing local transport to people from outlying villages. Part of the fun of being in Suzhou at that time was siting on one of the many bridges watching the over-crowded ferries shuttling people to and fro.
You could also still take passenger boats from Suzhou to loads of destinations along the Grand Canal, including the day long journey to Hangzhou, which we took. These have all now been discontinued.
In 2005, the only boats working on the inner-city canals were used for clearing weeds and rubbish thrown into them by the hordes of tourists.
Suzhou has changed so much since then that any remnants of what we saw in 1990 are almost impossible to find.
In 2005, there were still a few canals that retained some of their old world ambience and charm, but speculators were moving in fast and locals were being evicted apace.
New boutique hotels, upmarket restaurants and discos were replacing canal side markets, corner shops and teahouses. A whole way of life was being obliterated.
Of course, Suzhou’s fate is by no means unique! The transformation that started happening there in the early 2000s, began here in Madrid around 2016, with the advent of Airbnb and the ‘Disneyfication’ of Madrid’s historical center.
Ironically, it took a pandemic to give Madrid back to the locals, albeit in a much reduced and depressed form!
We can only wonder what the effects of Covid 19 will be on mass tourism around the globe…
Luzhi 甪直 is an Authentic Canal Town (more or less): I say more or less because even the least touristy Jiangnan towns have many tourists trappings such as hawkers and tacky souvenirs. However, Luzhi is still pretty authentic on a week day out of season.
I love Jiangnan Towns
I have a nostalgic hankering for Jiangnan towns (Jiangnan 江南 means south of the Yangtse River).
There was something dreamlike about the mishmash of canals, white buildings, eave roofs, arched bridges and winding cobbled lanes.
Old Jiangnan River Towns before Mass tourism
In 1990, the Jiangnan towns provided a glimpse into old world China. Back then, local residents still occupied the ancient buildings that lined the canals, and it was possible to stroll the waterfronts and savor a community ambience that had probably existed for centuries.
The onslaught of mass domestic tourism in the 2000’s and the crass commercialism that comes with it has unfortunately put an abrupt end to that picturesque way of life (picturesque for the western traveler at least).
Even until the late 199os, mega cities such as Suzhou, still pocessed a warren of ancient streets where time seemed to have stood still. From the kitchens of beautiful white-washed houses with their decorated doorways and stunning courtyards, smells of garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil wafted out. People lived and worked on the canals as had their ancestors. I can remember spending hours on the bridges watching the river traffic and river markets.
In modern daySuzhou, any trace of the past community life along the canals has all but disappeared. Now,plush restaurants, bars and hotels have sprung up near the historic sites to cater for mass tourism. in and around the surrounding small historic towns, much of what was local, has been given over to tourism and converted the towns into theme parks and places to buy souvenirs.
Many Jiangnan towns have undergone seismic changes. Local residents have been evicted from their houses and moved to housing complexes on the outskirts or even further afield. A new breed of entrepreneurs has filled their places setting up shops, restaurants, discos or hotels.
Jiangnan River towns and Tourism
You only have to visit pretty but touristy towns of Zhouzhuang and Wuzhen to understand what I am talking about. Improvements in transport and the proximity of the historic towns to huge population centers such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou make many of the Jiangnan towns weekend playgrounds for city dwellers.
Between December 1990 and January 1991, Adam and I travelled the Yangztse River from Shanghai to Chongqing; a journey that took us 9 days then. At that time, tourism along the Yangtse was in its infancy and we, as poor backpackers, couldn’t have afforded a cruise ship anyway. So we travelled on Chinese passenger boats that made very few concessions to either comfort or tourists. There were no sightseeing stops or side excursions; we even managed to miss one Gorge altogether, as the boat went through it at night.
Suzhou Creek 1990
In those days, foreign visitors were charged much higher prices for transport, hotels, sights, etc., than Chinese people and had to pay in Foreign Exchange Certificates (a special currency only for foreigners or foreign transactions), rather than Renminbi (the People’s money), which is why many backpackers resorted to black- marketeers. To get his hands on a couple of discounted, Chinese-price tickets for the first leg of the journey, Adam had to follow a Chinese man into the toilets of the Seaman’s Club at the Pujiang Hotel (known as Astor House Hotel after recent makeovers) in an action reminiscent of an old spy movie.
In the winter of 1990 we took a local ferry along the Grand Canal, travelling from Suzhou in Jiangsu province to Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. For me, not Margie, it was one of the most memorable trips in my life. All the more so, because it is a trip that can never be repeated in the same way, as there has been virtually no local passenger transport between the two cities for over a decade.
