I finally got to post this. I’ve arrived in Guangzhou, which is near my family’s ancestral home. My first impression is that it’s a bit of a soul-less place. It seems to be made of nothing but shoulder-to-shoulder condominium and apartment buildings, bigger than any I’ve ever seen anywhere. The population density is immense. But, having spent a little while here with my homestay host, David, I’m discovering that the real soul of this place is in its people. They are hard-working, and fast, thoroughly immersed in the rat race. David makes money however he can. An economics graduate, he’s working as a freelance real estate agent. He’s also selling satellite TV cards, and running this homestay business. His phone is constantly ringing. Taxi drivers drive like Formula One racers in this town. I think the average speed through the city is about 90km/h. Pedestrians fear for their lives.
Anyway, more about Guangzhou later. Here’s my post from yesterday:
I stayed in bed pretty late today, and didnÂt actually leave until about 11am. My mission today was to investigate Old Town, which is the Shanghai equivalent to the Hutong area in Beijing. I walked about 40 minutes to the ferry terminal and then paid my 2 yuan to get onto the ferry to cross the river. The ferry ride was pretty pleasant, and gave a great view of the city on both sides of the river as the ferry spun away from the dock and zig-zagged to the other side, performing another semi-spin to dock sideways. After disembarking, I took a few minutes to orient myself, and then walked into the Bund and turned south towards Old Town. It began as suddenly as crossing a street. On one side of the street were the stately colonial buildings of the Bund, and on the other side was the unruly, ramshackle tangle of 19th century alleys known as Old Town.
I spent a couple of hours exploring Old Town, soaking in its clamorous, grimy, chaotic depths. Old Town is all about the things the Chinese love best: food and selling. There were numerous market streets, each one as hectic and cacophonous as the next. Motor scooters edged through the throngs of people, honking their nasal horns incessantly. Old men on bicycles rode slowly through the crowds, shouting, ÂLe le le le le le le lelelelelele!Â to get people out of their way. Styrofoam boxes overflowing with water housed different kinds of river fish, mollusks and crabs. A shimmer of fish scales littered the pavement. Smells, textures, and colors launched frontal attacks on my senses. It was across the street, maybe across a river, but Old Town is a world and a half–give or take a century–away from the glass, steel and concrete universe of the rest of Shanghai.
It was impossible to go hungry in Old Town. There was a wide variety of street food available. Squid, pork, chicken and tofu sizzled on skewers over charcoal. Buns and dumplings steamed in bamboo steamers. Street buffets offered up a variety of eats to hungry workers.
A woman was selling baby ducks, turtles, hamsters and bunnies as pets.
One had to wonder what happened to these critters once they were no longer tiny and cute. One didnÂt have to wonder for long though. I found these guys around the corner, waiting to walk that green mile to someone’s dinner table.
Smack in the middle of all of it was Yuyuan Garden, a botanical park filled with a relaxing variety of ornamental plants. I found a couple of kids up to no good at the coy pond.
After a couple of hours wandering Old Town, I was exhausted. I walked back to the ferry terminal, took the boat back to Pudong, and then walked back to the hostel. I stopped along the way for a couple of freshly-made egg tarts in the Donchang metro station. In case youÂre counting, thatÂs not exactly caveman compatible, but they were irresistible.
When I got back to the hostel, I was wiped out. It had been a long day of walking in the sun, and I was just out of gas. I crashed for a few hours.
In the course of a month, you have good days and bad days. I guess that doesnÂt change when youÂre traveling. I woke up in a pretty bad mood. I was tired, I was sore, my computer was pissing me off because it was destroying the colors of my photos, even though itÂs set up just like my one at home, I was sick of the constant noise and smells of China, I was tired of the rudeness, I was tired of needing to be constantly vigilant, even on the sidewalks, to avoid being run over by taxis, buses, cars, pedicabs, electric scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles. I was fed up with how hard everything is when you donÂt speak the language, and I was even tired of Chinese food. I decided to go for a walk to get some air and try to shake off the irritation.
Just south of the hostel, I found a street filled with restaurants, shops, and massage parlours. I think these are the kind of massage parlours Hesi was wondering about, the more kinky kind. They were staffed by some very attractive young women, all of whom were waiting in the lounge area. I donÂt think the non-kinky massage parlours allow you to choose your masseuse out of a lineup like this. Anyway, to answer HesiÂs question, I donÂt think IÂll be paying anyone for kinky services. I prefer to find some way to get it for free! And no, Diny, there wonÂt be any pictures of these girls either. I donÂt know enough Chinese to be able to explain that I need to take photos for my pervy American friend, when he can just as easily google Âhot asian chicks.Â
Since I was sick of Chinese food, I didnÂt really find any of these restaurants to my liking. There was only one solution to the problem: Brazilian barbecue! I made it my mission to find the metro so I could get to the Science and Technology Museum stop where the Brazilian barbecue was located.
