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12D11N F&E Suzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Shanghai Day 1

1st: S'pore Changi Airport Terminal 3 -> Shanghai Pudong International  Airport T2 -> Suzhou Pace Hotel -> Suzhou Railway Station 

After approx 4 months of planning ( we only booked the flight tickets in mid June 2017), we are off to go to China, specifically Jiangnan area. We choose not to follow with tour agent as we prefer to have the freedom over the time we spent at each destination as well as the choice of attractions to visit.

Of course, the planning stage is not easy. We faced with a couple of setbacks. Most of our transport are via their local public transport - MRT/bus. We took 3 railway trips too for those cross-states trips (e.g. Suzhou > Hangzhou, Hangzhou > Ningbo, Ningbo > Shanghai)

I will elaborate on the tips for the different purchases as we go along. But first, let me introduce you the essential apps that were handy for us when we go China.
essential apps for use in China
From Top left clockwise,
1. That's the app where we used to buy our train tickets from. We downloaded it from Google Play store. It seems to be an agent and not direct from 12306 (their official railway website), however as it is fuss free and we were able to get our ticket confirmation from 12306 via email after our purchase, we went ahead with it. Railway tickets were only opened 1 month prior to departure. When we purchased in Sep 17, we were not able to choose the seating arrangement. However we saw on China news that following Oct 17, they seem to allow users to choose their seating arrangement for D/G trains.
2. Ctrip App. This is downloaded from Ctrip website. Do not download the one from Google Play store as it only contains train, hotel, flight booking functions. Whereas the one from Ctrip website, we were able to access more functions e.g. hiring of car. We mainly use the Ctrip App for 包车/one way transport to/from airport or railway station. The pricing are a little on the high side but we like it for its reliability.
3. Tianqi Tong is a weather app. Based on China Forums, this seems to be pretty reliable and the interface is pretty too. This weather app gives you alert on the weather conditions and provide 14 days of weather forecast for the area you wish to know.
4. Dianping is widely used in China. Mainly for people to post review of the place or food that they had. It is not only limited in china, there are reviews for other countries like Singapore and Bangkok too. We rely on this for travellers review on the place so as to know what are the tourists traps there as well to look for food (reviews and cost) in china.
5. Amap is also known as 高德地图 (Gaode). This is extremely essential for our trip. As you may have read over the news, China is progressively being a tech savvy country. Payments are made on e-wallets like alipay and wechat pay. Even navigating, people tend to use GPS. When you ask passerby how to go to a place, they will just point you towards the gps map. We read from forums and through our conversation with our drivers, Gaode 高德地图 is well liked by the people there as it is more accurate. We personally find that its more user friendly and definitely more accurate than baidu map. Hence we recommend to download this app before departure to research on your routes (est timing and fare) as well as for usage when you are in China.
6. Didi is their popular taxi booking app. It works like grab and uber. However to hire private car, payment has to be made online (equivalent to grab pay) and not cash. For that, Didi requires a China registered bank card which most foreign travellers might not have. For booking of taxi, cash can be paid, however we did not try out this service on Didi. Generally for booking of taxi, we will call the local taxi booking hotline which is more convenient for us foreigners.
7. Mafengwo is a similar app to Ctrip. You are able to book your attraction tickets there. What we love about Mafengwo, is that travellers will post actively about their journey in the form of like a blog. And they are generally very informative, however they are all in chinese. The blog posts that we read from mafengwo help us in our planning, especially for Ningbo 雪窦山 which we visited on Day 7
8. Some other apps are like Wechat and VPN. Whatsapp and Facebook were completely banned during our visit there. We had to use VPN to go through the firewall. Wechat on the other hand is a messenger device which is commonly used in China. It is a great messenger tool for our communication with our drivers and airbnb hosts.

Now that I have given you a brief overview of the essential apps to have, let's start our 江南trip!
We are bound on SQ828 flight due for departure at 08:05 and estimated to reach Shanghai Pudong airport at 13:25. Note that there are no time difference between Singapore and china.