Before I give my own version of the journey, here is how our treasured 1988 copy of Lonely Planet described the canal ferries:
Suzhou to Hangzhou by local ferry: by day or by night?
“Travellers have done the route from Hangzhou to Suzhou on overnight passenger boats (with sleeping berths) or on daytime 150-seater ferries. Some people regard this trip the highlight of their China trip. Others have found the boats dirty, crowded and uncomfortable, with a fair percentage of the trip taken up by high canal banks. Some words of advice; you need a good bladder since toilets are terrible; you need some food; and try to get a window seat, both to see the scenery and escape the smokers on the boat.”
In corroboration of this rather dry comment, one reader wrote the following: “The boat is terrible, dirty, cramped, its windows just above the waterline make it hard to see anything, but the ‘toilet’ won the prize as the worst in all China. It was a large bucket that was not emptied during our trip, which took 14 hours (including two hours when we were stopped by fog, which is very common in fall and winter).” ‘China A Travel Survival Kit’ 1998, Lonely Planet.
Here is our account:
Suzhou to Hangzhou by local ferry: We chose to go by day
A freezing fog hung heavily over a wintry Suzhou. Our spindly cycle- rickshaw rider whisked us through the dark silent streets, now and again letting out a tired groan as he heaved and hauled his rusty old bike over the many arched bridges that spanned the dank, black canals, his body tensing as he stood up to force the rickshaw over the final few centimetres, before slumping back onto the seat as the decent began.
The eerie silence was often broken by the tingle of approaching cyclists’ bells, who, like the spectres you pass in a ghost train, flashed out of the darkness only to vanish again into the void. We passed clusters of hunched shapes, peasants on their way to market, weighed down by bundles, sacks and laden bamboo poles.
They didn’t speak, preferring to concentrate on the task ahead. Bare light bulbs, or the rare lantern, lit up whitewashed houses and black slated roofs. The night hid their poverty and decrepit state and they looked romantic, as if belonging to another, more prosperous time.
Suzhou to Hangzhou by local ferry: Are we going or not? It’s foggy!
It was four thirty in the morning and we were heading for the boat dock for the local five o’clock ferry to Hangzhou. Our driver pulled up by a shack that was the ticket office. We were expecting the usual double charging policy for foreigners, or at least a demand for payment in FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates), but neither occurred.
The boat crew inspected us with the bored expression of those who have seen enough foreigners for the novelty to have worn off. The reaction of the few passengers was the opposite, and consequently we were subjected to more of those long, blank, unmoving stares that characterized so much of travelling in China in those days.
Suzhou to Hangzhou by local ferry: No mad rush to board the boat
As we were expecting the usual mad rush of excited peasants, scrambling for scarce seats, we quickly boarded and grabbed a place by the window. However, there was no last minute assault. In fact, there were only around 15 of us by departure time, making the large ferry look rather empty and forlorn. It was cold, terribly cold.
As we waited for the boat to leave, an animated discussion broke out amongst the crew. Not understanding Chinese at the time, we could only speculate as to what was going on. It was the fog. The boat wasn’t going to leave until the fog lifted. Some passengers already began to abandon ship.
SUZHOU TO HANGZHOU BY LOCAL FERRY: It is Getting pretty miserable
We sat shivering, waiting for something to happen, our feet frozen. Meanwhile, three dirt- poor peasants, a man, his wife and what might have been a sister, all wearing blue padded Mao suits, had become obsessed by our presence. They shamelessly gaped at us and leered over our shoulders, their faces mostly expressionless, except when pointing at some part of our bodies, commenting on it and then roaring with laughter.
Suddenly there was a hoot and we were off, though the fog hadn’t lifted. Twenty minutes later we stopped again. I could just make out the famous Precious Belt Bridge we had visited only the day before, so I knew we hadn’t gone far. By this time, the remaining passengers had started giving up and abandoning the boat, leaving us with the three peasants. A miserable two hours followed.
The cold pierced all parts of our bodies; the garlicky breath of the peasants on the back of our necks was oppressive and vile. I was sure Margie was cursing me. This had been my idea. I began to waver and thought that we too might give up on what I had thought would be a romantic trip along the Grand Canal.
SUZHOU TO HANGZHOU BY LOCAL FERRY: And then we are off
Just as our discomfort started reaching unbearable levels, a ray of light broke through the fog and, like a curtain rising in the theatre, it lifted and vanished in a matter of minutes, revealing a beautifully sunny winter’s day. The Captain hooted the horn and we were off again.
