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’.

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