Is it a runway? Could be. A typical empty road in Suzhou: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Maybe. A few days ago I had to be in Shanghai for an early morning meeting (9.30am is considered early when you are commuting in from 2nd tier cities such as Suzhou). For a trip that should have taken less than around 1 hour door-to-door from my home in Suzhou to the meeting room near Shanghai’s People's Square, it turned out to become a 3 hour frustrating slog because of the ever great Suzhou taxi which never arrived. In Suzhou (especially in the Suzhou Industrial Park (S.I.P.), expat area where I live), it is difficult to get taxis anytime of the day, and customers have to dial 67776777 to order a taxi. My frustration commenced at 6.30am and went on until 7.20am during which time I constantly kept on dialling the hotline number only for it to be 'busy' (read= nobody in the call operation room!). In the end I was left with no choice but to take a local bus to the train station (which also arrived late). The beauty of it all was that the bus not only cost a meagre 1RMB (as opposed to the 60RMB that would have cost in the taxi), but it also took only around 25 minutes to get to Suzhou Railway Station (taxi somehow does take longer even if I had taken one!). Suzhou is split into 3 major districts: Suzhou Industrial Park (S.I.P.), Suzhou New District (S.N.D.), and downtown Suzhou (which is busy, historically and culturally rich, and feels more like the real China). In this article I am referring to Suzhou SIP (and perhaps even SND) where the roads are new and just deserted for most of the time.
When it comes to poor provision of public transport in 2nd tier Chinese cities, then Suzhou is no exception. Some other Chinese cities where residents suffer similar situations include Hangzhou, Dalian, Tianjin, Ningbo, and Nanjing. The vast majority of Suzhou's residents either ride E-bikes, or they are rich enough to own cars (the former outnumbers the latter). It would be fair to say that the SIP area looks nothing short of being a ghost town for the majority of the day (and night!) with empty roads that have the occasional tractor or a person on an E-bike. The roads are wide and empty enough to land a small plane should you wish to do so, and there is hardly a whisker in sight!
The opening of the city's first metro line in the summer should make life easier for Suzhou's residents. However even when that is in operation it would be tricky because the metro line (there will only be one line to begin with) won't connect most of the focal points of the city including the city’s famous landmarks. For those connections, people would still have to dial the hotline number and hope that someone picks up the phone on the other side! Note that the operators only speak Chinese, so if you have not picked up enough Chinese yet, then learn how to order a taxi at least because it will become very useful should you start to live in a 2nd tier Chinese city.
Signs in the city are already up for the metro which opens in the summer of 2012: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Beautiful, but not a whisker in sight. Colorful neon lights adorn the trees and even at 7pm nobody on the streets of Suzhou SIP: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Another empty road...welcome to Suzhou SIP: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Oh my god!! I can see a car!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
What a shame that such a beautiful road is EMPTY!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Wondering if there is any need for that 'No Horn' sign on the right hand side of the road?: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Get ready for take-off'!! Would love to drive a Ferrari on this road- no speed limits here: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Shen Dai Da Dao (Modern Avenue)- the main road that runs through Suzhou SIP area. Photo taken at 6pm- a time when it is rush hour in most major cities: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Another part of Modern Avenue, taken at 8am (rush hour). I think you get the point!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Where is everyone? This photo was taken at 7pm in Suzhou SIP: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Line 1 of the Suzhou metro opened on the 1st May 2012. The line crosses through the whole of Suzhou from Zhongyuan (SIP) to Mudu (past SND). From end to end the journey takes around 50 minutes: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
The Suzhou Metro card: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Plenty of room to shake it all about! These people put an empty road to another use...dancing.: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Chinese woman with a lavish large hat on a bus in Suzhou: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Probably not. When the sun comes out you can guarantee that Chinese women will do whatever it takes to cover their face from the sun (even if it is a few degrees warm!). This includes carrying the umbrella, wearing a flamboyant hat (take note of the photo!), and/or applying lots of 'face whitening cream' as possible. The Asian fear is prevalent that the darker the skin the less beautiful you are, and in China it is no surprise to see that women will take all kinds of measures to make sure that they have that glittering shiny ‘white’ look. It’s also a socially status symbol thing for Asian women to must maintain as fair a skin as possible (i.e. their close circle friends will also look and comment on them should they have a slight whisker in sight of a tan on their face!). In China women also drink Collagen (naturally occuring proteins in mammals in skin tissue), and other similar products to make their skin more fair and shiny. I have overheard Chinese women gossip and say things like: ‘Oh my, you look so beautiful and white today!’, or worse enough ‘Oh dear, what happened to your face, why so dark today?’. The topic is considered a serious source of discussion for housewives around Asia.
