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Guangzhou

Started: 2013-01-13 12:33:34

Submitted: 2013-01-13 21:13:01

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator visits the third-largest city in the People's Republic of China
And at the Buffeteria, well-fed customers were tucking into dishes called "Yes, Sir, Cheese My Baby," "Bacon your Pardon," "A Legitimate Beef" and "Ike and Tuna Turner."
Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu

Most western tourists, if planted in Hong Kong and in possession of a tourist visa to the People's Republic, will simply walk across the border into the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and wander around a bit before heading back to Hong Kong. I am not, as you may have noticed, most western tourists; I've spent the last two years or so studying China and its history and I wanted to see some piece of that history. That's why, armed with my brand new visa, I headed to Guangzhou (known historically as Canton), the third-largest city in the People's Republic of China and the site of many interesting things in Chinese history, from the Opium Wars to the early post-revolutionary governments after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

My alarm woke me up at 06:00, early on Saturday morning, so I could get to Hung Hom Station in Kowloon in time to catch the 08:15 through train to Guangzhou. The easiest (though not cheapest) way to get to the station was via taxi; I found a taxi waiting in the taxi stand in my hotel's ground-level garage and headed through one of the cross-harbor tunnels to the train station.

I picked up my tickets and waited at Starbucks overlooking the corner of the station concourse dedicated to through train departures. At the appropriate time I showed my ticket, then went through passport control to formally exit the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. I waited a while longer in another waiting room for the actual departure of the train, then took the escalator down to the train waiting at the platform. I found my seat, on the upper level of one of the double-decker carriages, and the train left promptly at 08:15.

I watched out the window as Hong Kong glided by, starting with the urbanized areas of Kowloon and the New Territories, then the near-wilderness areas closer to the border. We crossed the border into China without ceremony and I watched Shenzhen out the train window. Our train was reasonably fast but not quite as fast as the official high-speed train running from Shenzhen to Guangzhou; China has upgraded the line on its side of the border but Hong Kong is still working on an ambitious project to build a new high-speed line into Kowloon.

The train arrived in Guangzhou East roughly on schedule around 10:12. The train was populated mostly by ethnic Chinese, though I couldn't begin to guess where they held their passports. There were a couple of westerners on the train, including a pair of backpackers who spoke German. We shuffled towards immigration, past a health-screening checkpoint that estimated body temperature using infrared cameras, and I wondered briefly about my visa, but the immigration officer stamped my passport without a word and I was formally admitted to the People's Republic of China.

I did not have any of the people's currency in my wallet when I arrived, so I needed to find an ATM. This proved easier said than done; the one ATM I spotted on the main concourse of the train station refused to take either of the ATM cards I brought with me. I spent the better part of the next hour wandering the sprawling train station trying, and failing, to find another ATM; then wandering around on the streets outside trying to find an ATM that would actually take my card. (I probably should have paid more attention to the card networks supported by the ATMs, but I've never actually had a problem with that before so I didn't pay enough attention.) At length, just as I was wondering if I needed to exchange all of the US and Hong Kong dollars I happened to have in my wallet in order to get enough cash to look around Guangzhou for a day, I found an ATM in a building across the street from the train station that took my card and spit out a collection of 100 yuan notes, each with Chairman Mao's face gazing placidly out onto a China he wouldn't recognize.

My next challenge was to figure out the city's expansive metro system. I wanted to go to Whampoa, the site of the legendary military academy run by Chiang Kai-shek, which appeared to have a nearby metro stop on a recently-expanded line, but to get there I needed to purchase a single-journey ticket. The automated vending machines didn't take my large-denomination 100 yuan notes, and wouldn't take the ratty 5 yuan note I got in change for buying a bottle of green tea at a tiny convenience store in the train station, so I found a bakery and bought some baked goods as a snack and got the change I needed for the vending machine. (I could have talked to a human at the customer-service window but I wasn't sure they'd speak enough English to help me. I was also confused by the existence of the 5 jiǎo note (which turned out to be worth half a yuan, but I didn't know that yet).)

The vending machine spit out a small plastic token with an RFID chip that I tapped on the gate to enter the paid area of the station, then dropped into the slot to exit the station. There was enough English to figure out where I wanted to go, though I was a little confused by the bifurcated line 3 (my train terminated earlier than I expected it to terminate, forcing me to make a cross-platform transfer to another train). I ended up taking line 5 most of the way to its terminus to the Yuzhu station, which the network schematic in the subway car indicated would interchange with line 13 but a tiny footnote pasted on the bottom of the schematic warned that "lines 6 and 13 are under construction".

