Twenty four years ago I spent three weeks in China as a member of a Canadian trade delegation. We were wined and dined and everything was well organized by the Chinese government. This time was quite different. I crossed the border alone on foot from Macao to Zhuhai.
I needed to change dollars into yuan and to find the bus station to get to Guangzhou. The milling crowd was too busy to notice me, no one spoke English and I did not speak a word of Chinese. The perfect culture shock... For a moment I got that feeling of being lost and off balance which makes adventure so exciting. It was great but it wore off as I got my bearings and my money changed. I managed somehow to get on the right bus and my Chinese adventure was on...
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First thing I had to do upon arriving in Canton (the western name of this place), was to find a bed. I was lucky, for there was room at the Guangzhou Youth Hostel which is hard to beat at 10 US$ a night!
It is just next to the five star White Swan Hotel in Shamian Island where I went to rent an internet connected computer to receive and send e-mail. I managed to find access to the internet almost everywhere. When I could not connect through the friends that I had met on the web before coming, I searched for a cybercafe, I tried the local University or went to the biggest hotel in town.
Good cheap food, clean inexpensive accommodations and beautiful parks are powerful attractions for shoestring travellers. I'm showing this picture of my room in the Guangzhou Youth Hostel to demonstrate that shoestring travel is no hardship in China. Young or old, alone or in a group, anyone can do it and a lot do. It certainly beats watching TV or playing golf in Florida when you are retired.
With the lodgings problem behind me, I called James Mok, a computer expert I had met on the internet and began to explore my surroundings. Shamian Dajie, close to the hostel, is a park lined avenue of old colonial buildings bisecting Shamian Island where foreign traders were allowed to settle in the 18th century. The island must have been a hectic scene at that time. Now it has become an oasis of peace and quiet with the Pearl River on one side and busy, noisy Guangzhou on the other.
Guangzhou Park on Shamian Island's river front is a haven of tranquility where people stroll and come to play Mahjong. A good place for me to relax and study my Chinese phrase book. I found Chinese very hard to learn. No one understood me even when I carefully read a phase from my book because I could never get the tones right. It took a lot of practice with patient friends to acquire the most basic elements of the language.
The Chinese love their parks which provide relief from the overcrowded living conditions prevalent everywhere. All the cities I visited had beautiful parks, most of them with tree lined lakes and islands joined by decorative bridges. Parks play an important role in the social life of young and old everywhere in this country.
James Mok and several members of his family showed me around Yuexiu Park which features this sculpture of five rams that is the symbol of Guangzhou. It refers to a legend about five celestial beings riding through the air on rams to bring rice to the first settlers of the area. It is considered to be a sign that people would never suffer from famine here.
The restaurant is also a major focal point of social life in China. Here I am having dinner with web-mate Mok and his family in the first class Guangzhou Restaurant. Customs differ, in the West, tables are generally for two or four. Here they are seldom for less than eight and the center rotates so that everyone can share the several courses.
No one will dispute that the culinary arts feature highly in the Chinese culture but its predominant role is difficult to grasp by westerners. The importance granted to the taste buds can be illustrated by the price range of teas found in the average tea shop. It can go from the equivalent of one dollar to one hundred dollars a pound! The French love their fine wines but the average wine shop does not keep bottles worth one hundred times more than the least expensive one. Moreover, the snob value is nil because you don't see the label when you drink 100$ tea, as you do with fancy wine. Those who pay that much must really do so for the taste.
The Chinese literally eat everything that is not poisonous. And they get it fresh in markets like this one. Guangzhou's Qingping market has more vegetables than the English language has names for them. It also sells a broad variety of fish including eels, seafood including sea slug, several varieties of turtles, and some snakes.
The Chinese generally prefer pork to beef and duck to chicken, turkey is rare but they like goose and rabbit and relish all sorts of mammals westerners would not dream eating, even in the worst nightmare.
They eat dog as do the Koreans and relish cat as much as the French do horse. Monkey's brain is considered a delicacy but it is very expensive as are the more exotic rodents shown here. Of course, the average Chinese can not afford these sublime pleasures but some of them do and this busy market thrives.
I forgot what the Chinese name of this animal is but I remember being told there were excellent recipes for it. It looks like a raccoon. It was amusing to see a lady haggle at length to finally walk away grumbling and shaking her head about the price...
There can be no further doubt about the place held by the pleasures of the table when one considers the number and size of very expensive restaurants like this one in China. Food is an obsession in China, maybe it's because of famines in the past... It is available everywhere, from these big restaurants to push carts in the street, at prices from a king's ransom for a twelve course banquet to a quite filling fifty cent bowl of noodles.
There are many exclusive specialty eateries like this snake restaurant on Zhuji Lu. The Chinese have the right to boast about their taste for good food for they certainly are putting their money where their mouth is! I have made a point of showing several pictures related to food to convey my impression that the pleasures of eating are considered to be more important in China than anywhere else I have been. I generally ate in working class cafés and chose by pointing to what I saw being served to others without knowing what it was. It was always good and generally inexpensive. When I went to better restaurants, it was sublime! Getting fed well is no problem here.
Living in China like the Chinese do requires a little flexibility however to adapt to different ways of doing things like going to a public toilet that is really public such as this clean modern one on Enning Lu. The Chinese are gregarious, they like to crowd together and seem completely devoid of a need for privacy. They are naturally curious and I have experienced one coming over to examine if westerners were made the same way they were... It takes a little getting used to.
Guangzhou city has prospered through foreign trade which began with Indians and Romans as early as the second century AD. The Arabs traded here during the Tang dynasty (600 - 900), then came the Portuguese who opened shop in Macao in 1557 and finally the British in 1685. Guangzhou had a monopoly on foreign trade until the Opium wars in the mid 19th century. It then lost its predominance to Shanghai but regained it after the communist takeover thanks to its world fair and the proximity of Hong Kong. For the time being, Hong Kong holds the number one position since it has returned to China but it is bound to loose it to Shanghai since its suburb Pudong has been chosen to become the financial capital of the country in 1990.
Guangzhou city has generally prospered through the years but the overcrowded Guangdong province around it has often suffered famine. For this reason, the majority of the ancestors of the Chinese Diaspora all over the world came from here. Consequently, Chinese restaurants abroad generally serve a basic version of Cantonese cuisine.
My next stop after Guangzhou was lovely Yangshuo, only 400 kilometers away, which I finally reached after a 20 hour boat ride to Wuzhou and 9 hours of bus over a bumpy road. I took a third class berth on the boat to see how the average Chinese lived and travelled. The scenery was great and the sights such as these river fishermen pulling out their eel traps, interesting.
Steerage was crowded with people feeding and shelling peanuts on the floor but the passage was very cheap, only 50 yuan, a little over four dollars for 20 hours. The people around me were friendly and inquisitive as I was the only long nose on board. Unfortunately the language barrier limited our exchanges to a very basic level. It was an interesting experience.
I am finally nearing Yangshuo at the end of a 29 hour journey. I met four other travellers who got on the bus at Wuzhou, all of us going to the same place, the Yangshuo Youth Hostel.