On the other hand, in Asia, if a man carries an umbrella or applies any kind of lotion on their face to protect them from the sun then they are considered to be feminine (this includes sun lotion!). And if a man is accompanying his girlfriend or wife in hot weather then he must carry the umbrella for her otherwise he is not considered a gentleman (very true in China). This is perhaps one of the reasons why in most Asian countries you see lots of fair skinned ladies, whilst the men are darker skinned (more apparent in countries like India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, China, and others).
Social taboo it may be, but you can be sure that Asian women, such as the one in the photo, can enjoy being Daisy Werthan for as long as they can.
Raining? Naah....she's just afraid of the Sun!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Collagen and other similar 'Skin Whitening' drinks are available over the counter in China. Chinese women love them!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
In the past three days, people here in China had the luxury of enjoying a national public holiday. These three days in China were known as the ‘Qing Ming Festival’. With a distinguished history of over 2,500 years, the focus of this 3-day festival is for Chinese people to pay respects to their ancestors by going to their places of burial. Pronounced ‘Ching Ming’ festival, the occasion is not much of a celebration but rather a time to reflect on the life of the ancestors. Traditionally, people place a whole rooster at the tombstone, or a bouquet of flowers to show respect. The rooster symbolizes prosperity and life. However, in these modern times people prefer to place various kinds of items such as fresh fruit for example, and even place the items on the tombs that would represent something associated with their loved one (it can be anything). The festival is formally known as the ‘Sweeping Tomb’ festival because people use the occasion to ‘sweep clean’ the tombs of their loved ones, and then they may place some burning incense sticks as well.
Today (4th April 2012) was the last day of the public holiday period, and people used the occasion to go for family picnics, fly some kites (very popular in China!), or just take a rest from the hectic Chinese workstyle. As with any major holiday in China, all the parks, shopping malls, roads, and places of interest were jam packed for these 3 days because everyone only has this golden period to take a break away from work (in China most companies only offer a maximum of 10 working days annual leave so it’s a very limited opportunity for the locals to take a well deserved break).
Though still slightly chilly, the weather here in Suzhou is getting warmer (albeit slowly). Suzhou residents must be glad to know that thankfully the horrible bone chilling Siberian cold weather has disappeared from China's eastern region. With that in mind, it’s the perfect weather to ride my e-bike along the empty streets of Suzhou SIP.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world (in the U.K., U.S.A., and all other Christian countries), it's Easter. One holiday in this country gives way to another holiday in other countries. Just like Christmas and the Western New Year, Easter is not celebrated as a public holiday in China. However, that said I am sure I'll enjoy a few chocolate eggs available in the expat shops and think of home, sweet home :-)
The author looking as happy as ever (even in cold weather). Greetings from Szuhou!
While I thought that perhaps the weather would start getting warm as spring is nearly here, however to my dissappointment Suzhou is still lurking in cold winter style conditions. I paid a short visit to Hangzhou (around 1.5 hours train journey from Suzhou) last week, and the coastal city happened to be much warmer despite being at the same longitude as Suzhou. Perhaps something to do with its close proximity to the sea. For the time being I can only hope that it starts to get warmer soon. This would enable me to ride my E-bike again, which has been locked away during the vast majority of the winter days. I am also busy putting the finishing touches to the 2nd edition of my first travel guide to China, the 'Newcomers Handbook to China'. It's been a while since the first edition was published (before the Beijing 2008 Olympics), and so much has changed in China since the Olympics that the book requires updating. The 2nd edition should be completed and published sometime towards the autumn or winter of 2012. Watch this space!
The trip to London was so short and snappy that it almost felt like a dream. Thankfully on the day of the flight from Heathrow we were gifted with a clear blue sky, and slight easterly winds, which allowed an excellent opportunity to take beautiful photos of London and beyond as the plane took off from runway 09R (heading towards Clacton-on-Sea, and then onwards towards Germany). I flew with Qatar Airways, so both the first flight (LHR-DOH, QR008), and the second flight (DOH-PVG, QR888) provided great opportunities to take some superb photos of the skyline of not just London but also Doha, Northern Thailand, Guiyang, Wuhan, Wuxi, Kunshan, and Suzhou (my home!!). And not to mention the magical sunrise that we were treated to somewhere over the Pakistan/India border.