I started walking in the general direction of the metro line. Sure enough, I stumbled upon a station, and headed down. It was eerily quiet in this part of town, in contrast to the rest of ShanghaiÂs bustle. The metro station was pure white inside, tiled in white ceramic and glowing antiseptically in bright white light. The only color was from backlit advertising posters showing a variety of products by Olympic sponsors, endorsed by famous Chinese faces like basketball player Yao Ming.
A transfer, a couple of stops, and a short walk later, I was seated happily at the Brazilian barbecue. My mood was enhanced significantly. At this point I realized that it was the second day in a row that I was having Brazilian barbecue, which would have been unthinkably extravagant at home. But, the days seem so long here, and at $10 a pop, itÂs not exactly going to break the bank. $10 seemed a fair price to pull me out of my funk too.
After dinner, I sat in the vast courtyard of the Science and Technology Museum, admiring the relative silence. Silence is something I miss from back home. There’s almost none of it here. Even at the quietest times, you can hear distant traffic, or people talking loudly in the street. It was pretty dark, since they still had most of the lights off. For some reason they had the globe lit up, though. It was revitalizing to have this enormous space to myself, especially since itÂs a space that I love so much. After a few moments, I walked up the stairs, and found a public square teeming with life. It was a smooth granite-tiled space between two entrances to the metro station. Kids had set up small plastic pylons and were performing twisty, bendy slalom tricks on inline skates. They were damn good at it too, spinning forwards, backwards, on toes, heels, gracefully twirling through the pylons. Other kids were riding skateboards, grinding on the stairs leading to the subway. It was lively and full of energy. The kids were happy and laughing, having a great time. This brings me to DinyÂs earlier question. No I havenÂt seen much evidence of the police state after that experience in TienÂanÂmen Square. For the most part, government control seems to be exerted at a much higher level, guiding things through subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda in the news media. If people live somewhat lawfully and peacefully, they can do almost whatever they want. There are police everywhere, but they donÂt seem to interfere unless something happens.
The reason I relate the police state question with this rollerblading scene is that I get the strong feeling that young Chinese can grow up and have a great life if they work very hard and strive to better themselves. ItÂs not unlike everywhere else on Earth.
I do believe that the Chinese government has the best interests of its people at heart. What is different about China seems to be that the government makes decisions and acts on them remarkably quickly, based on the goal of achieving the greater good. It has no qualms about running over those who might stand in the way of this goal, like the minority who will be inconvenienced by the decision. A good example is the Three Gorges Dam project which will force the relocation of a million people. Although this seems cruel to move these people from their homes, the building of the dam will benefit hundreds of millions of people, and will open ChinaÂs waterways into the country for ships that will bring commerce and development to millions more. There is no democratic process to bog this down while committees and study groups attempt to protect everyoneÂs rights.
Another example would be the improvement of the high speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai. A government study found that the current high speed rail link gets much higher traffic than other routes. So, theyÂre going to build an even higher-speed rail link that will whisk travelers between the two cities at over 350km/h. The cost is going to be enormous, but the benefits to the nation are clear, so itÂs going to be done. They finished the study a couple of days ago, and construction will begin this year.
Anyway, yes, the kids. WhatÂs changed for me is that IÂve lost the prejudice I had towards how things must be in China. I felt sorry for people living in China, without the freedoms and rights that we have in the western world. But what IÂve realized is that many of these rights are just illusions. We are still subject to laws and regulations, and will be punished if we donÂt adhere to them. IÂm not saying thatÂs bad, but itÂs not a lot different from here. In China there are a million opportunities for wealth and growth. Standing in the middle of any city, you can see these opportunities everywhere. A generally looser attitude towards regulation and restriction of business makes it easier to strike it rich here. I see these kids, happily twirling and twisting through pylons in a granite park having very bright futures, unencumbered by what we Westerners perceive as a lack of freedom. In fact, I think western-style democracy would seriously handicap this country. With 1.6 billion inhabitants, itÂs so enormous that it must be directed from the top by a very strong and well-informed hand. Democracy may come here eventually, but during this period of massive change, a singular vision is the only way to get everyone headed in the same direction.
Anyway, thatÂs enough serious talk. IÂm headed to Guangzhou tomorrow, the heart of ChinaÂs commercial and industrial zone. IÂm going to need my rest!