I emerged from the station onto a flat slab of concrete in the midst of a clearing, at least a hundred meters in every direction, on what looked like land that had been cleared to build the metro station and hadn't yet been redeveloped. A queue of men on motorbikes waited in front of the station soliciting riders in a sort of single-rider taxi service. My map suggested it was only a short distance to the ferry terminal that would take me to the site of the military academy, and I figured I could walk there, but this seemed faster. I hailed a driver and asked him to take me to Whampoa and he wasn't sure what I was asking for (probably because I used the English pronunciation based on an archaic Romanization; I should have said "Huangpu", though that refers to the whole district) until I pulled out my phone and showed him the place on Google Maps. He nodded; I climbed on the back of the motorbike and we took off.

(I was able to access Google Maps on my phone thanks to global data roaming on my phone. When I crossed the border from Hong Kong, I switched my phone from GSM back to CDMA so I could roam on the Chinese CDMA network on my Verizon plan. Voice calls would have been exorbitantly expensive, at US$2/minute, but I didn't need voice. I signed up for Verizon's US$25/100 meg global data roaming and ended up using six megabytes during my day in Guangzhou. I'd expected some service disruptions using my favorite social networks, Twitter and Google+, from behind the Great Firewall of China, but both -- along with Google Maps -- seemed to work fine all day long.)

We headed down an access road to a main road, then crossed the main road at what looked like a dubious crossing, while I clung somewhat precariously to the back of the bike. The motorbike itself made very little noise, so I took it to be some sort of battery-powered bike. We turned off the main road onto another feeder road that ended in front of a tiny building serving as the ferry terminal. The motorbike driver pointed to the ferry terminal and asked for five yuan; I paid and walked up to the ferry window to buy a ticket. The grizzled woman behind the counter didn't speak any English but handed me a slip of paper in exchange for five jiǎo. I joined other passengers in a queue and ate the pastries I'd bought at the train station for lunch but started to get nervous when I realized there were in fact two queues, and the other one was being serviced. I asked the guard standing between the queues which queue I ought to be in (using mostly Google Maps and a bit of pointing) and I was in the right place, but the guard indicated I needed a different ticket. I headed back to the ticket window and gave back the ticket I had for five jiǎo and eventually figured out the woman behind the counter wanted another yuan to give me a ticket for Whampoa. (It didn't help that I still didn't understand the distinction between yuan and jiǎo.) It was about at this moment where my predicament, being deep within a foreign country where I didn't speak any of the local language and the locals spoke very little if any English, threatened to overwhelm me. Hong Kong had been an easy crutch; its colonial legacy (and status as a first-class world city) meant I could do almost anything without speaking or reading a word of Chinese.

River traffic on the Pearl River in Huangpu
River traffic on the Pearl River in Huangpu

The other ferry came and went twice before my ferry arrived. I joined the assortment of other passengers and looked out onto the Pearl River. Immediately in front of me were several small ships docked at a pier, and behind them was a container dock with several small barges with cranes loading and unloading containers. Across the river were several military vessels that I took to be destroyers. My shutter finger itched at the sight of the People's Navy but I didn't think the locals would appreciate a laowai photographing their ships, even if they were sitting out in the open on the river. As we sailed up river and toward the tiny ferry pier on the island I spotted what looked like a half-dozen stealthed littoral combat vessels, built to cruise quickly on twin hulls within range of land.

Small boat on the Pearl River in Huangpu
Small boat on the Pearl River in Huangpu

We docked on the island and disembarked. I followed the crowd and ended up in a small museum dedicated to Sun Yat-sen, whom both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China revere as a founding father. The museum was built around the room he allegedly stayed in while visiting Whampoa, and the whole museum was signed in both Chinese and English.

Huangpu Customs building
Huangpu Customs building
Reconstruction of Sun Yat-sen's room at Whampoa
Reconstruction of Sun Yat-sen's room at Whampoa

I found the body of the Memorial Hall of Whampoa Military Academy Former Site, which was a reconstruction of the military academy on its original site. Most of the buildings were signed in both Chinese and English, but there was a portrait gallery signed only in Chinese where I was reduced to guessing the person's identity based on their birth and death dates. There was what looked like a fantastic gallery discussing Chiang's army's time in Burma during WWII that was also entirely in Chinese. In addition to actually visiting the historic site, I was interested in looking at the signage to see what they chose to highlight and what they chose to downplay. The mentioned Chiang Kai-shek only once but played up contributions by Sun Yat-sen and the Chinese Communist Party leaders who were active at the academy.