The last time I visited Suzhou was in 2006, and I only had the chance to see the ancient part of the city for a day's short trip. Life is amazing. When I first came to China in 2003, and even the last time I came to Suzhou in 2006, I never imagined that life would take me to Suzhou again. Nevertheless, here I am living and working in this wonderful city. The vast majority of my time in China has been spent in Shenzhen and Guangzhou (with some pockets of it in Shanghai and Beijing), and I suppose when one is used to travelling so much that it does not matter much where you live. However, on this occasion I did feel sad (even on some days I still do), of leaving Shenzhen and Guangzhou. I miss Guangdong Province (especially Shenzhen and Panyu!!), and felt homesick when I arrived in Shanghai and Suzhou. I have no close friends here, and the people are not as friendly and open to talk to strangers as they are in Shenzhen (this is true of the East Region of China). In addition, there are too many westerners here...it’s not as exotic as the real China down south! Anyways, I must stop complaining and whinging, and enjoy my life in Suzhou!
Suzhou is actually more or less a remote suburb of Shanghai (as most people see it). Indeed being located only 20 minutes away from Shanghai by the CRH high speed rail link, Suzhou is the perfect place to visit for a day's or weekend's break. The city is also gifted with excellent weather all year around with an average temperature of about 20 degrees Celsius (winter low of -2 degrees Celsius, and a summer high of around 30 degrees Celsius), and a perfect relative humidity of around 76%. Though the main source of income for the majority of local Suzhou people As a satellite city of Shanghai, Suzhou has grown in the past 10 years or so to become an industrial hub with many multinationals setting up their manufacturing facilities there due to the low land costs (well, these land costs are on the rise now). For tourists, writers, and photographers, the city is a gem of a place to visit.
The city is no stranger to any travel guide, and there are probably a million books and websites paying homage it to it. What does fascinate me is the stark contrast that Suzhou possesses between the ultra modern, clean, and spacious Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) area, and the old city. The old city is the real Suzhou, and how Suzhou looked hundreds of years ago. It’s full of natural canals, ancient architecture, beautiful natural gardens, and lakes. While the SIP is the opposite. It is dominated with manmade canals, manmade parks, and ultra modern homes.
The SIP is the largest cooperation project between the Chinese and the Singaporean Government. It is located around the circumference of the beautiful Jinji Lake, which lies to the east of Suzhou Old city. SIP has a total jurisdiction area of 288 km2, of which, the China-Singapore cooperation area covers 80 km2 with a planned residential population of 1.2 million. This part of Suzhou is home to many Korean, Japanese, British, American, and German expatriates. Big corporations such as Bosch, Honeywell, Samsung, Hitachi, and many others dominate the area. To cater for the education of the growing number of expatriate children, famous international schools have set up lavish campuses in the SIP area. These include such fine establishments as Dulwich College. In fact, the SIP area in Suzhou is perhaps the most modern and cleanest part of China now. Its ultra wide roads, spacious clean parks, and huge shopping malls (Times Square Suzhou) make it a real home away from home for expatriates.
Cities such as Suzhou are definitely signify what the future of China may look like. There is one problem though- in the SIP area it is very difficult to get a taxi or a bus after, say, 8pm. It becomes almost like a ghost town. So the best way to travel around is on one of the electric bikes (E-bikes). But the problem with E-bikes is that they don’t make any noise, and with the way people drive erratically in China, it is very easy to get into an accident. The worst-case scenario is at night time when people drive wrongly in the opposite way without any headlights on (because they want to save battery power). People are so used to being struck into an accident that if there is an accident then they don’t show any emotion on the face whatsoever- it’s just a blank look as if nothing has happened. I hope that this transport problem should be resolved by the end of 2011, when two metro lines will open allowing residents to commute safely and quickly across the city.
Right, here are some photos that show life in and around Suzhou- the Venice of China!
