A Travellerspoint blog

Guangdong (Jan 21-25)

Guangzhou, Humen, Zhaoqing & Dinghushan


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I'd booked a room next to Guangzhou's main train station to be well placed for trips out of town, but it proved a mistake at first sight. Ascending from the subway was like entering a Hollywood disaster movie. This is the main square mid-afternoon, two weeks before Chinese New Year.

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I'd started this trip in China so that I could leave before the annual holiday armageddon. As it was I was spared any actual threat to life and limb while navigating the Guangzhou region, though the seething crowds combined with the cold and pollution made for a straining visit. It was probably around this time I picked up the nose and chest infection that was to dog me for the next fortnight. Having just covered one half of the family tree in Fujian, however, I wasn't prepared to skip the land of my maternal ancestors.

The Pearl River is the artery that made Guangzhou great. Its waterfront may be less resplendent than Shanghai's Bund, but on the whole Guangzhou has more character, as an ancient city and the heart of a distinct current within the mighty stream of Chinese civilisation.

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A good place to start on the region's history is the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, a superb museum built over a two-millennia old royal tomb. The place is worth a visit just for its astounding jewellery collection, which includes some exquisite Persian work testifying to East-West links forged while the Roman Republic was young.

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The theme of Guangdong's cultural distinctiveness continues at the city museum in Yuexiu Park, a green oasis within a concrete jungle with the population density of Tokyo. In the park's centre stands a statue of the five celestial rams who descended corn-in-mouth to bless the region's early denizens. Guangzhou's equivalent of the legendary shewolf who suckled Rome's founders, they've been further immortalised in the discount subway card - yangchengtong (Goat City Pass).

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Guangzhou's metro stations are conveniently named after the city's tourist sites. Most enthralling is the Chen Clan Academy, an extravagant ancestral hall in the Lingnan style. Wandering the place is like entering a Chinese period drama, with the old society on display in its decadent twilight.

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Three stations on is Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, where the great man looks down sternly on today's feckless youth. The hall itself contains little on Dr. Sun, being lined instead with paeans to the building's architectural achievements and development propaganda.

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In Guangzhou, every meal can be dimsum if you want it to be. Among the city's most swank restaurants is Taotaoju, where you have to queue for the food instead of them wheeling it to you. You can eat like a mandarin for eight Australian dollars, if you don't mind the lady across the table picking her nose and examining the results.

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Another big name in the business is Daoheung, where the fried egg custard buns almost compensate for the 45-minute wait from arrival to food. With one phrase (dabao), tonight's dinner becomes tomorrow's breakfast for the skinflint backpacker.

Guangzhou at street level might as well be Hong Kong, with the blaring Cantopop, ubiquitous bakeries and vendors hawking porn and newspapers side by side. The shopping mecca here is
is Up-Down Nine street (Shangxiajiulu), which combines the charms of 19th-century fusion architecture and a pedestrian retail strip, complete with marble plaques certifying it as counterfeit-free.

While snapping photos on the street I was approached by two sweet 19-year olds asking me to buy them food, to which I replied they could have my dimsum takeaway while trying to keep both in my line of sight. They took about half a minute to either decide I was a complete moron or get the hint to move on and pickpocket someone else, proving the least persistent of the various con artists and parasites I attracted in 5 weeks travelling Asia.

Travails of the lone male backpacker

- Being approached by 'Flight Centre' agents in Suvarnabhumi airport, making unsolicited offers to sell me plane tickets - for cash only.
- Being thrown out of Guangzhou train station for inadvertantly queue-jumping.
- Being abused by a cop in the Guangzhou metro for sitting on a (vacant) police podium.
- Being told by touts outside Bangkok's grand palace that the palace is closed, and I should go with them to a jewellery shop.
- Being asked by taxi drivers across Indochina 'You want boom-boom girl?'
- Being followed for ten-minute stretches by drivers on the streets of Vietnam, trying to sell me a ride or a prostitute depending on the time of day.
- Having pimps befriending me every 10 metres at Bangkok's Patpong market.

Bustrips out of Guangzhou treat you to a Dickensian factoryscape of belching cooling towers, cluttered clearing yards and lifeless rivers, relieved by the occassional patch of casinos. Where Fujian looks like a work in progress, the Guangdong highwayside trumpets man's capacity to squeeze out nature, it being impossible to tell where the weather ends and the pollution begins.

