I decided to spend half the day in Yangshuo before departing for Guangzhou again. It was better than waiting in a train station courtyard for several hours. I rented my room for a half day for about $7 and then wandered around a bit more. The highlight of my day was buying a giant grapefruit-type thing from a local vendor. It was green, shaped like a pear, and about the size of my head. It had a long stick coming out of it where it had been attached to a tree. I’d seen them growing while I was on my bike ride the other day, and I thought it might be fun to try one out. It turns out that the thing has a skin about an inch and a half thick. The top lump on the “pear” shape is actually all skin. By the time I’d peeled it (with help from the hostel owner, who was amused and pleased that I’d bought such a local treat), it was the size and shape of a normal grapefruit. The fruit was quite dry, and didn’t taste like much. It also had massive seeds in it. Some of the juice fell onto my jeans, which I’d just paid to have washed in the Li River, and left a deep yellow stain. Overall, I can see why these things are not popular in Canada.
My overnight trip on the hard sleeper was not so bad after all. I left Yangshuo at 6pm and caught a minibus to Guilin, which was where my train was departing. They really know how to pack people into a minibus. All the seats were full when it left the station in Yangshuo, but it made numerous stops along the way. First, the money-taker on the bus gave up his seat to a passenger and stood in the aisle. When even more people got on the bus at the next stop, he got out some plastic stools and set them up in the aisle for these people. When even more people got on after that, they stood in the aisle. IÂm nearly beginning to get used to the idea that personal space means nothing in China, but IÂm not quite there yet.
It took two hours to get to Guilin. Even so, I had a couple of hours to kill before the train left, so I sat down beside a tall Dutch guy and started talking to him. It turns out heÂs studying in Hong Kong for a semester, and had traveled through China for a month already. He had just finished a mountain biking in Yangshuo and was returning to Hong Kong. He gave me some tips about things to do in Hong Kong before we boarded the train in separate cars.
When traveling in a country as foreign as China, itÂs always a pleasure to run into strangers who speak English. I spend so much time being silent, or communicating by pointing and nodding and garbled Chinese, that talking English with anyone is genuinely fun. So imagine my good fortune that two of the guys in my hard sleeper cabin spoke very good English. Benny graduated from the University of Alberta with a degree in electrical engineering. Edmond spent lots of time in Canada because his father emigrated to Vancouver.
We hung out in the restaurant car for a while and drank beers and talked about a lot of different things. The two of them had been in Guilin for business. BennyÂs family just bought a taxi company in Guilin with 125 cars. Edmond was in meetings to build a 900 room hotel in Guilin. Edmond was interested in my photos of Yangshuo, maybe to decorate the rooms in the hotel, or to set up a small gallery in the hotel. That would be very cool.
I asked the two of them what it was like doing business in China. Edmond smiled and said you had to be very good at the art of negotiation. You also have to be good at the art of the kickback, he added.
The general consensus in China is that IÂm under 30 years old. More than one Chinese person has guessed my age to be under 30. 30 is a kind of magic age in China. At the age of 30, one is expected to Âstand upÂ and be an adult. I wonder what it means that they donÂt think I look 30. When Benny found out that IÂm 34, he grumbled about the good clean Canadian air and water. I think thereÂs definitely something to it. Living in China most certainly ages people faster.
The hard sleeper is quite a bit more crowded than a soft sleeper. There are six beds per compartment instead of four. They do this by stacking three beds on a wall instead of two. Fortunately, my roommates were very quiet, and sleeping was not a problem. The only noise was the regular vibrating clack of the tracks under the wheels of the train. I had weird dreams during the last two train trips that incorporate these sounds. On the last trip, I dreamed that Hamilton had been hit by a nuclear bomb, and that the clacking, vibrating sounds were the sounds of shockwaves from bombs hitting Toronto and other cities. This time, my dreams translated the sounds into the vibrations of a new washing machine in the basement, which was actually shaking and destabilizing the foundations of the house I was in. Oddly enough, these are the only two dreams from my trip that I remember.
