On the Other Side (Part 2)

So, any chance of us getting out of Guangzhou gone, we forced our way back through wave after wave of would-be holiday makers and into the city once again. Looking at the first few photographs, you can see again how different this Guangzhou was to the one I had expected. Serene and leafy, with old men punting down green streams. The stately houses in the pictures belonged to the embryonic Communist Party in the 1920s (you could look in on the bedroom of one Mao Zedong). We then went temple hunting, and tried miserably to throw coins into openings on a tower, and beat more streets. Because we had woken up so early, by lunchtime we needed a breather and I decided to go back and give the hotel pool a try.

A bad idea really, in the end, as I had been there five minutes before I slipped on the poolside and landed elbow-first. No running, I wasn’t drunk (heaven forbid), I just slipped… I heard a crack, but spent two hours in denial rubbing an ice-cold Chinese remedy on it. Eventually, when I could neither bend nor straighten my arm, I admitted that I might have to go to hospital. The hotel were very obliging – to the point where they called an ambulance and I was wheeled (even though it was my arm…) into an ambulance and whisked through downtown Guangzhou, very embarrassingly, with all sirens blaring.

Credit where it’s due – I was out of the hospital two hours later with a diagnosed and plastered-up fractured elbow. Would you get that sort of treatment in the UK, especially on a bank holiday weekend? I did have to pay for treatment, but at 500 yuan (around £50) I could cope. The NHS may be stretched to breaking point; but at least it’s free for all to use – lest we forget. For some people, the thought of being in a hospital in a foreign land is a nightmare but, in my thankfully limited experience (Thailand and now China), it’s been fine. There were a couple of dusty corners, if I was being picky, and a couple of doctors could have had better English (I wrongly assumed that all doctors could speak English…), but apart from that I’m no worse for wear.

I think the hotel feared me taking legal action. I had every right to – there were no wet floor signs and, frankly, a swimming pool is one of the last places anyone would expect a wet floor! But they placated me with a bowl of fresh fruit and unlimited room service for the night. I had to wear a scratchy, chafing bandage as a sling (see photos) and, try as I might, I had to wait until we got back to HK before buying a snazzy, padded blue sling.

The next day the throbbing had died down and we had one day left in Guangzhou. It was the 1st of October: China’s National Day. Planning a relaxing afternoon in the park, again we arrived to find that the entire population of south-eastern China had given up trying to catch a bus and had gone to the park for a picnic. Most memorably, vendors everywhere were selling mini-Chinese flags and families all over the place  were getting into the patriotic spirit and waving them around. Mind you, perhaps there were government agents sneaking around making sure people were buying the flags and were having a good time, but I didn’t notice any. For lunch, I’m sad to say, I tried crocodile – which sounds like an incredibly endangered species (see photos). But, if I didn’t eat it somebody else would. That’s my approach to dining in the Far East.

Finally, that evening as we prepared to get the train back to Hong Kong, we finally found the Guangzhou we had expected to see: skyscrapers, highways, pollution and construction. It all seems to be concentrated in the east of the city (we stayed in the west) and, since we arrived at sunset, it actually looked quite pretty – as you can see in the pictures. Strolling around a designer shopping mall, with proper Armani and stuff; not the ‘crocks’ and the ‘dunn-hille’ that was on offer around our hotel, I realised that this city had such a huge contrast between old and new, rich and poor. It was possibly the biggest contrast I’ve experienced in a city; and it probably applies to the country as a whole. Hong Kong, of course, has some very rich and some very poor residents but the gap just doesn’t, somehow, seems as wide. I really want to see more of this country but, for now, we had to return to the other side.

On the Other Side (Part 1)

Last weekend, I took advantage of the ‘Golden Week’ holiday and made my first tentative step over the border and into China. Ask me why last week was ‘Golden Week’ and I’d admit I don’t really know. I do know that it involved eating ‘moon cake’ – a bit of an ordeal, as this so-called ‘cake’ is filled with lotus paste and salted egg yolk. All Asian deserts are like that – as nice as they look there’s always a bean paste, or an egg, lurking inside…

Anyway, I describe my steps as tentative, as we only went to Guangzhou (AKA as Canton, in the days of Empire) – a two-hour train journey from the centre of Hong Kong. It’s the country’s 3rd biggest city, after Shanghai and Beijing, and lies a hundred kilometres further up the Pearl River. But it was China nonetheless, and I was expecting something… Good or bad I wasn’t sure, just something.

Just to clarify: Hong Kong is China, or at least a Special Administrative Region of the country, and has been since 1997 when Britain’s lease ran out. But, due to a combination of factors such as its colonial history, its semi-democratic government, the social freedoms and the cosmopolitan make-up of the city/region, Hong Kong is a very different place. It is a China starter-kit: a white wine spritzer or a lager shandy – drank to get a taste for something stronger. Mainland China is a tequila slammer: memorable, but not up everyone’s street. As an aside (I think this is interesting, at least): the UK didn’t actually have to return the city of Hong Kong in 1997, just the New Territories. But because these New Territories, by the mid twentieth century, contained reservoirs and housing estates and suchlike that were central to HK’s well-being, the British government decided to give it all back. Terribly gracious of us.

I was shocked at my first impressions of Guangzhou , as the area around our hotel was filled with winding lanes, tree covered streets and crumbling traditional houses (see the first bunch of photos). Where were the smoggy factories and the bleak tower blocks I had expected? Particularly nice was Shamian island, which used to be the only place in the city which allowed foreign traders (so the blighters could be easily contained). The buildings had a very strong European influence.

One thing that I did expect to see, and was proven correct, was much more poverty. I don’t know if Guangzhou has poorer people than Hong Kong, but they’re definitely more visible. Visiting a famous temple, the approach was lined with beggars in a variety of miserable states: limbless, blind and worse. As one of few Westerners around the temple I got a bit more attention than others, and it wasn’t very comfortable.

On our second day we planned to take a trip to Qingyuan,  an hour away from Guangzhou, for a river cruise. But, we arrived at the bus station (at 7.30 am!!) and were confronted with a swaying scrum of people: pushing, shouting, jostling, arguing and not following any apparent queuing system. They were all waiting for buses, or desperately trying to get bus tickets, to visit families and friends for the holiday. But there were no tickets left. China is the world’s most populous country, of course, and at least half of them were in Guangzhou bus station that morning. My advice: don’t travel in China during ‘Golden Week’.