Early morning at Singapore Changi Airport T3 waiting for boarding time @ Gate A12
We boarded the Boeing 777-300ER at around 7.30am. The earliest boarding time was 7.05am as stated on our boarding pass, but of course that's for the privileged customers - First Class, business class, PPS members...

on board SQ 828
 There was a slight delay as traffic was busy. At around 8.15am, we were still queuing for our turn to fly!

waiting to fly
 We were eventually up in the skies at around 8.28am! Shanghai here we come ~

lovely view of our neighbouring countries? 
We were given hot towels to clean our hands, probably acting as disinfectant. Thereafter when seat belts signs were off, the air stewardess start to hand out the meal booklets to inform us of our breakfast!
SIA 70th anniversary special meal booklet

Our meal was served at around 9.50am.

Braised rice Vermicelli
Herb Omelette
 They were both yummy! It's thoughtful of them to have both western and asian selection. We were spoilt for choice!

fluffy clouds @ 12.15pm

Flying with SQ, we have free entertainment on board, and it looks like they just upgraded their entertainment system which is a good change!

Upgraded entertainment system onboard SQ 828
 The total flight duration is estimated to be 5 hours. We managed to catch 2 movies!
Flight information
 While we were approx 10mins to Shanghai, the sky gets cloudy :/
cloudy sky as we approach Shanghai
 As we touched down at around 1.15pm, we were affirmed of our guess. It was raining :/ Our trip started off with not so good weather :/
it rained at Shanghai :(
 There was long queue at the immigration counter for foreigners. Do note that travellers from Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong are considered as foreigners. We managed to disembark from the plane and clear custom by 2.20pm.

outside arrival hall
mini mart @ Shanghai Pudong
 Our first plan for the day was to reach Suzhou first. We will tour shanghai during the last leg of our trip since we will be catching the flight back to SG from Shanghai too.

There are many ways to travel to Suzhou from Shanghai, either via:
1. MRT/Maglev then transfer to railway train
2. Long distance bus (approx 3 hrs)
3. Hired Car

We chose the last option - hired car for its convenience. For the long distance coach, it departs directly from Shanghai Pudong airport, and stop at shanghai hongqiao airport to pick passengers and thereafter at suzhou industrial and lastly, it arrives at the end destination - Suzhou long distance bus station (adjacent to suzhou Railway station). We pick this as the backup plan in the event the driver fails to turn up. A one way ticket cost RMB 84 (SGD 17.14) per pax and it departs every 30-40 minutes. 

For the one way hired car with driver, we booked from Ctrip previously and paid RMB 550 (SGD 112.24). We chose this as we wanted to escape from traffic jams and since we have luggages with us, it would be more convenient for us to take a transport that can fetch us to our hotel directly. If we were to go with hired car, the car will enter the expressway directly from Shanghai airport all the way to suzhou. Hence escaping the city traffic jams and est to reach suzhou within 2 hours. However if we were to take the bus (it will head to shanghai hongqiao which is near central of Shanghai, there will be a problem getting back on to expressway without traffic jams).

Booking via ctrip was hassle free. We were informed of the driver details (car plate number and telephone number) within minutes from our booking. Thereafter we liase with him directly. There was a last minute change in our driver, however we were duly informed via sms so that was not an issue. This is one thing which we really like about Ctrip. Although prices were on the slightly high side, however we get reliability. For our final trip (from Shanghai hotel to Shanghai Pudong airport), the driver couldn't make it in the end and there were no available driver, Ctrip will source for drivers from other car companies and yet not compromising on the type of car we paid for. *Note: You can choose from 5 seater (Economy or premium) or 6 seater car etc at different rate. If in the event they found a driver from the other company which is of a lower rate that what you paid for, Ctrip will refund you the price. And please note, for cars booked via ctrip, all expressway, parking fee etc is covered. (i.e. driver should not be extorting extra money from you). For our case, we were kinda asked to pay an additional RMB 100 (SGD $21.27) for expressway. As it was our first 包车, we paid him as we can't afford to reach our hotel late. Later on after examining in detail our booking conditions, we realised that we should not have paid him as it was supposed to be included in the rate we paid ctrip. Later on, we lodged a complain via ctrip online messenger, and Ctrip has agreed to refund us the additional charge with a x1 compensation. Hence Ctrip refunded us RMB 200 in total. We are really appreciative of Ctrip efforts.