The train arrived in Guangzhou at about 8:30, right on time. Joining the masses flooding from the train station was overwhelming. Even after three weeks here, IÂm finding travel in China to be a bewildering experience. For instance, in Guangzhou, there are three equally huge bus stations clustered around the train station. I got to see all of them. When I went to the first one and explained that I wanted to go to Kaiping, the girl at the counter acted as though sheÂd never heard of it. I might as well have said Kamloops. Finally, after IÂd pointed to my guidebook and gesticulated a lot, she said I was at the wrong station and pointed down the street to the second station. I went there, and the girl behind that counter told me immediately that I was in the wrong place and that I had to go across the street to the third station. This time, I hit paydirt. I bought at ticket on the next bus to Kaiping, leaving in half an hour.
The trip to Kaiping was unremarkable. The scenery consisted mainly of small grey towns nestled in smoggy valleys. Smoke stacks protruded from some, belching fumes into the air. Stacks of huge steel pipes, and other manufactured goods punctuated the landscape. Here and there were stretches of farmland, seeming oddly out of place in this industrial wasteland. Farmers in conical straw hats tilled the soil by hand as water buffalo wallowed in the mud.
After two hours, we arrived in Kaiping. I must say, I felt a bit nervous about it. ItÂs clearly a place that tourists donÂt go, even undercover ones like me. There was no English anywhere. There werenÂt even any Pinyin transliterations on the signs to help me orient myself. To me, it was an opaque sea of Chinese characters.
I didnÂt have a hotel or hostel reservation, so I started walking from the bus station, looking for a hotel. I found one about a block away. I recognized it as a hotel only because I spotted the reception area, hidden deep inside a building lobby, nestled between two vendors that sell spongy meatballs on sticks, dipped in curry sauce. The woman at the counter spoke a little English, and I asked to see the room. It was stark and anonymous, and more than a little bit worn out, but it was clean. I think my photos of it are kinder to it than reality. Being only a block from the bus station, it was conveniently located for a quick escape from town the next morning.
This was the ÂdeluxeÂ room, and they were asking 100 yuan for it. I negotiated the price down to 80 yuan, and booked it for the night. The staff at the hotel is friendly. They smile and say friendly-sounding things to me whenever I walk by.
After settling in, I headed out for a walk with my camera. My first impression is that Kaiping is a grim place. ItÂs dusty, smoggy, and oriented around manufacturing. None of the progressive ideas about conservation or recycling seem to be in place here. Dirty, oily water pours from sewers and canals into the rivers that criss-cross the city. Ramshackle barges chug by slowly on the water. People seem have a relaxed attitude towards work here. At least half of the clerks in the shops I walked by were sleeping. The other half looked like they wished they were. In dark corners everywhere, people are playing cards, mah johng and other table games.
There is no talk of recycling here. The split waste containers with recycling on one side and garbage on the other are nowhere to be found here. As far as I can tell, there are no slogans posted about living in harmony with nature. Also missing are the electric scooters and bikes that are so popular in the bigger cities. The ones here are gas powered.
I turned down some alleys and into some residential areas. I saw a lot of typical Chinese apartment housing, consisting of rectangular blocks about eight stories high, finished in grimy ceramic mosaic tiles of different colors. Balconies were completely enclosed in iron bars, like giant bird cages. Between these buildings, I kept running into people making jeans. Next time you put on your made-in-China jeans, you can feel comfortable knowing that youÂre giving little Johnny a satisfying and fulfilling after-school job. I guess kids here donÂt have paper routes.
I found a performance of Chinese opera in a park behind the bus station. If you havenÂt heard Chinese opera before, you can experience it any time you want. Just take a long stick, attach some cymbals and drums to it with duct tape, and then proceed to beat a cat with the whole contraption. The sound will be almost as bad as Chinese opera. I left the park in a hurry.
People openly stare at me. ItÂs a very odd, completely blank stare. I canÂt read it at all, which is unnerving. IÂve tried a few things in response. I tried staring back, and I tried smiling, I tried ignoring it. No matter what, they just kept staring until they had walked out of sight. ItÂs the camera that gives me away. ItÂs a beacon that says Âoutsider.Â Since no one here except for motorcycle taxis wants to sell me anything, people tend to leave me alone. But they do stare.