I love rivers and river scenery and the Grand Canal, one of the world’s great engineering feats, has some of the most fascinating and beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen. It is not dramatic like the Yangtze, or brimming with legends like the Yellow River, but it is full of life and mystery.
History and Legends
Work on the waterway best known as the Grand Canal began during the Sui Dynasty (581-618), though for centuries before local rulers had been attempting to build canals in the area. Its sheer size and scale rivals the building of the Great Wall; and like the Great Wall its construction cost the lives of millions of labourers.
The Canal’s main purpose was to transport rice, grains and salt from the rich, fertile Southern provinces to the barren and drought- prone North. The total length of the Grand Canal is roughly 1,770 km. The Canal’s history has been a turbulent one, and many of China’s rebellions have had their origins in its environs.
For instance, it was a fertile breeding ground for secret societies, such as the fanatical Buddhist Sect, the ‘White Lotus Society’. During its eventful past, the Canal was often left to fall into neglect, only to be revived again and restored to its former glory several times.
SUZHOU TO HANGZHOU BY LOCAL FERRY: Still very rural in 1990 with the odd exception
In 1990, the landscape between Suzhou and Hangzhou was predominately rural: the bucolic images of bamboo huts propped up on stilts, peasants in conical boats harvesting water chestnuts, and the odd fishing junk with its ragged, but romantic sails trying to catch what little breeze there was, could have been plucked straight from a scroll painting, dating from a time when China was still ruled by the Son of Heaven.
Of course, the modern world had encroached upon and entered into the secret world of the Grand Canal: the towns we passed were grey and industrial, their high chimneys belching black smoke into the blue sky. Huge barges, loaded with coal and grit, sometimes in convoys nearly half a kilometre long, plied the waterways in a constant to and fro. Competing with the barges was a flotilla of small boats, manned by entire families and their pets.
SUZHOU TO HANGZHOU BY LOCAL FERRY: How the traffic is Organised
How the boats managed not to crash I’ll never know. Or perhaps they did, and often, but we never saw it. I do remember the women standing on the prow, frantically waving red flags to warn other boats of their right of way.
Friday, September 7th 2001 / Nanjing- via Suzhou to ZhouZhuang (Zhejiang Province)
As planned, we take a taxi straight to the Bank of China- with our luggage. The driver is a bit worried as he can’t seem to understand where we’re going. In the end, it turns out to be a matter of a different tone …… The Bank is air-con, modern and efficient, the clerk speaks English – it’s straight in and out! Another taxi to the train station with a nice chatty driver, who spent a mere 16 years (!) in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution and thinks some of the changes in China these days are too fast.
However, as we pass a small park where people are practising ballroom dancing in the open air, it is clear that some things haven’t changed at all... Across from the train station there is an enormous lake where you can take out different kinds of boats, including mini-mushroom lookalikes and fake submarines. There is a terrific view of the modern Nanjing skyline. On the traditional side again, breakfast of lots of cold veggies and rice in a Chinese style self-service by the station. There, our luggage is X-rayed as usual, we’re lined up between the gates and marched row after row to the train. Our seats are padded with blue cushions, there are small tables in between and it’s air-con and strictly non-smoking.
Adam immediately strikes up a conversation with two nice ladies from Wuhan ( and their travelling companion). One of them turns out to be a party cadre in a department related to Chinese commerce. They ask him a lot of questions about life in Europe, including the inevitable ‘how much do you earn?’ and a lot about our non-existing haizi’ (or children).
Two and a half hours take us to Suzhou, we only walk from the train station to the bus station, where we are immediately whisked off on the 14.15 bus. There are computers, waiting rooms and gates here too, but the bus is a piece of shit, with those foldable plastic seats in the middle of the aisle. Fortunately only one puking lady who already had her bag prepared.
It takes another hour and a half to cover the 40 kms to Zhouzhuang. Getting out of Suzhou takes ages; what we can see is all modernised, no charm left (NOTE: we actually revisited Suzhou again in 2005 and managed to find a few nice areas still holding out). Once we’re out in the country there’s more life on the lakes and canals and everything is very green. According to Adam, it looks like Holland, but without the cows.
The bus station in Zhouzhuang is not where it is supposed to be and we are assaulted by a barrage of hotel women and cycle rickshaws. One obnoxious one keeps following us until I turn on him and send him packing. I’m quite proud of that, Adam, using his Chinese, is obviously too polite.
In the old town, a woman who wants us to stay at her family house leeches on to us, but I’m still determined to find ‘my hotel’. She keeps tagging along, confusing us and making us lose our way. We seem trapped in a maze of tourist shops and can only vaguely appreciate that the place must be pretty.