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Into the Mountains of Yunnan: Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Baishuitai Water Terraces

Does anyone else have an image of the Yangtze River in their minds from oh, I don’t know, learning about it circa 4th grade?  Well, in my mind, it’s up there with the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Nile.  The little geologist in me was jumping in her britches when we first crossed over this mighty river on our way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, or in Chinese, Hutiaoxia.  The YANGTZE!  We’re driving adjacent to the YANGTZE!  Am I the only one here because I’m fairly certain my husband didn’t share in my giddiness either?

As you approach Qiaotou (the gateway town into Tiger Leaping Gorge) from the south, you have the Yangtze on your right and a series of 16-18,000 foot snow-capped peaks looming in the distance.  And this is just a small taste of what’s to come.

This was the portion of our journey that strangely, I was able to get the least information about despite its international acclaim.  I needed to know whether or not we would be able to physically take a car through Tiger Leaping Gorge and north toward Shangri-la and could only seem to get answers on how one would go about hiking that distance.  So we winged/wung it.  On our way, we called a guest house at the other side of the gorge (upper TLG) to see if they could fetch us from Qiaotou and sure enough, YES! we could drive our lazy little asses through the gorge without ever having to step foot outside.  With regret I say this because had our circumstances been different, we would have totally done the two day trek on our feet and not by car.  Did I mention that I’m pregnant (it’s not really public knowledge yet but I felt the need to explain our inactivity)?  At a mere 16 weeks, there was only a certain amount of body pushing I was willing to endure – as visions/visceral feelings about our Annapurna trek in Nepal surfaced, there was no way I was about to take on carrying a kid through this vast landscape.  And so, with excitement, we drove through the gorge.  And MY LORDY was it ever a gorge.  One of the deepest in the world, Hutiaoxia, at its greatest depth, spans an elevation of 12,434 feet.  And we drove right through it.  Sheer rock walls on either side of us, there were points in the drive (driving into the gorge from Qiaotou, you’re cliffside) that my stomach dropped into my toes, or maybe my head, I can’t be sure.  The larger Little Explorer, whom is nothing but a brave trooper usually, even announced that she’d “rather be walking over the mountain than driving on a cliff next to the mountain”.  But it was spectacular.  SPECTACULAR.  Again, we didn’t have grand expectations and knowing it was such a well traveled area, we/I had poo-pooed it as tourist hype.  Come on though, 12 thousand foot sheer cliff walls, how could that be anything less than spectacular?

Though that 30 minute drive was by all means fantastic, we were all happy to arrive safely at Sean’s Guest House, our home for the night.  The kids have taken to calling hotels, Hotel-Home – perhaps a result of the myriad they have stayed at to date.  We settled into our family room, thrilled to find out it even had a sweet built in stone bathtub, which meant clean kids and happy parents.  Though our stay in Tiger Leaping Gorge was the most expensive of our trip, the view from the patio more than justified it.

We dined leisurely on the deck that evening and made preparations for our next day’s journey.  We’d drive from our guest house, out of the gorge and into the mountains to the Baishuitai Water Terraces in Shangri-la county.

Again, we were totally unprepared for the incredible landscapes we’d come across on that drive.  Surrounded by 14-18,000 foot peaks, we were driving through the mountains.  There they were, just a stone’s throw away (okay, maybe a little further).  It was a 2.5 hour drive each way and I spent every moment I wasn’t  distracted by the kids, awe-inspired and gazing out the window.

The first dramatic scene unfolded as we crested a mountain pass and began descending into Haba Village.  Flanked on one side by Haba Snow Mountain, a near 18,000 foot peak, the valley that prevails down its foothills is astounding.  It looks like a lava flow made out of lush, green farmland.

The entire time, including that of our drive through the gorge, I kept envisioning what those rocky mountains would look like in the rainy season.  You could see where the water naturally flowed and all I could imagine was a mountainscape full of waterfalls and rushing rivers.  I, however, am not sure that I’d want to navigate those back country roads while all that water was flowing, so my daydreams put us hulled up in a little cabin for the season, watching the scene unfold from the safe confines of our abode.

