While we were in Shanghai, we had planned on visiting my friend James in Hungzhou. He had told us that getting train tickets was very easy and so we didn't buy them ahead of time and they are… But, we got to the train station and there was only one train leaving in the morning that day for Hungzhou and we had missed it by an hour. This left us thinking about what to do instead. This lead to some serious mishaps in Suzhou.
How did we end up in Suzhou? Well, we started brainstorming... We could spend more time in Shanghai, but we had already planned on going somewhere else and honestly wanted out of a giant city, so I started googling (thank goodness for T-Mobile and free international data +a VPN). Suzhou is only an hour train ride away and called “The Venice of the East.” It has these really interesting canals surrounded by white buildings that looked beautiful. Before we went to China, I had done a lot of research and heard good things about it so we bought a ticket for the next train and were on our way! There were tours from Shanghai available for about $130 on Viator, which was way more than our $14 round trip train ticket and we were so last minute there was no chance of booking anything like this anyway. Plus China is way cheap so paying that much felt a little silly.
Day Trip $14 train ticket + $25 tour
An hour later we got to Suzhou, go off our train, and had no idea what to do or where to go. We started trying to find how to get to the canals on my phone (it didn't work on the train) when a lady came up to us offering us a group tour. Since it is China and often difficult to find English tours we asked if there would be English on the tour and if it went everywhere we wanted. She assured us it went everywhere and the tour guide spoke English. This wasn't actually a lie looking back on it, but we definitely thought she meant the tour would be in English or that we would get to hear about places in English - something!
We were wrong… it was an all Chinese tour. Every word was in Chinese. The whole time we sat wondering what we were seeing and knowing nothing. I know the name of none of these places. Maybe if I googled I could guess what we saw, but really we sat through hours of a tour and had no idea what was happening!
Even the tour guided had limited English and was unable to really speak to us beyond meet back here at 1:00 and pointing us in the right direction. We honestly felt bad for the guy because he was probably wondering why we were on his tour! It was a funny day and we still saw everything although we don’t know exactly what was happening. This is so typical of what happened to me while in China. People are always so willing to be helpful, but it is hard to know what you are getting yourself into!
Pro-tip: You will see people wanting to sell you a tour everywhere you go. They will be really cheap. We found it wasn’t great because you didn’t know exactly what to expect but it was still fun. This is a good way to save money, but you could end up with something unexpected.
I still have no idea what we saw on the tour honestly. I know we saw a silk factory, tea ceremony, and went on the canal and walked some very beautiful gardens. Unlike other cities, Suzhou did not have anything in English which was also problematic for us.
The funniest thing about this whole thing was that at the end of the tour, a family started speaking to us in English. Turns out, they are Chinese Americans visiting from Michigan and could have spoken to them the whole time, but never did, because we didn’t realize they knew English and they though we knew Chinese. So here we were sitting all day long helpless when we could have just asked for help. HA! Oh well...
Pro-tip: When traveling, you have to go with the flow sometimes. Mix ups happen – be prepared to laugh at yourself, make mistakes, and be ready for memories you didn’t expect to make.
Suzhou is definitely somewhere you should visit while you are in China. I would recommend getting a day tour before hand so you don't end up on a tour or stuck (unless you know Chinese - then you will be fine!).
Over all I find Suzhou to be an awesome place to visit for a day, just book a tour ahead of time...