Okay back to the hired car we got via Ctrip. We managed to contact the driver via our china mobile phone and he came to the arrival hall to pick us up to the car park where his car was parked. We were so surprised by the car as it was really comfortable.

sky window fitting in the car

view of the outside through the side window
on 南浦大桥

industrial facility - looks like nuclear power plant

toll station
We reached our hotel - Suzhou Pace Hotel at close to 5pm. There was slight traffic jam as we approach the city area of suzhou but it cleared up pretty fast. The hotel's reception and driver helped to unload our luggage.

The Mercedes Benz E280 that drove us from Shanghai Pudong to Suzhou Pace Hotel on Day 1
 The rainy weather did not stop at Suzhou.
Wet weather at Suzhou on Day 1

Reception counter at Suzhou Pace Hotel
 We booked our hotel room via Agoda due to the relatively lower price than on ctrip, as well as the best price guarantee policy, which we managed to asked for refund when the price was lower subsequently.

We booked a standard triple room for 4 nights (Day 1 - Day 5, 11 Oct - 15 Oct 17) and the hotel was nice to give us a free upgrade to premium triple room for the first night. The main difference is in the size of the toilet.

Suzhou Pace Hotel staff is very attentive and they noticed that the weather is cold, and offered us 3 cups of warm water upon our arrival while we waited for our check in to process. Check in was quite hassle free too. We just have to provide the passport whose name we used to book via Agoda, and thereafter, we provide the passport of the other occupants in the room and made a refundable deposit of RMB 200 (SGD 40.80).

One of the staff then led us to our room at the 7th floor, which is also the highest floor for guests room. There are only a total of 8 floors in the hotel and level 8 is their administration room. Level 2 is dining hall for breakfast. This hotel provides free buffet breakfast from 6.50/7am every morning.

1 super single and 1 king bed
 As this hotel is pretty new (newly renovated in early 2017), everything was new and we thought that the bed was extremely comfy!

welcome to the big toilet!
With a bath tub too
 For travellers who love to spend long time in the toilet, the toilet here will definitely satisfy you. The only thing we thought can be improved for the toilet, is that it could perhaps have opaque doors and hence more than 1 person can use the toilet space at any one point of time. As currently, the showering and pee area are bordered up by transparent glass walls, which may make it awkward if more than 2 people used it at one point of time.

We did not spend too long time to settle in as we have 2 more missions on our plate - to buy our railway tickets and have our first dinner in china!

We left at around 5.45pm to take the MRT to suzhou Railway station. The nearest MRT from our hotel is 南门 station which is about 5-10 minutes walking distance. It is a straight route and the hotel is on the same side as the MRT exit which is really convenient! We made use of the MRT a couple of times during our stay in Suzhou.

Security kinda tighten up whereby during our trip at Suzhou, hangzhou, ningbo or shanghai, we have to undergo security scan at the MRT. We have to put bagpacks on the conveyor belt for scanning and for bottled water, we have to take a sip in front of the security officers to assure them that the drink is not some poisonous or dangerous substance in disguise. At the start, it was quite inconvenient for us, however subsequently we got use to it and we try to place bottles in one carrier so it's easier for us to drink when needed instead of opening up all our bags to retrieve the bottles.

Purchase of standard MRT ticket is relatively the same across all cities we visited this round. We bought them via automated machine. They accept insertion of coins or notes ($5/$10). They provide change, otherwise you can also go to the customer service to exchange for $1 coins.

MRT standard ticket
Our trip on the 轨道交通4号线(龙道浜 方向), for 5 stops cost RMB 2 (SGD $0.41) per pax. The Suzhou MRT website provide great information on the route and cost for the train trips. 
We rely alot on this website during our planning. Do note that you are only allowed to buy tickets for MRT departing at the station you are at and it is only valid for a limited number of hours. Hence its best to buy the train tickets only when you need it and at the departing MRT station.


There are toilets in the platform at MRT stations too!

MRT line 
 The train came at a frequency of 5-10mins. Be sure to take note of the direction it is travelling towards (e.g. 同里Or 龙道浜) For our train ride to Suzhou Railway, we are travelling in the direction of 龙道浜. We are taking line 4 which is a newly opened MRT line in Suzhou in May 2017. We highly recommend travellers to take the MRT to travel around Suzhou whenever possible as it is highly convenient and comfortable.

inside the train carriage

There will be a digital signboard to inform passengers of the next stop
 The ride took us about 10-15 minutes and we are here at Suzhou Railway. Do note that when you alight you may notice signs saying (苏州火车站-南门/北广场). It doesn't matter whether it is 南or 北。It is just the different entrance/exit of the same railway station. As such there are ticketing office at both sides and you can buy the same railway station tickets.