Upon arrival to Bashuitai, we were all hungry little beasts and were ushered to a small restaurant by our driver and brought into the kitchen where there was a wall of prepped veggies.  We proceeded to point and explain in our primitive Mandarin what we wanted, quite uncertain about the dishes we’d actually receive.  Much to our delight (and despite the most grease-caked kitchen we’ve ever laid our eyes on), it was nearly the best meal of our entire trip.  Our host cooked everything to perfection and even had our picky little eaters chowing down on her tofu and cauliflower dishes.

We haven’t come across many Americans in our Asia travels, but for some reason, we came across quite a few during our time in TLG.  The first was while eating out of that greasy kitchen shown above – he was from Vermont and on holiday after a trade show in Hong Kong, whom we chatted with about Vermont’s heroine crisis and the future of our planet.   Another at our guest house – a Duke business school professor and his student, touring around after a university trip to Shanghai and Beijing, with whom we had great conversations regarding energy and the environment.  And also a couple from Washington DC, visiting their daughter who was studying Chinese in Kunming and whom provided equally stimulating conversation.  Though we surely don’t relate to all Americans, there is something nice about running into someone who relates on a deeper cultural level while in a totally foreign land.

Back to Bashuitai.  From the road, it’s only a 20 or so minute stroll up to the water terraces, but because we were unsure how long and how steep the path would actually be, we rented a horse from a sweet, horse toting hawker, to schlep the kiddos up the hill.  Who am I kidding – we rented a horse because our Little Explorers BEG to ride them at every chance they get.  And because I’m pregnant and lazy and the reality of carrying one of the them up the hill was clearly too much for me to handle.  BIG problems people, big problems.

As it turned out, the little bugger couldn’t even get them all the way up to the terraces and the path was so uneven that the woman guiding the horse was a nervous wreck the entire time and both the Mister and myself spotted the wiggling kiddies as they were shuffled up the path.  Basically, carrying them up the hill if needed, may have been the easier of the two options.

As we neared the terraces, a fresh stream of water flowed down the hill and with the sun blazing, it was all I could do not to strip down and submerge myself then and there.  Clean, fresh mountain water – how divine!  We compromised with a head splashing and moved on toward the main attraction.  The bottom side of the terraces are a series of rolling limestone pillows that glisten with the trickle of water flowing over.  It reminded me of a chocolate fountain – you know the kind you find in overpriced hotel buffet brunches, meant for strawberry and marshmallow dipping?  Or at fancy weddings.

We hadn’t taken into account the fact that we were arriving at the terraces on the backside of the dry season, so the water was probably quite a bit more stagnant than normal, which did and did not effect our experience.  The first set of water terraces was exactly what I imagined them to be – a totally unnatural creamy aquamarine color that screamed to be jumped in (which is very much not allowed).  I should explain.  The water terraces are natural limestone rock formations that have an eons worth (200-300 thousand years!) of calcium carbonate from the surrounding mountain spring water built up within them, giving them the unnatural, but totally natural pigment.

As we walked beyond the first set, the rest of the tableland, as it is also known, was a bit of a let down.  I’m assuming that it’s due to the season we were seeing them in, but the primary part of the terraces (the area photographed time and time again) was a series of algae infused pond water.  It was green.  And mossy looking.  Not the white pools with pristine aquamarine water we’d expected.  Algal blooms are generally a result of nutrient loading (mostly human introduced) and I’m really hoping that these pools weren’t just polluted but that because of reduced water flow, they naturally lacked both the refresh and calcium carbonate that the spring waters normally provide.  The rock formations were none the less a pretty marvelous geologic phenomenon to witness (the terraces at Bashuitai are among the largest crop in all of China).

Despite this minor let down, the kids then proceeded to catch and release tadpoles with our driver for the next hour – which honestly capped the excursion off just perfectly.

Because we had opted to spend almost an entire day adventuring to Bashuitai, we decided to stay another night in the gorge, so that we could head out on foot and REALLY see the gorge the next day.  What we were told would be a 3 hour hike turned into an almost 6 hour grueling trek that nearly made us miss our bus back to Lijiang the next afternoon.