As I mentioned before, it is smoggy here. ItÂs more smoggy than I have ever experienced anywhere, ever. At no time was this more apparent than at sunset. At about 4pm, things were looking promising for a nice sunset. The light was already golden, and the sun was still quite high in the sky. It was casting a beautiful shimmering reflection on river. I took a few photos of the river traffic.
However, as I positioned myself on a bridge to shoot the sun going down behind the city, I began to realize how bad the pollution really is here. The sun took on a sullen appearance, hanging in the sky dimly like a dying ember, too weak to cast shadows of the strolling, staring Kaipingers, let alone its own reflection in the river. It dipped inexorably into the thick man-made soup of toxic chemical fumes, and disappeared well before touching the horizon. I must say this was one of the most depressing moments of my entire trip.
The Kaiping sunset really symbolizes the cost of ChinaÂs enormous success. ItÂs relatively easy to clean ChinaÂs face by polishing up the cosmopolitan cities of Beijing and Shanghai, itÂs going to be significantly more difficult to put the plan into action in places like Kaiping, which are the real guts of the country. This is where the real money is made, and money always talks. I think the government will be reluctant to change south China significantly, now that itÂs chugging along producing so much wealth for the rest of the nation.
As the sky faded from gold to pink to a lifeless grey, I sat by the waterfront and mulled over what to do next. I was hungry, but the restaurants that IÂd seen around town were industrial, unappealing looking places with incomprehensible menus all in Chinese. Then, amongst some very odd and incongruent architectural features, I spotted a restaurant shaped like a boat. I decided to check it out.
The writing on the door promised Âwestern food with perfect atmosphere.Â I walked in and asked to see the English menu. The hostess smiled and giggled and gave one to me. It had things like ÂRomantic Curry SetÂ and ÂVariety of American SteakÂ on it. I asked if I could sit upstairs, outside, and she had a hard time understanding my request. She and the other girls clustered around her giggled incessantly whenever I said anything in English. I think the concept of a Chinese-looking guy speaking English was blowing their minds. Eventually I got through to her, but she giggled and shook her head. No, I could not sit up there. Although there was a beautiful outdoor terrace up top, no guests were allowed up there. I think the staff was using it for relaxing and taking smoke breaks. Perhaps by Âperfect atmosphereÂ they meant that the air inside the restaurant was purified and filtered, so outdoor dining was not something that could be done here.
I settled for the chefÂs special salad and the grilled scallops in cream sauce. There was no English explanation about what the chefÂs special salad contained, but it was worth a try anyway.
The chefÂs special salad actually turned out to be perfect caveman food. It was a bed of lettuce with cherry tomatoes, smothered in cubes of grilled steak and sausage. A few strips of cheese were laid on top, and a small pitcher of Thousand Island dressing was set beside it. Whenever I get a salad in China, it invariably comes with Thousand Island dressing. ItÂs like a little dollop of home, even though I canÂt stand the stuff.
I have to take a small detour here to explain something. I have been re-reading Douglas AdamsÂs excellent travelogue called ÂLast Chance to See.Â ItÂs about his journeys around the world, in an attempt to see various rare and endangered species. One of the chapters described his visit to China in 1988. His descriptions are hilarious and insightful, but illustrate a place much different from what I have experienced. The massive growth of China has transformed it in the 19 years since Adams wrote his travelogue. One thing that stuck in my mind about his China chapter is that he said the Chinese are obsessed with the adult-contemporary pianist Richard Clayderman. He said if anyone was wondering who bought Richard Clayderman albums, it was the Chinese, and there were billions of them. Everywhere he went in China, he was subjected to the easy-listening contemporary sounds of Richard Clayderman. I have not heard any Richard Clayderman in my visits to Beijing and Shanghai. Chinese pop music is now more popular. But, while sitting in the Âperfect atmosphereÂ of the boat-shaped restaurant, I noticed a guy in a t-shirt emblazoned with grey and blue flame patterns sitting down at the grand piano. With great flourish, he started hammering out a Richard Clayderman tune. I almost choked on my chefÂs special salad.
