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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.



Crazy how the craziest (and at times, painful) travel adventures become the greatest treasures in the “chest of memories”.


No doubt this one will make it into the memory bank – partially because Denali now seems to have an irrational fear of rain and wind – PTSD perhaps? ;)

sharon kilwein

I am so impressed by your endurance as a family! Beautiful!

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