I got to know Guangzhou up close and personal today. It’s a hard place. It’s hard in that it’s difficult to do things here, and it’s also a bit cold and unfriendly. Sure, there might be palm trees and other tropical flora about, but you’d have to really be optimistic to say this is a nice place.

Guangzhou’s population exists for one reason: to make money. This region of China was the first to “open up” to the west after the Communist revolution, and thus has developed the strongest commercial culture in the country. There are more factories per square kilometre here than there are anywhere else in the entire world. Guangzhou is the dusty guts of the country, digesting millions of tons of raw materials and expelling them as cheap goods for the rest of the world. I got a taste of this today as I went on an errand to buy train tickets for Guilin.

I’d no sooner arrived in Guangzhou than I decided that I wanted to get the hell out of it. I did have a delicious meal last night, along with some fascinating tea, made from various dried flowers and fruits:

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Aside from that, though, I don’t really like this city, and don’t feel good about being here for longer than I need to. There’s not a lot near here that is different from Guangzhou, so I planned a trip to Guilin and Yangshuo, which are towns along the Li river. These places are famous for their spectacular river and mountain scenery. I need to take an overnight sleeper train to get there, so I’d have to go buy a ticket. In Huang Shan, I got the hostel owner to book my tickets for me, but here, I’d have to do it myself.

I headed into the subway system to get to the main train station. The subway is fast and modern, but it has some quirks. For instance, some of the station names in English don’t match what’s written on the maps, or what’s announced on the loudspeaker inside the train as you approach the station. It’s usually an issue of the name being translated to English in one place, and left in Pinyin (transliteration) in others. Some of the stations are being renamed too, which complicated things further. It wasn’t a big deal though, as there were never two misnamed stations in a row. I made it to the railway station without incident.

The railway station in Guangzhou is very intimidating. First of all, it’s massive. It’s also dirty, and unimaginably crowded. It’s estimated that 100,000 people use this station daily. The incessant flow of people in and out of the station is carefully monitored by hundreds of uniformed security guards and police, who regularly stop and search people. Before I went to the ticket counter, I needed to find an ATM to get some more cash. This was easier said than done. I thought that there must be numerous ATMs at the train station, because, well, it was a train station. This wasn’t the case, though. There are a few nearby, but they are not the international kind, or they were broken, or they had just been installed and hadn’t been plugged in yet. I went out for a walk around the station’s neighbourhood to seek out a machine.

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What I intended to be a quick five minute trip turned out to be several hours of grueling searching. I wandered down several of Guangzhou’s perilous streets, scuttling along with other pedestrians, clinging to construction barriers because there were no sidewalks. I eventually found myself in the midst of an immense leather goods market. Dozens and dozens  of stores selling leather and leather-based products crowded against each other. Men pulled carts laden with massive cartons of goods down the street. Giant sacks of even more products were stacked as high as my head, forming walls in the street. People were shouting, jostling, negotiating. It was overwhelming. I didn’t even take any photos of this, because the overall atmosphere was so aggressive that I thought this might be a good place to get stabbed or assaulted, just for lifting a camera. People in this area looked just beaten down and worn out. The ones who weren’t yelling into cell phones or at each other had their heads down on dirty glass counters or dusty wooden tables, sleeping.

After escaping from leather hell, I found myself in an underground clothing and accessories wholesale market. Bright orange hallways lit with fluorescent light stretched for blocks underneath the city, radiating like arms from a central hub, with hundreds of stores organized by content: men’s casual clothing, dresses and suits, women’s accessories, children’s clothing, etc. These were the outlets for the thousands of textile and clothing factories in the region. Signs were posted in English, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Arabic and French.  I wish I could show you this place, because it was truly astonishing. But here, there were actual warnings not to take photographs. There were two ATMs located in the basement, but one refused to take my card, and the other was out of cash.

Leaving that underground mall, I finally saw a bank across the street. Crossing to it was harrowing. There is a clear absence of  traffic laws in Guangzhou. Or, if they have traffic laws, people seem obligated to ignore them. I felt like I was in a game of Frogger, trying to follow other pedestrians as we skipped and dodged our way across the street, with four lanes of heavy traffic criss-crossing each other simultaneously, honking, weaving, gunning their engines, and accelerating towards you if you dared to step in front of them.

Not surprisingly, there was a lineup at the bank. It was moving extremely slowly. Maybe because no one has ever seen a functional ATM here in this town, people had a hard time using it. At least three of the people in front of me in line left the machine looking confused, and without any money. Fortunately for me, I was able to get cash without incident.

Ironically, the ATM was only a block away from the railway station. I’d just chosen the wrong direction to walk when I went out looking for it. I made my way over to the far end of the station where the ticket counters were, and got in line. Fortunately, I got a ticket agent who could speak a little English, although she called in for reinforcements when she had trouble understanding me. I bought a soft-sleeper outbound ticket for about 350 Yuan. This is the same class of travel that I had for my trip from Huang Shan to Shanghai. Unfortunately, the soft-sleepers were sold out for my inbound trip, so I had to settle for hard-sleeper for about 200 Yuan, which means there is no enclosed cabin, just a bunk on the side of the car, with an open corridor in between. Something tells me I won’t be sleeping much on that 13-hour trip back to Guangzhou.

After getting the tickets, I started heading back to the place where I’m staying. Along the way, I ran into the registration area for the massive Canton Fair and also the Fabric and Textiles Trade Show that’s running here. This annual event brings thousands of traders to Guangzhou to see the new products that are being produced here. I was lucky to find David’s place to stay, because the hotels sometimes double and triple their rates during this two weeks. The most interesting part of the trade show to me was the massive crowd of translators, all vying for the attention of trade show attendees. They looked like fanatic groupies trying to reach their favorite rock stars.


My experience with Guangzhou to this point had been exhausting. I finally made it back to my room at David’s and spent some time booking my hostel and additional required travel online. Then I headed out to meet @shutdown from dA. He is a Bengali, studying and working in Guangzhou, so I thought it would be cool to have a local perspective on the place. He and his friend Cyrus, an artist born and raised in Guangzhou, met me at a metro station. We decided on a place to eat and went there.

Neither one of these guys likes Guangzhou very much, for many of the same reasons I do. We had a lot of fun joking around about the place. It was cool that Cyrus (like most natives of this area) speaks Cantonese as well as Mandarin, so he could understand my Cantonese food vocabulary. We ordered from a picture menu anyway.

When our first dish arrived, there was clearly a discrepancy between what was illustrated and what was presented in reality.


Cyrus got into a bit of a shouting match with the waitress over this, which of course, did nothing to change the result. She made some flimsy excuse and then decided to ignore us. Cyrus muttered something about this being why he hated Guangzhou. The whole episode was mildly nostalgic for me, since this is the kind of service I remembered from Cantonese restaurants in Toronto when I was a child, before the immigrants who ran them learned about Canadian expectations for customer service.

The rest of the dishes were okay. I wonder if anyone in the kitchen spit in them? I’d prefer not to think about it.


After dinner, we hopped in a cab and went to a cafe owned by Cyrus’s friend. I had an iced tea with ice cream on top. Why not? It was pretty tasty, despite being a weird combination. Anyway, we talked about art and living in China and leaving China, and stuff like that. Around midnight we decided to call it a night and go home.

Tomorrow I’m going to do a bit of shopping for small things, and then I’m boarding that sleeper train for Guilin.