Humen ('Tiger Gate') commands the entrance to the Pearl River estuary, and was the scene of bitter fighting during the First Opium War. The impressive Opium War museum walks you through a narrative of upright officials and heroic plebeians betrayed to foreign aggression by craven rulers. It can feel a tad overwrought, but you do leave with the impression that this was not the proudest moment in either Chinese or British history. As a footnote, one wing is given to exhibits on contemporary substance abuse, including portraits of soldiers and police martyred in China's new war on drugs.

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Just past the museum is Weiyuan fort, where tourbus fleets disgorge hordes of local tourists to clamber over batteries aimed at an opposite shore now shrouded in smog. Soaring from the haze is China's longest suspension bridge, beneath which slips an endless stream of barges bringing Guangdong's bounty to the world's consumers.

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This area is a long way from Humen city, but the tourbuses will let lone travellers hop on for two kuai. Next stop is the Huanghe district, where at Lin Zexu Park you can see the pits in which the confiscated opium burned, now an incongruously tranquil scene.

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Nearby sits Lin Zexu rehabilitated in stone, in front of another museum documenting British imperialism. As Huanghe has its own intercity bus station, there's no need to return to Humen for transport to Guangzhou - another case study in how Lonely Planet guides can't substitute for talking to locals.

By Day Three I'd tired of the trainstation hotel's intermittent hot water, snappy staff and permanent disaster zone outside the front door enough to move across town. Leafy Shamian is Guangzhou's counterpart to Gulangyu, a former concession zone turned tourist refuge. The island, whose bridges were once barred to keep out the locals, still hosts a number of active consulates. I was later told that the US consulate here is the nationwide processing center for American adoptees, which accounts for the number of white couples pushing round Chinese babies in strollers.

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The local IYH hostel was full of English teachers on their new year break, enroute for Hong Kong or Shenzhen. Among the notable characters were one 20-something Californian from backwoods Shaanxi who insisted on 'enlightening' his students about Taiwan, and a Colonel Sanders lookalike from Gansu who was drafted for the Korean War, dividing his later career between the Boston cod trawlers and professional activism. The hostel common room served as a foreign bubble for burned-out tourists, such as two young African-Americans complaining loudly about their visa problems: "man, I hate China!"

Foreigners in China rarely look happy; shellshocked is a more common expression. The pervasive pollution, interminable crowds, omnipresent noise and laissez-faire attitude to bodily functions make for a jarring tourist experience. With survival mandarin and heritage motivation I still often found China a chore to travel, but at least didn't feel the urge to shelter in any McDonalds within sight, unless I happened to need a quiet spot to make phone calls or notes for postfacto blog entries.


My next chilly dawn bustrip was to Zhaoqing, a middling city whose main claim to fame is Matteo Ricci being washed up here by the wave of the Counterreformation. I didn't see any monuments to the famous Jesuit, but did stumble across the Scholars' Palace, a sad little place where even the heritage designation sign exudes neglect. But the unrestored look does aid appreciation of its features, the main hall being constructed entirely from interlocking wooden beams.

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30 minutes' taxi-ride out of town is Dinghushan, a mountain reserve whose subtropical rainforest looks uncannily like that of Queensland. On weekdays the place is reasonably tranquil, even with randomly spaced loudspeakers blasting the park's virtues. The star attraction is Qingyunsi, a Buddhist monastery reached by a decent hike past waterfalls and calligraphy cut into the granite, or by park buggy if you're so inclined.

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Although an active monastery, Qingyunsi comes complete with vegetarian restaurant and tourist signage, pointing the way to such sites as a cooking pot that can feed a thousand people and a 323-year old camelia tree.

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At the tourist trail's end lies Heavenly Lake, an emerald teardrop now graced with billboards, a fleet of tourboats and a butterfly park. Down the road is Baoding park, which boasts a monstrous ding (bronze vessel) cast to signify China's march to 21st century prosperity, or something to that effect.

