Thursday, October 25, 2007

One Night In Canton

So there I was, accomodated, showered, refreshed, and stuck in a strange town until 4pm the next day.

So, sticking to the tried and true Ben Shaw Method Of Finding Fun in a Strange City I went in search of Canadians. And found them, at the appropriately named Strange Brew. After a satisfactory attempt at a burger, a few fancy German beers (a welcome departure from China's Lager standard, and the horrendously overpriced suds of Hong Kong) and some light chat with an attractive Chinese barmaid, one of the owners showed up, announcing that they were closing early and heading off to a friends newly opened Irish Bar (some things every city needs, no matter where on the earth). I'd ingratiated myself sufficiently by this point to be invited along.

The rest of the evening was of the standard 'ex-pats congregating in a foreign city' binge drinking kind, with various odd Irishmen, loud Americans, shifty elderly British fellows and jovial Canadians (+ one road weary Kiwi).

At some point in the evening though, we collected westerners were given a stark reminder of the superiority of the local stock, with the entrance of a tall, incredibly well muscled Chinese guy. You could hear the beer-bellies being sucked in. He turned out to be extremely fluent in English, and quite proficient in French also (not to mention Mandarin and Cantonese of course). Every man in the room instantly loathed him, particularly because he was one of the most likeable people you could ever meet. He eventually made his apologies and joined the band on stage, cradling a saxophone in his huge arms (which he, of course, played superbly).


Note also that lustrous mane of hair.

A few too many pints of Kilkenny later, I managed to crawl into a taxi, and thence to bed. I woke up the next day, head pounding, and wallet considerably lighter, having spent most of the money that I'd scrimped by living cheaply in Hong Kong.

Such is life.

With 6 hours or so till my train left, I figured I had ample time to sample the touristy treats that Guangzhou had to offer. The first challenge was to find the metro station, which wasn't helped by my hotelier pointing out a place about 3 blocks north of where I was and saying "this hotel is here". With that navigational head-start, I walked out onto the main road, under the shadows of the ever present fly-overs, and tried to work my way out of the leather district (a great place if you like handbags and jackets, not so good if you're a tourist on a budget wanting to be anywhere but the leather district).

My wanderings were considerably hampered by the arrival of the daily rains (the word 'torrential' doesn't really do them justice) and I of course had neither umbrella or coat. The rain came in bursts, meaning that one moment I was sweltering in malarial heat, and the next I was shivering and huddling beneath inadequate shelter in a drab grey housing complex.


Guangzhou holds the dubious distinction of being founded by five goats (magical goat deities I'm sure) and after correcting for my hosts helpful advice, I found my way to a statue commemorating this.


A metro station was nearby, so I set off for the south part of the city, and Shamian Island. The island was originally a sand-bar in the river (the direct translation is 'sandy surface') and was conceeded to the US and British who built a bunch of warehouses on it and generally enlarged it into a sizeable haven of colonial splendour and whatnot. Nowadays its mostly famous for being the place to go to see wealthy American couples pushing Chinese infants down the bund in strollers as they await the outcome of adoption proceedings. The colonialism continues unabated, albeit in a modern form:


I was forced to shelter under the eaves of that very Starbucks for about an hour during another downpour until I realised, to my horror, that it had gone 3pm, and my train left at 4.

From the other side of the city.
And that I needed to stop at my hotel first to pick up my pack.

With the prospect of yet another night in a hotel that I couldn't afford, and an unrefundable train ticket, I set off at pace to the subway station. I bolted out of the train at the nearest stop and made a run for my hotel. I'm sure the sight of an absolutely sweat drenched laowai, sprinting madly down a crowded street in 38 degree heat, stopping only to suck from a water bottle and gasp for breath occasionally will live on in local legend for years to come.

I made it back to the hotel with about 15 minutes till departure, elbowing my way through a group of Indian businessmen attempting to negotiate their check-in in a language that neither they nor the hotelier were particularly proficient at (ie English). I managed to flag a taxi on the street, and bundled in, soaking wet and with blood pressure that was probably audible. He asked what time my train was leaving. I told him. He laughed. I asked if it was doable. He said something to me in Cantonese that I took to mean "There is absolutely no way in the 7 hells that you are going to make that train you big stupid foreigner".

At the front of the train station, 8 minutes till departure, I hit the usual queue for the metal detector (yeah I have no idea either) and was forced to fall back on 10 months of accumulated 'queuing' training to elbow my way to the front and through into the foyer. Swatting elderly women and children out of the way with my pack, I pushed through the crowd looking for a sign that might indicate where my train was leaving from. I eventually found the helpful student, who seemed sure that I'd already missed it. I asked him to humour me and show me the gate anyway, and with a bit more pack-bludgeoning, toe standing, and generally using my obnoxious western bulk to full advantage I found the platform, still blessedly inhabited by a train.