The descent into the gorge, which we figured was about a 2500 foot drop, was peaceful and lovely.  The Little Explorers hoofed it most of the way, the sun was at a comfortable level of saturation in the sky, and we were experiencing the mightiness of the river flowing through the gorge for the first time.

However, this was all tempered with the small piece of knowledge that we’d then have to climb back out all 2500 feet, when the sun wouldn’t be at such a hiker-friendly place in the sky.  Deep breath.

The views/river/gorge was fantastic though.

After rewarding ourselves with popsicles and arming ourselves with multiple frozen snickers bars and what turned out to be not enough water, we began our ascent.  Foolishly, we opted to take the more steep route up, hoping that at least it’d shave some time/distance off our journey.  BAD choice.  At this point, it’s HOT, like hot HOT and there is little to no shade on the trail.  Up, up, and up we climb, with no end in sight.  The Mister begins carrying one kid at a time, while the other kid holds my hand and somehow shuffles their little weary feet up that monstrous mountain.  Remember, I’m carrying an apple inside my womb and have been rendered pretty useless – seriously, there was a point that even I wanted to cry – it was that bad.  As we carry on, neither of the Little Explorers has any oomph left in their step and our arsenal of Snickers is empty, which means only one thing: that the Mister will have to carry not one child, but two children up the mountain (one in the ergo on his back, one in his arms).  Someone really needs to give him a Father of the Year award for this one.  It seriously must have sucked for him.  By the time we reached the top, the smallest explorer was shoeless because it was so hot that his feet had overheated and were it not for the random broken sprinkler spraying dirt upon our arrival, we may have all keeled over.

But there was s broken sprinkler and there was a stream of water flowing next to the road we had reached and there was a ride back to our guest house.  And two large bottles of water once we returned.  And no missed bus.  We made it!  It was grueling, but spectacular.

Thoroughly exhausted but entirely fulfilled, we boarded our bus back to where our journey began – Shuhe Ancient Town in Lijiang – where we would find China’s greatest boutique hotel, eat bomb grilled tofu, and let teensy tiny fish nibble on our feet (yes, all 8 of them).

 

 

 

August in Shangh[eezy]

Now I know what it feels like to be cooked alive in an oven – or how it feels to hang out in a sauna for multiple hours.  With the hottest temperatures EVER recorded (in the 150 years of documenting), Shanghai was hotter than a witches titty (that’s the third time I’ve used that colloquialism in the last week and I’m pretty sure I’ve used it incorrectly every time) for the entire 12 days we were there.  We didn’t exactly choose to visit Shanghai during the hottest heat wave in history, it was based on some red tape.  The mister had to process his resident visa up there – we have an excuse.

Us, Day 1: Awww, what’s all the fuss about (with even the BBC reporting on the heat)?  It’s hot, sure, but nothing worse than we’ve experienced traveling through Southeast Asia or the Caribbean in the summer.

Us, Day 5:  Hot damn, is it okay NOT leave the hotel until dinner time?  Ironically for us, though, the sun setting basically gave no reprieve from the heat, 105F dropped to a balmy 95F.

Though we weren’t able to conquer as many sights as we would have liked, we fortunately had enough time there that we were able to knock out quite a few.

The first few days were somewhat geared around kids activities – the results of which were hit AND miss.

HIT: Shanghai Science and Technology Museum – the kids and I were SO impressed with this museum.  Around every corner and through every door, new discoveries awaited.  Our first stop, naturally, was Children’s Rainbow Land  (which is honestly where I thought the fun was going to start AND stop).  It was full of hands on exhibits, a sweet play area, and plenty of space to run around chasing rainbows on the floor.  After spending well over an hour there, we went for a snack, thinking we’d leave shortly thereafter.  While hunting around for a snake exhibit that we never found, we discovered the Animal World and the Spectrum of Life exhibits.  Though I’m not really much of a taxidermy animal fan, this may have been the most robust animal exhibit I’ve seen yet (better than the Museum of Natural History in NYC – mainly because it’s China and whereas animals are neatly organized in glass covered exhibits in the US  – here they are barely caged in by small wooden fences).  The animals were diverse and out in the open, set inside elaborate natural habitats.  As we made our way through taxidermy animal heaven and into the Spectrum of Life exhibit, we were just dazzled.  With a living forest almost as impressive (though not nearly as technical) as the California Academy of Sciences Rainforest, the Spectrum of Life guided you through a diverse forested landscape, up rock pathways, past waterfalls, and through giant [plastic] insect groves.  You should, probably, temper my excitement with the fact that anything that resembles open, green space at this point, makes me feel like I’m trekking through rural Mongolia.

