When I posted my previous blog about Shanghai the Chinese premier Xi Jinping was in the middle of a visit to the USA. With this, my second instalment of blogs about China, he has recently just left the shores of the UK. During his visit he enjoyed banquets at Buckingham Palace, red carpet treatment at Downing Street and even managed a selfie with the British Prime Minister and Manchester City footballer Sergio Agüero. Although two months ago China devalued its currency and there has been a slowing of the Chinese economy it was still seen as key by the British government to ensure that Mr. Jinping had a fruitful time and that ties (especially economic ones) are consolidated.
I was in China when the yuan renminbi was devalued back in August and although it made huge global headlines there seemed to be no great panic on the ground. This was to be expected, of course, because the country is still growing and perhaps nowhere more so than in Suzhou, the second city of my visit. The administrative area of the city has a population of over ten million and it must be one of the largest cities in the world that doesn’t have an airport. It is part of the massive Shanghai sprawl and is only forty kilometres from the city of Wuxi so these two cities act as Suzhou’s aviation gateway. Shanghai proper is 100 kilometres away which may sound like a long way but in China long distances are often a breeze. With over 60% of the world’s high speed railway network in China the train journey from Shanghai takes a mere 23 minutes.
Suzhou is one of China’s major electronic industry centres and to the east of the city the Suzhou Industrial Park is growing apace. This designated economic area is where most international companies operate and, hence, where the hub of expatriate life is concentrated. As well as being home to the largest pair of trousers in the world (the 302 metre tall Gate to the East skyscraper), the industrial zone will also be host to the second tallest building in the world, which, when it is finished, will reach a colossal three quarters of a kilometre into the sky. The historic centre of Suzhou is famous for its captivating and tranquil classical gardens but even out west in the industrial zone there is a pleasant atmosphere, particularly along the pathways which line the Jinji Lake. The smog levels seem far less and the general pace of life somewhat more relaxed than in China’s downtown city areas.
The Shanghai sprawl is home to almost 100 million people and stretches all the way from the East China Sea coast, following the mighty Yangtze River, past Suzhou and Wuxi and inland towards Nanjing, my next destination. Nanjing is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China and around the turn of the 15th century it was the most populated city in the world. An important inland port, it is one of China’s key education centres, as well as being a business and industrial hub for the Jiangsu Province.
It’s quite a modern city and is home to one of the most luxurious shopping malls I came across during my time in China – the Deji Plaza. There was one aspect of Nanjing life, however, that seemed to be rooted in the 1980s still – the piped music in the supermarkets. In at least two different shops I found myself singing along to the classic 1987 Glen Medeiros hit ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You’. Many readers will not have a clue what this one hit wonder is but those that do know, know that it was a high point of the decade! Something else which harked back to the 1980s were the ring pulls on cans of soft drink – you know, the one’s that come all the way off?! Well, I had a good time reminiscing about them!
Back in the 21st century I jumped again on to the high speed rail network and covered the 250 km from Nanjing to Hangzhou in a little over an hour and a half. Hangzhou is one of China’s fastest growing and wealthiest second tier cities and is situated 170 kilometres south west of Shanghai on the banks of the Qiantang River. Although it is the ninth most populated city in China with almost nine million people I have to say that I found it fairly low-key compared with other cities I visited. Perhaps this is because there is no real concentrated centre as such, or maybe I was too distracted by the picturesque UNESCO World Heritage site of West Lake. In fact Marco Polo declared the city “the finest and most splendid city in the world”, although that was some 800 years ago and things have changed quite a bit since then! These days the city is known for its more progressive environmental endeavours and has become a hub for the advanced technology industries and is still an important manufacturing centre.
I mentioned above that the city of Suzhou doesn’t have its own airport. Well, as a leaving point can you name the five countries in the world which don’t have an airport? I know you’ll be thinking long and hard about it so I’ll put you out of your misery in my next post where I pick up on the Chinese data collection trail in the city of Fuzhou.