Last weekend (well our weekend of Monday and Tuesday) I hopped on the high speed train to Suzhou to see a friend of a friend (Grant Munro’s mate Magnus Pole for those who know either of them). Suzhou is 85km away but the train takes 25 minutes – take that Scotrail! Now, I wasn’t expecting much – Suzhou reportedly has around 6 million inhabitants and is dangerously close to merging completely with Shanghai thus making some sort of monster city, or a conurbation for those who like the word – but I was very, very surprised. The city is a sprawling mess as is standard in eastern China, but the centre is genuinely lovely. It’s an ancient canal town, often dubbed as the “Venice of the East,” which is of course, ridiculous. I’d love to hear how many times people refer to Venice as the “Suzhou of the West,” but along these canals and behind the rebuilt touristy areas I found huge pockets of authentic beauty. Tiny houses perched over filthy water-ways, old women flogging apples and their old husbands smoking and chatting on nearby bridges. Life had somehow stayed still in this decaying little bubble. I felt like a man from the future invading the past; the weird looks the locals were giving me compounded this a fair bit. Hemmed in within all this were ancient walled gardens, some dating from the 13th century. Entering one I discovered for the first time since I arrived in Shanghai, total, blissful, silence. In fact the only thing that interrupted the quiet was birdsong, which was another first in China! So I returned to Shanghai more than relaxed and more than happy. I’d go as far to say that one of the best things about Shangers is that Suzhou is next door. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, go!
Well, that was a week ago and the calm has been replaced with a storm of loud kids, work colleagues leaving and new staff arriving. In fact we had a leaving meal for one of the teachers last night, which took place in a swanky Thai restaurant where the boss was paying so we all ate too much. As the boss was there and no-one likes her, I decided to lighten the awkward tension a bit by telling the ladyboy waiter that it was my teaching assistant’s birthday. “Really!?” Exclaimed the ladyboy, before marching over to the table with the other waiters and performing a full song and dance routine where we all had to get up and join in. The ladyboy taught us a new dance move called the Mahjong where you scramble your hands about in front of you. “Do the Mahjong!” He shrieked, pointing and embarrassing my teaching assistant. My little trick was all going swimmingly until the ladyboy turned to my aussie mate Ben and announced that he recognised him from Windows. Windows is the scummiest club in Shanghai and I’ve described it before. Ben and I have only been there twice and on one occasion we ended up in a race war between Chinese locals and some Filipino girls, some of whom were definitely ladyboys. As luck would have it, this was one of the ladyboys. “I remember kissing you!” He chuckled loudly at Ben before marching off to get some of the waitresses who also recognised both of us. “I have loads of photos of you,” shrieked one at me, before getting my full name off of my gleeful teaching assistant so she could tag me in all of them on facebook. “Oh, you were so drunk!” She yelled hysterically as my boss looked on, a model of disappointment. The rest of the meal went without a hitch and I even went on to get my highest ever score in bowling (144) but I’ll tell you what, watch out for those ladyboys – they never forget.