Exhausted, saturated with both sweat and rain, and at the fringes of sanity I made it to my berth, dumped my pack, and collapsed. The train pulled out moments later.

Take that skeptical Guangzhou taxi driver. Never underestimate the power of a highly stressed laowai with a heavy bag to swing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

From Hong Kong to Guangdong

this one's wordy.

As I sat in Starbucks at Kowloon Railway station, slurping a Red Bean Frappacino, I realised I’d be somewhat relieved to be leaving the fastidious and overpriced mallishness of Hong Kong behind and to be returning to the 'proper' China of 20c beer, cheap street food, and slightly less expensive touristy geegaws.

This relief lasted right up until I got off the train at Gaungzhou central station, and was pressed forward into the thronging masses and stifling temperatures.

My plan:

- Find the legendary ‘foreigners ticket counter’
- Purchase a ticket on to Nanning
- Catch a taxi to the North Railway station
- Board Nanning train
- Sleep blissfully until my arrival in Guangxi Province, rocked by the gentle swaying of train on rail.

China being China, this was of course hopelessly naïve.

The lack of bilingual signage, and general chaos the place ensured that my plan stumbled before I even ticket off the first bullet point. My attempts to garner directions from the locals resulted in fingers pointing to each of the cardinal points of the compass, and no real information being conveyed.

This meant resorting to the all-purpose, Foreigner Travelling In China Emergency Assistance Plan, or, “standing around looking bewildered until a friendly student who wants to practice his/her English approaches you”. Right on cue my assistance arrived, and after a brief discussion with one of the guards, he informed me that the foreigners ticket counter did not in fact exist, and that I would need to go to the North Train Station to buy my ticket directly. Before thanking him and heading out into the streets, I managed to find out that he had absolutely no idea where Nanning was and had never even HEARD of Vietnam.

Upon exiting the station, I realised that what I thought had been a sweaty claustrophobic box was in fact an air-conditioned haven of tranquillity compared to conditions out of doors.

Guangzhou (Canton to you colonial types) is a city of between 8.5 and 12 million people (depending on who you ask) and is a sprawling multi-lane flyover ying to Hong Kong’s pedestrian paradise yang. Dodging cars to get to a taxi rank I was made well aware of the fact that the average temperature in July ranges from 25-32 degrees Celsius, with about 270mm of rainfall.


I made it to a cab, managed to communicate my destination to the driver, then received a full blast of culture shock when he asked me to put on my seatbelt. In 11 months of living in China, I had rarely encountered a taxi that was equipped with seatbelts, let alone been asked to wear one. Crazy southerners.

So we wound our way through the drizzle and traffic to the North Train Station. I may have mentioned earlier that Lonely Planet describes this establishment along the lines of ‘teeming masses’ ‘confusing’ and ‘avoid at all costs’. It was all of this and more.

Lines snaked outside from the hot dark bowels of the ticketing office, and it took all of my gathered queue ramming and pack swinging skills to secure a place in line. 40 minutes later, sweaty, chafing from my pack, and driven near mad by the constant stares, elbows, smells and sounds of the thousands gathered around me, I made it to the front, and asked for a ticket to Nanning in my fumbling Mandarin.

“Mei You”

The words that every traveller in China will know. And dread. Turns out there were no tickets available until the following day. I bought one, then staggered back out into the sunlight, into a city where I had not planned to stay and which was described as having ‘very few options for budget travellers’.

Broadcasting my ‘what the hell am I going to do now’ face for all to see, I was soon approached by a hotel tout waving pamphlets in my face and yelling out sums of money that were about 4 times what I’d planned on paying for accommodation. To add to the fun, she spoke Cantonese, and I had a 2 year-old’s grasp of Mandarin. This is equivalent to learning a smattering of French and then finding yourself stranded in Italy for the night (with all the attendant, “we hate the French” in there as well.). Having stated a price that I was willing to pay, and being more or less understood, she set off a trot to visit various small hotels around the station. All of which were of course full (or unwilling to house a sweaty laowai who was just smart enough not to be ripped off). Darting across highways and under over passes, I was hard pressed to keep up, my pack suddenly feeling about ten times heavier and my head ten times lighter due to the moisture that was pouring out of me. Having exhausted the nearest options, she set off at a near run to a hotel a little further out. I have a suspicion that she had decided I was too much trouble and was trying to lose me at this point, but I pursued her with dogged dedication (or delirious determination. One of the two.)