10 years on, and the memories of that terrible day are still fresh as ever in my mind. Here in Suzhou (China), we (a few of my American colleagues, friends, and I) observed a one-minute silence in respect of all those innocent victims who lost their lives. Here in China, it was somewhat of a bad timing for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 event because today (9/12/2011) is the official Mid-Autumn Festival. The vast majority of the population in China is not aware of what 9/11 means, and when the attacks actually happened in 2001, there were mixed feelings among many Chinese people. The general reaction that comes across from many Chinese people is like 'oh, this is America's problem, nothing for China to worry about', or 'China does not have any presence in Afghanistan or Iraq, so we don’t need to worry any such attacks here'. The vast majority of the population still has this belief. For local Chinese people, there is a sense of confusion and sympathy when it comes to this subject.
Nevertheless, for me personally 9/11 has changed a few things in my life, whether it is for the good or worse, that is something only fate will tell me. As I have explained in my profile that I wanted to be an airline pilot in my youth, and just when the airline industry was booming in the early 21st century, then these attacks happened. Right after the attacks happened, most western airlines (like British Airways, American Airlines, and others) started losing revenue, and oil prices soared to a high. Many other airlines even went bankrupt (Ansett Australia, Sabena, Swiss Air, VARIG Brazilian, VIAZA Venezuela, Olympic Airways, AOM, and many others). With all of this chaos in the airline industry, my childhood dream of becoming an airline pilot also died. It took me some time to come to terms with this fact, but there was a point when I had just up regretting this and just moved on in life. Then there were the stories of some of my friends who had Arabic names, and even though they had a fully qualified Airline Transport Pilots License (ATPL), but still they were denied any job opportunities because of their name (even though they were American or British born). I recall speaking to a mate of mine who was a fully qualified airline pilot (flew the Boeing 737-300), but could not get a job and was constantly stopped by airport security. He had the final straw when airport security confiscated his pilot’s flight case. Understandably, in a very emotional state, he told me that he had given up his career as an airline pilot.
Perhaps no other industry was as immediately affected by the devastating events of September 11th as the airline industry. Apart from the passengers and airline crews who lost their lives on that day many airlines simply shut down. Of those that managed through the crisis-filled days and months that followed, tens of thousands of airline employees lost their jobs. Most airlines immediately put a stop to their sponsored cadet pilot scheme because of this.
When the attacks happened, I was a 22-year-old student in London, and at that exact moment, I was in Kingston, London (U.K.), working as an intern with the retailer TJMaxx. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon with clear blue skies, and I had just finished my lunch. Then suddenly my manager turned into the staff room and said: 'Oh, we just heard that two fighter planes have crashed into the World Trade Centres in New York'. The details were very sketchy at that moment. It only started to become apparent in the late afternoon and evening when I got home and watched the news. The saddest (and scariest) feeling I got when I saw that plane American Airlines Boeing 767 aircraft smash right into the tower. It seemed so unreal and inhuman. Buildings, resources, and planes can be rebuilt after a time, but PEOPLE cannot be replaced. My instant feeling was 'what idiot wants to do that?'. A passenger plane is not meant to be a missile or a weapon, and to use a beautiful thing such as a plane to kill innocent people is just evil and ridiculously inhuman. There was a strong sense of sadness, anger, confusion, and sheer fear in my mind on that day.
I do remember seeing a few changes in London immediately after the attacks happened. The most apparent one was that there were no planes seen over the capital. The London airspace was completely empty. It felt very surreal because the skies over London are usually noisy and filled with many planes waiting to land at Heathrow Airport (there are four holding points: Biggin Hill, Lambourne, Bovingdon, and Ockham). At peak time in the evenings, it is common to see at least 30 aircraft in the London sky, twinkling as if they are little stars at night- all waiting in turn to land at Heathrow (or Gatwick, London City, Stansted, or Luton). As I listened to the Air Traffic Control (ATC) on my VHF radio, all I heard was planes being re-directed back to their points of origin, or being diverted to airfields in safer places such as Ireland, Birmingham, Manchester, or Scotland. Flights at Heathrow and Gatwick that were due to depart were cancelled at the last minute and planes return to the terminals. Indeed what a crazy day it was. I have never had the chance to go to the U.S.A, and I hope one day I can go to New York to pay homage to the site, and respects to those victims who lost their lives where once those iconic towers stood in tact.
9/11 was definitely a day that changed the world over, and we can only hope that with such harsh times in life, future humankind never experiences anything like this atrocity ever again. May god bless all those innocent souls that lost their lives on this day 10 years ago. Amen.