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On my last day in Guangzhou I planned to visit Foshan, but the clouds that had overcast this trip from the start finally broke, dumping sheets of icy water all along the coast. I spent the morning holed up in Starbucks with a 23-year old English teacher from Florida and her 16-year old student from Hubei, the latter heading home for Chinese New Year. Jenna and I would meet again in Siem Reap; in between she did the smart thing and went to Laos, while I took the train for freezing Hanoi to aggravate my infection.

First however I spent a pleasant hour at the riverfront 1920 Restaurant, chewing bratwurst and watching the world go by. Then it was on through the drifting rain to the Peasant Movement Institute, another forlorn relic buried in the rush to a moderately prosperous society. It makes it onto tourist maps mainly by virtue of Mao Zedong having taught here during the days of the First United Front.

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This little excursion required me to go back to Shamian for my luggage, and then catch the subway across town to the train station. Waiting for crowd control at the underpass I would have missed my train, but the youthful gatekeeper took pity on the worn huayi backpacker with a ticket for departure in 15 minutes, and let me through.

Posted by boy_fromOz 09:51 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Fujian (Jan 15-20)

Xiamen, Quanzhou & the Hakka hill country


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My first taste of China was scrumming with fellow passengers to board the plane at Suvarnabhumi International. Thailand has clearly been hit by the PRC tourist tsunami; I spotted one non-Chinese person on an Air Asia flight packed solid and armed with mandarin-speaking stewardesses.

We reached Xiamen after dark, roaring in at rooftop level over the docks where my great-grandfather (probably) boarded ship a hundred years ago. With its neon lighting, karaoke clubs and brand-name retail stores, the city by night could be any prosperous Asian metropolis. It evokes Hong Kong, down to the offshore island where foreigners can shelter as far from the Chinese as possible.

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On Gulangyu one wakes to the sound of piano music, at least before the 8:00am arrival of the local tour groups with their megaphone-wielding guides. Known for producing classical musicians, the island is studded with the architectural legacy of Xiamen's concession zone. At night the old consulates and gardens are garishly lit, giving the place a themepark feel. A wander through the still-inhabited old town restores some authenticity.

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By day Xiamen shows more character, with old houses, markets and even schools tucked away in the lanes that wind off the harbour promenade. Barring small details like the headmikes worn by street vendors, the scene might have been lifted from the treaty port days.

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The city's tourist trail includes a 19th-century fort enconscing the world's largest extant Krupp gun, and a university that's a concrete statement of China's faith in education.

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The next morning I braved the organised chaos of a Chinese bus station, being shouted to the right vehicle for the two hour haul to Quanzhou. All of Fujian appears under construction, which along the highways seems to consist mainly of two-storey houses with western motifs (balustrades, Corinthian columns, Florentine domes) thrown in at random. The remaining scraps of flat land are given to agri- or aquaculture, with stilthouses and fishfarms squeezed up against the city fringes.

Unlike Xiamen, Quanzhou gives a vibe of being in the halfway house of economic reform. Here I was introduced to a new level of Chinese comfort (squat toilets without doors). Motorbikes swarm the streets, completing my crash course in local road rules.

Road rules in China

- Road markings are strictly decorative (this includes zebra crossings).
- Traffic direction is a relative concept.
- Sidewalks double as motorbike lanes.
- Passengers can be picked up anywhere, e.g. in the middle of freeways.
- One does not 'give way', even to oncoming semitrailers.
- Horns substitute for everything.
- Size doesn't matter.

Quanzhou's attractions evoke the city's heyday as the world's leading port, a title conferred by Marco Polo. The maritime museum contains exquisite ship models and exhibits detailing Chinese nautical technologies, together with the length of time it took the West to copy them. There's also a collection of relics left by medieval expatriates, with Islamic, Hindu, Nestorian and even Catholic headstones on display. In the city centre stands one of China's oldest mosques, with no trace of local architectural influence.

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Nearby is an active temple to Guanyu. Quanzhou also boasts a Buddhist complex founded in the 7th century (Kaiyuansi), which at 7:00am was full of old people doing taichi or wandering round with no apparent purpose.

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Chongwu is an hour's bone-jarring busride from Quanzhou, inhaling the scents of the Chinese countryside (construction dust and cigarette smoke) all the way. The 16th-century fort is preserved in situ, save for being literally crammed to the walls with people. I took a hair-rising 6-minute motorbike ride through the winding alleys, ending up at the beach on the other side. On a rocky promontory stands a Mazu temple facing out to sea, as appropriate for the patron goddess of sailors.