I was happy that the chefÂs special salad was enough to fill me up, because the scallops were revolting. ItÂs probably the worst thing IÂve ever ordered in a restaurant. It was served on two oyster shells wrapped in tin foil. Inside the shells was a greasy baked mixture consisting mainly of butter, chopped onions and ham, and topped with melted cheese. Underneath were three sad scallops that had been cooked into oblivion. They still had some sort of grayish-black lung/gill apparatus attached to them. I removed this part and tried the scallop. It had the taste and texture of a shoe sole that had been soaked in butter. I recalled the beautiful and tender sea scallops I had ordered once at the Little Inn in Bayfield, Ontario. Those had been gently steamed in parchment paper, and melted in my mouth. Of course, those had cost roughly 40 times more than these, so I guess I was not really in a position to complain.
The waitress didnÂt seem surprised IÂd hardly touched the scallops. She came by and said, ÂGaoleÂ which means ÂEnough?Â I said ÂGaole,Â and she cleared the table.
It was not easy to sleep. ThereÂs a new and annoying trend that IÂve only noticed in Kaiping. That is, to install alarm systems on motor scooters and motorbikes. It wouldnÂt be that bad if they were actually used to deter theft, but everyone largely ignores them. All they do is add shrilly to the constant clamor of the city. The worst part is that they seem to go off rather randomly. IÂm not sure what triggers them, but IÂve walked by street corners where people have parked hundreds of motor scooters, and heard 50 or 60 of them going off at once. Unfortunately, one of the dealers of these alarm systems had a shop directly across the street from my hotel room. He was demonstrating the devices late into the night.
I got up in this morning, eager to leave Kaiping. ItÂs actually my last day in the PeopleÂs Republic of China. IÂm on a bus right now, headed for the former Portuguese colony of Macau. Macau, like Hong Kong, was handed back to China in the late 1990s, but has been designated a Special Administrative Region, like Hong Kong. It has its own government, currency, and laws. IÂll be spending the day in Macau before taking a hydrofoil ferry to Hong Kong. If I can get in touch with Benny, from the train the other night, he said heÂd show me around a bit.
Later in the dayÂ
I didnÂt get in touch with Benny. The lines to get out of China were extremely long. It took at least an hour to get through the departure process. Then I had to get in line again to get into Macau. I exchanged my Chinese money for Hong Kong dollars across the street from the border facility, and then walked around a little in that neighborhood. Then I hopped on a bus that looked like it was bound for the ferry terminal. It turns out that I got on the wrong bus, so I hopped off again in the middle of town. Macau is kind of neat. I wish I had more time to spend here. You can see the Portuguese influence everywhere, from the architectural style, to the signs written in Portuguese, Chinese and English. The parts of town I saw were in a state of very picturesque decay. However, it was midday, and the light was no good for taking photos. Besides, I was anxious to find the ferry terminal. I flagged down a cab hired it to take me to the terminal.
At the terminal, I purchased a ticket for a high speed catamaran to Hong Kong. I bought a ÂdeluxeÂ ticket for about $30, but I wouldnÂt recommend it to anyone else. ItÂs about $10 more than the normal ticket. It comes with free drinks and snacks delivered indifferently by a harried-looking service staff. The snacks are all of very low quality, and the selection is poor. On the order form that you have to fill out to make your choices, most of the better choices have been crossed out with pen, because theyÂre not available. You also get to sit in a bigger seat. I had a look at the normal seats on the deck below, and they look perfectly fine. Next time IÂll go for the normal ticket.
Apparently this will drop me off within a 15 minute walk of my hostel. So far itÂs a rollicking ride. The sea is slipping by the windows at a very rapid rate. I can see the Hong Kong shore approaching quickly. IÂll put the laptop away and report back later.
I’m sitting on a bench in the Hong Kong ferry terminal. The terminal is shiny and new looking, with free wifi access. Internet access here is blessedly fast. That’s what happens when you emerge from behind the Great Firewall I guess. Next I set out to find my hostel, but I wanted to post this before it got even more ridiculously long!