beggars and bird soup

Suzhou Travel Blog

 › entry 10 of 14 › view all entries

We're becoming fairly adept at train and subway travel so we decided to take the train from Shanghai to Suzhou instead of hiring a driver.  As we made our way through the Shanghai train station we found the waiting area for our train, and joined several hundred other people for the hour long wait until the 2:20PM departure.  At 2:00, people started to form a line by the turnstyles so we thought we'd do the same.  In typical Chinese fashion the lines quickly disolved into a mass of people and when they opened the gates it looked like the start of the Kentucky Derby.  Wheeling two suitcases didn't help matters but we got through, more due to inertia than anything else.  Our train car was the last one in line and was designated first class, which meant we got beverages, snacks, and a very wide, comfortable seat, all for the additional cost of about $1.  There are two other classes of train travel; soft seat and hard seat, which I assumed was fairly self explanitory. 

We arrived in less than an hour and exited the station to get in line for a taxi to our hotel.  The line had about 50 people in it and was flanked by beggars, who, even by Chinese standards looked shockingly pathetic.  There was a severely retarded guy, or at least one who was very good at acting that way, who was maybe 17, another kid about the same age who I assumed was blind because he was hanging on to a 5 foot long wood pole and being led around by another guy, a old man with long white hair and a long, white fu manchu mustache and beard, who was straight out of central casting, and finally at the end of the line where the taxis were was a very short, and very old woman, and I mean like hundreds of years old, and about 4 feet tall, who stood really, really close and looked up at you and mumbled while she shook her pan for a handout.  I was tempted to put something in her pan but had no doubt that if I did I would be promptly swarmed by all the others. 

When we got to the front of the line we told the local cop we wanted to go to the Renaissance Hotel and pointed to the name on our itinerary.  We immediately regretted not having had the concierge at our prior hotel write down the name and address of the Renaissance in Chinese on a card to hand to the Suzhou cab driver.  Apparently the cop got a charge out of our request because he called over two of his buddies who also burst out laughing.  Fine, go ahead and laugh at the stupid Americans.  He took our itinerary and started making his way back up the line to find someone who could interpret and found a young guy about 6 people up who told him where the hotel was. 

The entrance to the hotel had one of those big 3 door automatic revolving doors that slowly, but continually move as you wheel your luggage through.  For some reason my timing was off and as I wheeled my suitcase ahead of me I quickly realized I didn't have enough room to join it so I had no choice but to let it go.  It fell over and was swept along, all alone without me, as I got in the next door opening and followed it from behind.  It and I ended up back outside on the sidewalk.  I regrouped and as I attempted this seemingly simple process for the second time I noticed a group of people standing in the lobby smiling at me.  I laughed out loud at the absurdity of the whole thing and when I finally made it safely into the lobby the bell captain took the handle of my suitcase and smiled sympathetically, as if to say, here, let me help you with this suitcase you poor, stupid man.   

The Renaissance Hotel in Suzhou is brand new and is one of the most beautiful hotels we've stayed at so far.  The entry way to each room looks like a foyer to a luxury apartment and the room is to the left out of view from the foyer as you enter.  The bathrooms are amazing too.  That night we decided to eat in the hotel restaurant.  I ordered abalone, which I hadn't had in at least 20 years because it's been so over-harvested along the Pacific coast of California that it's not very available anymore, and something called a hairy crab.  I was told the female hairy crab was best but I'm not sure why that is.  Less hair maybe.  The abolone was just ok and if not for the sauce it would've had virtually no taste at all.  Considering it was $50, and was the size of three fingers, it was all the more disappointing.  Next I had bird's nest soup.  I saw on Discovery Channel that this particular kind of bird makes its nest in crevices high on the walls of caves and uses it's saliva to make the fibers that are then used to construct the nest.  Boys scale the walls and harvest these little nests for soup.  Poor birds, all that work for nothing.  This was another disappointing dish.  In a blind tasting I'd defy anyone to make the distinction between birds nest soup and Campbells Chicken Noodle.  I decided to pass on the shark fin soup because of how shark fins are taken.  The shark is caught, the dorsal fin is cut off and the shark is thrown back to suffer a long, agonizing death.  There were at least 15 different dishes that featured shark fin.  When the hairy crab arrived I had no idea how to eat it so I called over the waitress for help.  She dismantled the crab which was about the size of drink coaster with skinnly legs.  I'm not exagerating when I say that, at most, there was maybe a half teaspoon of crab meat and you had to work like hell to get to it.  It was a joke, and at $35 I felt like I was robbed once again.  The waitress came over when we were done eating and asked how everything was.  Well, I'm glad you asked, the hairy crab was a ridiculous dish and I didn't like it at all.  She said she's found it to be delicious so I asked her exactly which tiny part she found to be so.   She feigned not to understand English and walked away.  Alan and I couldn't help but to compare this meal to the one we had in Shanghai at The Grape.  The meal at The Grape was a fraction of the price and 10 times better, but I guess I can at least now say I've had bird's nest soup and hairy crab.   

Vanessa_Mun_Yee says:
Shark fin and bird nest soup are suppose to be good for your health ( according to the Chinese doctors ) and very expensive meal for the Chinese. Only the rich people can afford it. The Chinese are very proud if they can tell their friends they had shark fin soup and bird nest soup so that the poorer ones will be so jealous of them...
Posted on: Feb 29, 2008
merk says:
Love the luggage story. I'm sure you felt the donkey ears emerging...very funny
Posted on: Oct 24, 2007
laurenmerker says:
that is christine by the way
Posted on: Oct 17, 2007
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