MISS: After our experience at SSTM and because of our oldest’s fondness for anything reptile, we decided to go to Shanghai Insect Kingdom.  I thought we’d go see some snakes and lizards.  What I was NOT prepared for was a seal in an INCREDIBLY small habitat upon entrance into the “kingdom”, followed by a VERY shallow fish pond (above which there was pathway that you crossed over) FULL of fish – which I can get past – but also home to a Giant Green Turtle who wasn’t even covered by the water it was so shallow and looked like a statue because it had such little room to move around.  Needless to say, 5 minutes into our time there, I was in tears.  We proceeded to walk through the rest of the space, most of which was okay – insects and lizards and such – but some of which was equally as dispicable – a “petting zoo” with two goats in a metal cage, being fed dead branches by dozens of loud children.  OF COURSE, the kids loved it, though I did my damndest to explain why treating animals in this way was NOT okay and that had we known, we would NOT have supported the business.

SO-SO:  A playzone in Pudong, Action and Fun, that was one part awesome and one part wasted space.  Awesome was the giant slide that the kids rode down in potato sacks.  Awesome was a tree house they could climb in.  Awesome was the fact that despite the heat, there were only a handful of other kids there at the time.  Wasted was the LARGE space with little to fill up the in-between.  There was a reading area with nowhere to sit.  A toy kitchen with nothing to cook or cook with.  A closet with no dress-up clothes.  And a play dough table where an employee just sat making things – but not with the kids.  But after, we discovered an arcade with a little kids roller coaster, just adjacent to the play space.  Add it all together and it’s definitely worth a visit on a hot or rainy Shanghai day.

Because it was so hot, some of our trip was defined by our accommodations – as we ended up spending much of our time indoors.  There are four Hyatt’s in Shanghai, so we decided we’d do a Hyatt tour (we successfully completed SIX separate check-ins, including our one night at the Hyatt Hangzhou).  The mister started frequenting Hyatt Hotels through business travel and we’ve sort of gotten sucked into their great customer loyalty program, damn freebies!, they get me every time.   SO, for all your Hyatt stayers out there in the ethers, I give to you a full review of three of the four Shanghai Hyatt’s.

1) Hyatt Andaz Shanghai – located in the trendy Xintiandi area of the French Concession, this hotel (like the Andaz brand in general) is hip and colorful.  We stayed here on two separate occasions and while both rooms were nice by my standard, our first room was spectacular.  With mood lighting throughout and a curved facade, it felt like we were on a luxury spaceship.  The toilets throughout are Japanese style Toto toilets, which means that they open and close by itself, have seat warmers, and clean your private parts (both front AND back).  FANCY.  And the breakfast was KILLER.  A congee bar to write home about and every other Chinese and American/European style acoutrement you could hope for.  Great gym and fancy lap pool made of glass.  Plus, the location.  Just out the door, you’re able to walk through the tree lined streets of Xintiandi, find any sort of cuisine you can think of, and pass sites of historical significance.  I give it a 7.

2) Hyatt on the Bund – ah, Hyatt on the Bund.  This was our favorite.  Because of the location.  And the spa facilities.  And the breakfast.  Oh, and because of the beautiful rooms with views to match.  We upgraded to a suite both times we stayed and the rooms were spectacular.  Perhaps the nicest Hyatt room we’ve encountered yet.  Nespresso machines, a variety of fresh teas, a bath tub the size of a small swimming pool, and views overlooking the Huangpu River with futuristic Pudong to the left and the historical art-deco buildings of The Bund on the right.  I could have sat and stared out our windows all day at the freight ships navigating the river by day and the techno-lighted cruise boats gallavanting about by night.  It is my belief that the best views of Shanghai are seen from this hotel (which is also home to the highest open air terrace in the world – Vue Bar, located on the 33rd floor).  The one minus is that the pool is indoor and has the relaxed vibe of the spa facilities, so it’s hard to take kids there without feeling like you need to keep them quiet.  BUT, on weekends, they set up a play zone just outside, where the kids can fish for rubber duckies and power motorized boats in the pond.  This one gets a 9.