Eventually, saturated, sore and stressed near breaking point, we reached the Huada College Business Hotel (No. 5 Building Guihua Road Guangzhou, entering from the gate of the Experimental Middle School of Guangzhou Univeristy. Tell them Ben sent you). Normally for international business exchangees, the fact that it was definitely not suit and tie weather meant it was almost empty. Before I could have the tricky ‘so how much do I owe you’ conversation with the tout, she was off (but not before complimenting me on keeping up) and I was soon checked into a nice (and quite reasonably priced room) with a double bed, satellite TV and, most important of all, a shower.

I showered, collapsed for a few hours, and woke up feeling something like a human being again. That taken care of (as pictured), I was left to wonder what one does with a night in Guangzhou…


Post Script: Today is Blog Action Day for the environment. In that spirit I'd like to suggest that anyone who thinks 'oh a bit of warming won't be so bad', 'cities would be better off with more and wider roads' and 'all economic development is good development' should spend half an hour running around Gaungzhou wearing a 12kg pack in mid-summer, breathing deep lungfuls of the fruits of industry and commerce. Its a good teaser of what we're heading for.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Lantau Layover

Okay, so the where and why of this particular day is pretty well covered here but basically I took a day journey out to Lantau Island (one of the 262 or so islands that make up the Special Administrative Zone of Hong Kong) and was given a rather prolonged lesson in "how Buddhist monks spend their pocket money" (or perhaps, to be fair, how the Hong Kong authorities exploit Buddhism for the tourist dollar).

And here it is (proving that with enough caveats anything can be the largest something): The World's Largest Outdoor Seated Bronze Buddha


and yes I paid hard currency for the privilige of slogging my way up all those stairs in the sweltering humidity, to take a walk around a glorified 'buy a buddha' gift shoppe.

The view from the top as proof:


Other attractions on the island (where I was captive for 4 hours or so, trying to retrieve my pack) were:

The World's Largest Wicker Chair Situated Beneath a Tattered Chinese Flag in Hong Kong


The World's Eeriest Derelict Building with Scarecrow on an Island In Hong Kong


The World's Most Poorly Conceived Tourist Attraction (not too many qualifiers on that one):


And the World's Most Sterile and Deserted Chinese Model Village (the folks in red are staff):


And finally the World's Most Thing that Ben Doesn't Know What The Purpose Of It Is On Lantau Island:


As noted earlier, there were also some pretty butterflies (which were extremely difficult to photograph)


And for those of you that read the original post, "Sun Killer" (which has yet to snuff out our gaseous benefactor) turned out to be foundation. But I used it anyway because the alternative was being barbecued.

Two posts in two days. Remarkable. We'll be in Vietnam shortly.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Hong Kong Phooey, Part Tooey, Redooey


Anywhooo, my continuing adventures on Hong Kong island.

Starting with the good points:

Hong Kong is cleeaaaan, there is no spitting, there is no smoking (in fact any behaviour deemed to be even mildly anti-social is punished with an instant 5000 $HK fine); they seem to have found a way to aircondition large outdoor areas and its probably the most pedestrian friendly place I've ever been. You can walk from one side of the island to another without having to cross a street by way of subways and overpasses (all airconditioned). The harbour is serviced by cheap (if slow) ferries, and apparently the bus and metro system is just peachy.

The bad point:

The entire place is basically one gigantic shopping mall. And whilst 'anything' can be purchased, sometimes its best to remain ignorant as to exactly what 'anything' means.

To wile away the days waiting for various visas to process (I was later sternly admonished by the owner of my hostel for not using her overnight service), my temporary travel buddy Will and I did Various Touristy Things™ including ascending the Viewing Tower On a Hill Thing™ (housing a branch of Madame Tussaude's, and designed so that as you ascend each floor, you have to walk through a slew of Touristy Crap Shops™).

The view from the top:


The view from the top again, slightly obscured by a sweaty guy:


The port, showing that unique Chinese flair for 'organisation'


Other Touristy Must-do's™ are the Hong Kong walk of fame, paying homage to various Taiwanese and Hong Kong movie stars that China likes to claim. I don't know exactly who this guy is, but I have a definite contender for the name of my firstborn:


In conclusion, Hong Kong loves pandas:


Does not love theoretical physicists with Lou Gehrig's disease:


And is nice to look at in a City Scapey Sort of Way™.


If anyone is actually still reading this, I'll have a post up about Buddhisty Tourist Traps™ tomorrow. Promise.

(And I'll let the Dumb TradeMark Gag™ die. )