As there is another 苏州北火车站, to play safe, we decided to exchange for our tickets at the 南门 ticketing area. Note that we have already purchased our train tickets earlier via the 12306 app as mentioned in the earlier part of this post. We did that to ensure we get the timing we want as train ticket can run out of availability fast. Also, we wanted to ensure our seats are located next to each other, and do not want to end up with the situation where we have to sit separately due to the limited number of vacancies left in the train.


queuing at the ticketing counter
 We saw from online forum that Suzhou Railway station is opened 24 hours. However when we reach there, we see only very few counters were opened and the timing as indicated above the counter does not seem to be 24 hours. So we decide to purchase the tickets first before having dinner.

As we have purchased our tickets online, we just need to produce the booking confirmation email (which contains a booking reference number, passenger names, passport number and seat number).
We queued for awhile and it was our turn soon.

Our plan was to exchange for the tickets for our 3 railway rides (Suzhou > Hangzhou East, Hangzhou East > Ningbo, Ningbo > shanghai Hong qiao). Although they were different departure locations for the latter 2 rides, we have read earlier online that this is possible at a convenience fee of RMB 5 / pax. We read online of many 'horror' stories regarding the purchase of tickets at train stations. Such as people cutting queues, service staff going for toilet break and people have to re-queue at a new counter, counter staff are not flexible.

When it was our turn and we approached the counter staff to exchange for the 3 different trip tickets, he told us that he can only do for the Suzhou>Hangzhou East leg and insist for us to go to the respective train stations to exchange for the other tickets. It does not help that the other people behind us in the queue were getting impatient that we are holding up the queue. As for Mainland chinese, they just need to scan their ic but for us, the staff has to manually key our passport details and it definitely does not help that our passport details are in Engligh and they are not exactly very literate in English.

We left the queue after collecting the tickets for Suzhou> Hangzhou East train trip and was at a loss at how we can obtain the tickets for our other rides as we are running a pretty tight schedule and did not factor for time to go to the other railway stations to exchange.

We decided to try our luck at the refund counter where there was no queue and thankfully we met with a lady staff who seem to have some sort of authority within the counter staff and demanded the staff to help us process the tickets. Long story cut short, they did not collect the RMB 5/pax fee from us and we collected our train tickets for all 3 trips.

refund counter towards the end
Be sure to check the name and passport id reflected on the train ticket to your passport as all train rides are based on 实名制。

In total we took about half hour to exchange the tickets. We were pretty lucky that the queue is not that long. When we came out of the station, it was about 6.45pm and the sky was pitch dark as if it is 9pm in Singapore.

Suzhou Railway station
 The departure is on first storey, while arrival seem to be at basement.

scenary opposite Suzhou Railway station

Description of statue
 We then went over to the opposite of the railway station (near the bus 客运 interchange) for dinner at a small eatery. The food was okay but it was relatively pricey.

Ma Po Tofu

Tomato Egg

Chinese Yam Soup (山药汤)
 The food was on the 'sweeter' side, the sweetness was a little too overwhelming for us. We read online that it seems to be a culture that Suzhou food are relatively sweeter than other province.
We finished our dinner at around 7.45pm and the bill came up to around RMB 165 (SGD $33.67).

We walk back to Suzhou Railway station and as it was still early, we decide to wander to the ticketing counter at the 北广场.

ticketing office at suzhou railway - 北广场

ticketing office at suzhou railway - 北广场
The place seems newer and bigger than the ticketing office at 苏州火车站-南门. As there was still light drizzle, the weather was pretty cold, possibly around 18 degrees celsius.

Building in the background: 苏州北广场汽车客运站
Generally they coach and railway station and MRT station are connected at the same area (i.e. they are link in some way or another hence making travelling to either side convenient). This is the same for Hangzhou and Ningbo.

We left the railway station at about 8pm and took the train back to 南门 and walk back to Suzhou Pace Hotel. Though there was some setback at the start, but everything was resolved and we ended Day 1 on a happy note with our agenda of obtaining train tickets, accomplished.


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