3) Grand Hyatt Shanghai – though we have stayed at some we liked, we’ve concluded that Grand Hyatt’s are for old, stuffy people.  They are much more formal and just not our cup of tea.  We thought we were going to stay here for three nights but ended up canceling our second and third nights so we could soak up more time at the other two Hyatt’s, which we much preferred.  The two positives were the pool – it was the only one out of the three that had a more family feel to it (ironically), and the beautiful quartet that plays in the lower level bar, whose music resonates throughout the hotel (it’s a circular column shaped hotel, so all rooms face towards an open column).  Scoring lowest, I doth give the Grand Hyatt a 4.

So yea, we’re basically Shanghai Hyatt experts now – definitely going to add that to the resume.

In and amongst our busy days laying low at our hotels, we also did some stuff.  Evidenced below, dusk was the earliest we got outside some days (this photo is taken from famous Waibaidu Bridge, China’s first all-steel bridge and a Shanghai icon since 1908).

We strolled up, down, and all around The Bund, an area just adjacent to the ever-bustling Huangpu River and one of Shanghai’s prime tourist destinations.   In the early 20th century, it was the center of multinational banks and trading houses and has remained home to some of the world’s most powerful financial institutions..  As such, the buildings that run the length are an eclectic mixture of neo-classical, art-deco, and gothic architecture (among other styles too deep for me to remember).  Bottom line is that it’s quite visually stunning.  And when you juxtapose the classic architecture of The Bund with the futuristic buildings of Pudong just on the other side of the river, you’ve got yourself a pretty unbeatable combo.  Pudong is home to Shanghai’s iconic skyline, as seen in the photo below.  The littles favorite is the rocket in the center, Oriental Pearl Tower.

We strolled through Fuxing Park in the French Concession.  Not surprisingly, it’s French in style and was erected by yup, you guessed it, the French, in 1909.  Groups doing tai chi and men playing mahjong overflowed its gardens.  What is mahjong you ask?  And why were people doing tai chi in the park?  Mahjong is a very popular Chinese card game that I’ve read is a bit like rummy and while women do play, it’s men who you see playing while sipping on tea and smoking cigarettes on makeshift tables on the streets (or in parks).  I hope to kick its ass someday.  As for tai chi, if you’ve been to any Chinese inhabited area in the world, you’ve probably seen groups of older Chinese people taking to the park for their morning dose of tai chi, but if you haven’t, this is what happens.  Small groups (though sometimes large where I come from in California) gather in the early morning, often times in parks but also in open spaces adjacent to the street, and go through their slow, rejuvinating, and mind balancing routine.  It’s relaxing just to watch though I often want to join.  Public exercise is wildly popular in China – mostly confined to middle-aged to elderly people, in both the morning and the evening, a stroll down the street will greet you with groups of people collectively exercising.

We ate at a few kick-ass restaurants.  And many others that will soon be forgotten.  The two very much worth mentioning are Lost Heaven and Hai by Goga.  Lost Heaven is a culinary and visual exhibit of folk Yunnanese cuisine, found in the western Chinese province, Yunnan.  While it may be true that tour groups frequent this restaurant, it surely does not lessen its authenticity (or relative authenticity).  It’s GIGANTIC, but a lovely ambiance is still maintained and the traditional decor is beautiful.  And the food is oh-so-delicious, with many vegetarian items on the menu – something that we hold at a premium after living in China for six months.  It’s conveniently located very close to The Bund and makes for a perfect destination after an evening walkabout.  The owner of Hai is from San Francisco, so we couldn’t help but like it.  In all honesty though, the view from the terrace is superb and the California cuisine delights were scrumptious.  It was quite expensive, but I’d go back for sure.

