Is it possible that the residents of Guangzhou will never again see blue sky or that the children might grow up and never view the horizon, or expect sunsets to be anything but the fiery orb that now burns through the layers of the smog? As I stared out the hotel window at the soccer field across the street, the onerous yellow haze of pollution obscured the grounds and it seemed as if a wildfire had just swept through the area.
So far, this was the smoggiest city I’ve ever been in, with many other people saying that Beijing is much worse. We were grateful for the occasional cleansing rainstorm that provided a respite of relief, and despite frequent use of eye drops, we found ourselves constantly blinking and clearing our throat. In two months, we’ll be in Beijing just prior to the Olympics, so it will be interesting to see if rumors of the pollution in this metropolis hold true.
After reluctantly leaving the fresh air of Yangshuo, we arrived in Guangzhou on an overnight sleeper bus, an uneventful trip that passed by quickly. Overnight sleeper buses are my least favorite means of transportation, with complete strangers laid end to end and stacked in two layers, with your personal space about the size of an REI mummy sleeping bag.
Unfortunately, each sleeping bed is sized for the tallest Asian, so if you’re longer than five feet, ten inches, your ankles will run out of room and you’ll end up lying flat in a crouched and uncomfortable position. Something I call horizontal fetal. The best I can expect is to doze off periodically while humming along to my U2 collection on the ipod. Just when you finally nod off, expect a pit stop where zombied passengers alight and absently wander around while considering whether or not to ingest the marginal food on display.
Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, has been an important trading port since 200 BC. Once trafficking in tea and opium, it’s now a mega industrial and manufacturing magnet, with an escalating population approaching 7 million. Skyscrapers are everywhere, with erector set cranes poking into the sky like a flock of mechanical storks. Western style consumer stores and malls are commonly found, and glassy high-rise buildings dot the horizon, all in a headlong rush towards modernization and 21st century commerce.
We were staying at the Westin Guangzhou for three nights, where we frugally cashed in hotel points for very luxurious accommodations. Conveniently located a block away from a brand new subway station, the two-line metro affords quick and easy access to the other sites in town. So what’s to do in Guangzhou?
A worthwhile outing is a visit to the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, a 2000-year-old gravesite discovered in 1983 by workers who were excavating a hillside for an apartment complex. Fortunately, this remarkable site was undiscovered and therefore not plundered, and today appears the same as it was when they buried the ancient king Zhao Mo.
Nowadays, the gravesite has been made into a fascinating museum, with artifacts from the site preserved and displayed, including the impressive burial suit, composed of thousands of jade tiles sewn together with silken threads. Other display cabinets feature gold jewelry, carved trinkets, and other relics found in the tomb, all neatly presented and explained. Also shown are the somewhat macabre bones of the unfortunate servants and virgins who were sacrificed at the gravesite to accompany the king on his journey to the other side. The actual burial site, with its dirt catacomb chambers locked behind thick wooden doors and supported by giant metal hinges (parts of which are still intact), have also been preserved, so you get an extraordinary impression of what the archeologists discovered and how it was meticulously dug out. Well done, and highly recommended.
We also took the Metro down to Shamian Island, a uniquely preserved tree-lined historical district set along the Pearl River. We spent the day wandering around, ducking into an occasional teashop, window shopping, watching the locals play checkers, and appreciating the fine historical buildings. This peaceful oasis contains many British and French colonial structures which were built in the 1850’s, with many converted into upscale restaurants, hotels and shops.
It was delightful to watch the young kids on recess parade around the square in ordered lines and circles to the accompaniment of a blaring soundtrack from one of the school windows. To the chorus of the boom box, the kids all shouted in unison and hopped around the yard, energetic and fresh, perhaps practicing their alphabet, or counting to ten? Waterfront cafes and outdoor beer gardens completed the scene, while on the paths that fronted the Pearl River, singers sang out their songs and locals practiced their dance moves to the accompaniment of impromptu amateur bands.
Just a few blocks inland from Shamian Island, the colorful shopping street of Xia Jiulu offers hours of entertainment as we wandered the pedestrian street and poked our heads into the stores offering discounted clothing. Nearby Haizhu Square also offers discounted merchandise, while close by, the densely packed Beijing Lu is crammed full with local merchants and shoppers eager to barter. Cheap, authentic food is available everywhere.
We spent another day at Yuexiu Park, a sizeable stretch of urban greenery in the center of Guangzhou, with wonderful gardens, shaded paths, lakes with boat rentals, and families out having fun. Within its grounds, you’ll find the popular "Five Rams Statue," a tribute to the eternal founders of the city, as well as the Guangzhou City Museum and the Guangzhou Art Gallery.
My wife is able to communicate with the locals despite her limited vocabulary, although she still hasn’t been able to acquire a pill splitter from a pharmacy despite heroic efforts. I thought that displaying a pill, then indicating a chopping motion with your hand, would be sufficient, but it isn’t. We haven’t had any problems getting around, although it helps that we’re not on any strict timetable, which allows time to figure out connections to our next destination.
The Chinese are an impatient lot and you need to be wary of their annoying habit of cutting into queues instead of waiting their turn in line. This can occur at a busy ticket counter, at the railway station, or at a taxi line. When you get off the train in a busy metro area, people hurry from the platform to stand in line for a taxi. Generally, the line is well behaved, with taxis arriving at the front of the line and picking up the next available group. However, inevitably, people cut in at the front of the line, rather than walking to the end. In America, this would cause pushing and shoving and a probable fight, but here, people shrug and accept it.
While you’re trying to purchase your ticket at the train station, don’t be surprised when people cut in, pushing money at the agent while demanding a ticket. I try to form a ring of protection around my wife when she’s standing at a counter, to out flank and block out anyone thinking of cutting in. Still, in China it’s acceptable behavior, so don’t get too upset, just smile and invoke the universal words of "sorry" or "excuse me."
Another thing we found curious are babies that don’t wear diapers. Instead, the baby pants are slit around the crotch from the front to the back, so that when they do have to go to the bathroom, mom, or dad just sets them down, spreads their legs, and lets them go. We suppose it’s better for the baby in that there’s less diaper rash, but the first time you see it, you have to wonder.
Overall, China is interesting, and people are very friendly, although English is not widely spoken or perhaps the Chinese are too shy to speak it. Fortunately, we had seven months of Asian travel under our belts before arriving here; otherwise, I think our frustration level would be high. China is the land of big cities and billions of people, but the transportation systems are wide spread, inexpensive, modern, and very easy to figure out, although it helps to have your destination written out in Chinese characters.
After our stay here in Guangzhou, it’s a two-hour express train to Hong Kong where we’ll spend a week. No, I would not add this city to our must see list of places, but if you have a decent place to stay at an affordable price, then certainly plan on a few days before continuing east to Hong Kong.
Visit the king’s mausoleum, wander around Shamian Island, poke around the busy shopping streets, and indulge in the many food offerings. Lonely Planet notes that Guangzhou is "quite special among China’s major urban centers" and that it takes "some time to grow on you." Perhaps this sprawling metropolis will grow on you too. Now, if they could just do something about that yellow sky.