Reconstructed main gate at Whampoa
Reconstructed main gate at Whampoa
Pond between buildings at Whampoa
Pond between buildings at Whampoa
Reconstruction of the political department at Whampoa
Reconstruction of the political department at Whampoa

I left the site satisfied with my appointment with history and took a quick look at the giant statue of Sun Yat-sen on a large plinth before heading back to the ferry pier to head back across the river. I waited some time for the ferry to return, including a sudden rain storm (for which I was glad I'd brought my rain coat; it had been mostly-overcast all day long). As I was waiting I noticed a toddler walking around in open-crotch pants that gave him the freedom to eliminate whenever the need arose. I'd heard of such thing but never actually seen it in person, and tried not to gape openly. The ferry arrived and I joined my fellow passengers on the passage across the river, then caught another electric motorbike for the short ride back to the metro station.

Monument to Sun Yat-sen at Whampoa
Monument to Sun Yat-sen at Whampoa
Ferry crossing the Pearl River
Ferry crossing the Pearl River

By this point it was late afternoon; my first and only stop so far had taken up most of the day. My next objective was the large Temple of Bright, Filial and Piety (Guangxiao Temple), where, my guidebook tells me, the founder of Zen Buddhism came to teach. I arrived at the temple close to 17:00, which my guidebook listed as its closing time, but it was open and I saw a large group of observers repeating a monk's chants inside the main prayer hall. (I also saw a number of cats wandering around -- white, orange and spotted -- and wondered if they could catch mice.)

Main prayer hall at Guangxiao Temple
Main prayer hall at Guangxiao Temple
Icons at Guangxiao Temple
Icons at Guangxiao Temple

I headed east in the general direction of the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees, wandering through narrow streets and alleys and around blocks of six-story-high apartment buildings, and found the main gate being closed to visitors at the end of the day. I peeked inside but didn't see much, then wandered back in the direction of the main road. I saw a bunch of shops adjacent to the temple selling various idols and trinkets (mostly Buddhist, some Taoist; but I did see a few icons of Mao) and looked through a few of them in search of something interesting. I passed up the idols but bought a neat clay teapot in a little tea shop.

Clay teapot from China
Clay teapot from China

Night fell as I was shopping, and I had enough time to eat supper before heading back to the train station for my train back to Hong Kong. My guidebook (the tiny chapter on Guangzhou at the end of my Lonely Planet Hong Kong guidebook) listed People's Cafe; I headed back to the main street and walked through the crowds of people and past tiny shops selling mostly electronics to find the nearest metro stop. I took the metro to Martyr's Park and walked past the giant Guangzhou Uprising Monument in the misting rain. The park was an island of dark in the well-lit city. The monument itself was a massive obelisk of a soldier's hand holding a rifle into the sky -- as the chairman said, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

I found the cafe (with its glossy menu printed in both Chinese and English) and ate supper before heading out into the metro one last time to head back to the train station. I regretted having to leave so quickly; my time was up just as I was getting the hang of the city, though I'd need to know a lot more Chinese to thrive on the ground, even as a tourist. Compared to Hong Kong, Guangzhou was dirtier and bigger and far more Chinese, and I understood far less of what was going on around me -- and for that reason it simply felt more interesting to me. I could live in Hong Kong without knowing a word of Chinese and forget that I was even in East Asia. Guangzhou would have a much steeper learning curve -- and because of that, I'd learn much more, and probably be better for it.

I formally bid the People's Republic of China farewell as the immigration officer stamped my passport in the departure hall, then waited to board the train for the two-hour journey back to Hong Kong. I spotted Shenzhen out the train window, then border guards holding the gate open so the train could pass, and then I was back in Hong Kong. I switched my phone back to GSM to use my Hong Kong SIM as we continued south through the SAR. Hong Kong immigration stamped my passport to readmit me to the SAR and I caught a cross-harbor taxi to take me back to my hotel. I returned at 23:00, sixteen hours after I left, just as North America was coming online Saturday morning, and went to bed, happy to have visited the People's Republic at last, and beaten everyone else in my immediate family.

For Kiesa's account of our eighth day in Hong Kong, see The Eighth Day. For more of the pictures I took in Guangzhou, see Photos on 2012-12-29.
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