After mustering the energy to leave our hotel before the sun went down, we roamed through Yu Garden and Yuan Historic area.  We had gone to the UNESCO World Heritage Classical Chinese Gardens of Suzhou days before and in all honesty, Yu Garden put up tough competition.  Though it’s not nearly as large as the gardens of Suzhou, it had all of the right ingredients to create a classic enchanted atmosphere.  A maze of pagodas, ponds, large rock croppings, and sculptures, Yu Garden kept both the adults AND the children quite engaged.  There were small passageways galore for the kids to roam about and give mama a small heart attack when they roamed one (or ten) turns too far.

We also went to the circus, Shanghai Circus World.  It was okay, though it’s quite well reviewed on Trip Advisor, so don’t let my underwhelm stop you from going.  The last acrobatic show we had witnessed was the spectacular House of Dancing Water in Macau, so our point of comparison wasn’t really all that fair.  With the exception of a motorcycle stunt, where I think something like 7 motorcycles buzzed around one another in a 15×15′ metal sphere, that made me look away in fear, we left a bit disappointed.

And, we devoured dumplings every chance we got.  Ain’t nowhere got better soup dumplings than in Shanghai, where they were first created.  If nothing else, go to Shanghai for the soup dumplings.  GO.

And I also got an awesome case of travelers tummy that actually wasn’t all that awesome.  My first time, EVER, so I really shouldn’t complain.  What more, what more?  Oh, I ate no less than 20 bowls of congee in 14 days.  So in addition to being a Shanghai Hyatt expert, I’m also a congee connoisseur.  Who said that living in China as a housewife wasn’t going to contribute to my resume?  I’d hire me.

Shanghai was cool but I really hope to experience it again when it is really cool.  Cold.  As in not scorching hot.

 

 

 

 

From Heat Stroke to Hail Storms: Our Day in Suzhou

With a monsoon-influenced, subtropical climate, you’d think we would have been more prepared for what we encountered in Suzhou.  BUT, traveling such a short distance from Shanghai, where there hadn’t been rain for a week and with none in sight, we figured we would only have to deal with the record breaking heat (the highest temperature EVER recorded was that of a week ago, 104F).  100+ degree weather + humidity – we knew it’d be a sweat-drenched day.  What we were very much NOT prepared for was the epic thunderstorm we’d be caught in, producing pachinko machine pinball sized hail – in 100 degree weather – a bit baffling, right?

We took an early morning high speed train from Shanghai, hoping to beat the mid-day heat.  Our taxi driver dropping us a block from the train station (he was lazy and didn’t want to get stuck in the taxi cue at the station – at least that’s what I deduced), where we had to navigate under and over and through busy streets to just FIND the train station should have been, or rather, was, an omen.  We showed up for our ride already hot, sweaty, and super frazzled.

Bitching aside, when we arrived to our destination, the Humble Administrators Garden, our sweaty brows felt justified.  Suzhou is famous for its Classical Chinese Gardens (the reason for our visit), 4 of which have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  This garden is the largest of the gardens in Suzhou and is considered to be one of the most beautiful in all of China.  First built during the Southern Song Dynasty, the Humble Administrators Garden was once a private garden, belonging to Lu Guimeng, a Tang Dynasty scholar (among a myriad of others).  IMAGINE, 51,950 square meters (almost 13 acres) of a divinely sculpted maze of ponds, pagodas, lotus flowers, and enchanted walkways ALL for your personal use.

It’s actually QUITE difficult to imagine, as we shared our stroll with what must have been thousands of other tourists – of which many wore jeans and long sleeved t-shirts – there must have been some heat stroke going on because I was SOAKED to the core in sweat, wearing my-version-of-booty shorts and a tank-top.  We weren’t able to fully enjoy the garden, as the heat really was almost unbearable – tolerable only due to the “salt water” popsicles being sold (which were capital B, BRILLIANT – basically Pedialyte popsicles for adults).  As we sat eating our popsicles, a bee insisted on keeping us on our toes, which attracted an elderly Chinese couple who acted as our personal bee fighters – Chinese people are constantly dazzled by our blond-haired children, who almost look close enough in age to be twins – we must have heard the phrase “liang ge”, which means two, in an exhuberant voice, a few hundred times.  Though I wasn’t quick enough to snap a shot of our bee squad, the photo below illustrates my point.

