5.45pm on a Friday. Shanghai train station is packed. Packed with people. Packed with luggage. And packed with enthusiasm. Friday evening, wknd is ahead. People are heading home. Lines form in front of the train gates long before the trains are announced.
5.55pm: People are allowed to pass through the gate and head down to the 6pm train, bound for Nanjing, with a stop in Suzhou. It’s a hot mess when people push and squeeze, and all kinds of polite manners go through the window. The one who pushes the most gets in first, and that’s all that matters on this Friday night.
6.30pm: Our train arrives at Suzhou’s new train station. The new station, huge, and almost intimidating, welcomes us with a bunch of hotel sales people, waiting at the arrivals, screaming for us to pick their joint for an overnight stay. We head straight to the taxi line.
6.40pm: We arrive at the taxi line. Some hundreds of people curiously observe us as we take our spot at the end of the long line. I had almost forgotten that in Suzhou we used to be aliens. The guy lining up behind us starts singing almost immediately as he puts down his bag.
7pm: still in the same line. The guy behind us is still singing, and his lack of hitting the notes is starting to annoy us. It’s hot, humid, and mosquitoes attack us from everywhere.
7.15pm: Finally in a taxi on our way to SIP. The taxi driver pretends he doesn’t know the address we give him. I specifically explain to him which roads to take. He keeps playing the “I don’t understand your laowai Chinese” for a while until he finally crumbles in silence, and starts driving in the same directions that I tell him.
8pm: After a quick stop at the hotel to dump our bags and freshen up, we arrive at our old fave Sichuan restaurant. It’s still as busy and buzzling as it was 3 years ago. In fact, it’s so popular that there’s a second edition of it, just across the street! Although we don’t know about that when we sit down.
8.15pm: our friends arrive, a bit late as they first went to the second addition across the street first, “asking the waiter if there are two blondes in there.”
Food is enjoyed until 9.15pm when we realize that the restaurant is almost empty, and a large number of staff is starting to gather around our table, looking something between anxious and excited. We ask for the bill and are told by a young guy to “wait for a bit.” Soon we understand why: it’s dinnertime for all the staff.
As we watch the staff fill their trays with rice and string beans, we quickly get bored and ask for the bill again. “Wait!” says the waiter again, apparently more concerned about getting his own meal, than collecting money for our feast.
Eventually we get up, leave some money on the table and leave. No one seems to care. The line to the string beans is too long.
We head to Jinji lake (which translates to “the golden chicken lake”) for a drink.
The scene at the bar is completely different to Shanghai downtown bars: there’s a table with three gorgeous looking Chinese girls, each of them with an untouched drink in front of them, carefully observing the crowd, before they get bored and move onto playing with their phones, not talking to each other.
Then there’s the loud laowai-table, and when I say loud, I mean loud. Before I am even seated I know that the guys at the table are called “Jim” and “Mike,” because every time one needs to say something, they choose to address each other in front of the whole bar.
Then there’s a couple’s table: old, western guy, young, gorgeous Chinese girl. They sip their drinks in silence, sometimes exchanging smiles. I am sure they are just enjoying one of those intimate, comfortable silences.
Then there are three middle-aged Chinese men, who look fairly harmless, if a little bit out of place. They arrive soon after us, and are immediately drawn to the table of three hot looking Chinese girls. However, when they ask if they can join the table, the three Chinese girls look up from their mobile phones, frown, and shake their heads.
We stay for some hours, enjoying some drinks and each other’s company. By the time we leave, the laowai table has started dancing, joined by Chinese girls dressed in animal printed pants and tops. The three hot Chinese girls have defrosted a bit, still not touching their drinks, but one of them has started talking to the Chinese middle-aged men, who looks like he’s won on the lottery.
We head back to our hotel and before I fall asleep I think to myself: “I used to live here. This used to be my scene.”
Funny how quickly you forget.