The fort contains a mini-town, in which all the buildings seem to be constructed from stone. Exploring it on foot with my camera out attracted hordes of children, to whom I offered the added curiosity of an obvious tourist who looks like a local.

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Stone carving is the regional specialty, and the seafront below the fort is given to a statue park full of figures from Chinese history and myth. It includes what must be China's largest sculpture, a three-storey rendering of General Qi pondering how to smite the Japanese.

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China's wanton filth anywhere off the main streets is depressing, but hardly unique if you've travelled elsewhere in Asia. Likewise the ubiquitous hawking and spitting soon merges into the background noise. More oppressive is the air pollution and the endless numbers of people. One result of the latter is a service culture that gives short shrift to anyone, anytime: transactions are done fast and at high volume.

In consequence few people seemed to notice (or care about) the broken mandarin of the apparent local with bad dress sense, so long as I handed over the money. For foreigners, that's easier said than done.

Money in China

- ATMs with Visa or Cirrus/Maestro labels are rare. Those that have them don't always work (e.g. the machine allows a balance enquiry but no withdrawal).
- ATMs may run out of money, even during business hours.
- Banks are the only legal place to change foreign currency. Bring your passport, and don't bother on weekends.
- It once took me an hour to change money at the Bank of China (45 minutes waiting, 15 at the teller).
- Even upscale restaurants may not accept foreign credit cards.
- Everyone checks notes for forgeries. Fast-food outlets have scanners.

A good place to see customers being processed rather than served are China's specialty food restaurants, such as Xiamen's Huangzehe. They resemble dispensaries in a refugee camp, with patrons jostling ticket in hand for doleouts from sour-faced cooks. Dishes are small but rich, with Huangzehe's offerings packing in enough oil and spice to make any Southeast Asian gourmand queasy.

I began my fourth morning being bundled into an illegally-parked minivan, together with an Intrepid group of 3 Chinese guides, one Cuban-American and two 20-something lawyers from the UK. The winding road to Yongding lets you see Fujian at its poetic best: 'bashan yishui yifentian' (eight parts mountain, one part river, one part cultivation).

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Sprawling across the hills of southwest Fujian, Yongding county is famous for its tulou, earthern redoubts of the Hakka people that house entire clans. Many are round and all contain a central courtyard, hence the claim that US satellite analysts mistook them for missile silos.

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The location of choice is Hongkeng village, a national park created by cordoning off a whole community. It's as bucolic as one could wish, ruffled only by the occasional motorbike and piles of tourist merchandise at the entrance to every tulou worth visiting.

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One clanhead has converted his building into a charming guesthouse, where you can dine in 18th-century ambience before retreating to rooms with satellite TV. After days of rushing round on stumbling mandarin it was nice to kick back with the Intrepid group, talking US and British politics while freeloading on their cooking session.


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The next day our host agreed to drive me round the countryside for 250 yuan, including the trip to Yongding city to catch my train for Guangzhou. This whole region seems to have a near-exclusive Hakka population. Tulou are scattered throughout, all inhabited and most several centuries old, with one relic dating to 1308. The floors have been built up over the generations.

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In a couple of these places the louzhu (manor lord) treated me to tea and an exposition on their building's venerability, as well as the range of foreigners who pay money to see it (French and Israelis seem common).

Perhaps the most picturesque tulou cluster is Tianloukeng, perched on paved stone terraces cut into the hillside.

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Wandering the riverside town of Taxiacun, I was led to the local temple by a precocious 8 year old who flatteringly mistook my mandarin for that of a Thai tourist. She insisted on taking me back to her tulou, where her mother sat me down for tea and the usual conversation: I am indeed Chinese, I come from Australia, I'm travelling alone...

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I wanted to stay past sunset to see the riverside lanterns, but my host convinced me that the drive down an unlit single-lane mountain road wasn't worth it. It was dark before we reached Yongding city, and past 10 o'clock when I was waved by barking conductors off the freezing platform and onto my train carriage. The open sleeping compartment proved quite tolerable, if you don't mind food carts trundling down the corridor and people spitting in the corners.

Posted by boy_fromOz 11:00 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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