We would have loved to have visited more gardens, but with the heat, we had to simplify our priorities.  The local government has done a fairly good job preserving “Old Suzhou” and because we’re suckers for anything authentic, we knew we had to make it there. From the garden, we walked to the well-preserved, more than 1000 years old, Pingjiang Street (which is actually a mix of very old, authentic architecture, and modern shops and backpacker vibed bars and cafes).  At this point, we were still sweating in the SUN.

Not an hour later, after cooling off at a sweet little cafe with AIR-CON for lunch, we were caught in an absolutely EPIC thunderstorm.  Strangest thing I ever did see.  The sky was blue above our heads, but all around you could see what looked like snow-cloud colored haze.  When we began to hear distant thunder, we were confused.  And then the rain started.  From zero to sixty in a few short minutes, we found ourselves taking shelter underneath a cafe umbrella.  And when both kids began to cry because the wind gusts were so strong that the umbrella (which was mounted into a heavy marble stone) nearly tipped and the rain so heavy that there was no getting away from it, we sought shelter in the nearest shop we could manage to get to – which was where we would proceed to hang out for the next 1.5 hours.  It was half shop, half road side stand, with just an awning protecting it from the storm.  Both kids entirely freaked out from the thunder that felt so close I was honestly concerned about lightning striking (and I happened to have just read a BBC article on lightning strike survivors – so I may have been a tad bit paranoid), we hunkered down to ride out the storm – just us and the only Chinese speaking shopkeeper.  Halfway through our stay, an ice ball about the size of a marble, oddly appeared on the shop’s display table.  It wasn’t before I noticed dozens of these peculiar little ice pebbles scattered about the road in front of the shop that we realized that it was HAILING.  In 100 degree heat, HAILING.  Mind blowing, I know.

As the rain let up and kids had calmed down, we took our chances and headed back out (we had about an hour and a half until our train back to Shanghai) to explore the rest of Pingjiang Street and grab a taxi back to the train station.

This is actually where the FUN really began.

Something we had failed to account for was the fact that apparently, EVERY taxi in Suzhou has only a half trunk, so our big beluga stroller would ONLY fit in the trunk of a deluxe taxi, which undernumbered (you know, the opposite of outnumbered) the regular taxis, 1-100.  SO here we are, in a lull during the storm, trying to find a taxi that will fit our stroller – we have plenty of time, no big deal, we told ourselves.  Upon realizing that the station was only 4.5 kilometers away, we decided we just walk it.  No biggie, right?  HA.  A half kilometer in, the rain began to DUMP again.  After finding shelter, me in the rain trying again to flag down a deluxe taxi, we decided there was no choice but to run for it (we had about 45 minutes before our train left at this point).  Literally, run, in the dumping rain, through ankle deep puddles, with poncho shrouded motorbike drivers honking us down the whole way – 4 kilometers to the train station.  Flip flops and all, I slipped my way through the busy streets of Suzhou, caking my legs with mud (have you ever worn flip flops in the city while it’s raining?  It’s super disgusting – I learned this lesson on the rainy streets of Hanoi, Vietnam).  Though, I surely can’t complain, the Mister manned the stroller the whole way, a burden that may have just killed me.

I know this sounds incredibly whiny, the reality is that I was laughing the entire time.  Had we not walked/ran our way to the station, we could have missed this pagoda (which we sadly didn’t have the time to properly walk through).

AND, we wouldn’t have been able to walk across this bridge.

My legs ALSO wouldn’t have been COVERED in nasty-city-street-mud, but after a good shower back at our Shanghai hotel, they’re good as new.

ALL in ALL, we had a LOVELY Suzhou adventure.  Really.  Truly.  Honestly.  With the fact that our clothes were thoroughly drenched in sweat and then rinsed clean with rain, preventing a super smelly train ride home – it actually worked out quite well.