After entering main land China by way of Shenzen, we took the train into Guangzhou, which is the capital of the Guangdong Province. As the train brought us into the city, we could see how large and populated this city is. Guangzhou is a very congested city, and has many of the problems that come along with the urban sprawl. Pollution is prevalent throughout the city. Smog is heavy and thick, creating a layer of haze, and perhaps it was my imagination, but I would swear you could feel the “thick” air entering your lungs. A large part of the smog is generated by the still popular use of coal. Putting trash in a receptacle seems to be an inconvenience for most people here, so the ground and gutters have become the public waste can.
One day I saw a woman allowing her young child to poop (defecate) in the gutter at a major intersection in the city. Now I would not say behavior like that was commonly seen, but I think it says something about the general conscience of the people, especially since nobody said a word to the mother. I can only hope that scene was just an aberration and not a common practice. I did see efforts of sanitation by city workers in the evenings and early mornings, but they definitely need the public to help.
Despite the negatives mentioned above, I found Guangzhou to have very friendly people. Being an American seemed to be an advantage for me. Many people were excited to try and communicate once they discovered my country of origin. Fortunately, I had a friend with me that spoke Mandarin and Cantonese, but other times it was body gestures, pointing and nodding, or desperate flipping through my translation book. It was quite humorous to hear the bits of English some Chinese knew, though it was usually in reference to famous American athletes, celebrities, or musicians. Even so, trying to communicate was part of the fun while in China.
My stay in Guangzhou was made a great deal easier since one of my travel mates had relatives in the city and we stayed with them. Many of our days were spent visiting relatives and friends, so they felt obligated to take us out to some of the finer restaurants. And in no way were we allowed to help pay for our meals. We were told that we would be insulting our host if we tried to pay. I did feel a bit guilty about this, since I was not a blood relative, but our Chinese hosts were insistent, so I did abide by their guest etiquette. The underlying premise to all of this was, “We take care of you now, and when we visit you in your country, you will take care of us”. Though I knew the odds of them visiting the U.S. was very slim.
There is no shortage of places to eat in Guangzhou. There are many small, inexpensive restaurants everywhere, serving various noodle, rice, and/or meat of your choice combinations. If you are a beer drinker there many regional types to try, and some are very good. Since I did not speak Chinese, I relied on pictures or just pointed to the food I wanted to try. A calculator was always handy to interpret price, and most vendors had one nearby; numbers are a universal language. One of my favorite dishes was barbecue pork in a large flat rice noodle like a large thin pancake, unfortunately I can’t recall the Chinese name for it, but you will know it when you see it being cooked. It became our most popular breakfast dish. Also, Dim Sum was simply excellent here and restaurants serving it were plentiful. Prices can very depending on how fancy you want to go, though a good rule of thumb was to go by the look of the restaurant. If there are well-dressed waiters, cloth napkins, and elaborate chandeliers, most likely it will be an expensive place.
While in Guangzhou you must visit the Qingping Market. Beware vegetarians, or if you have a weak stomach, you might want to stay away. This market will have everything under the sun on sale for human consumption. When you first arrive you will see the usual items such as herbs, vegetables and dry goods. As you walk deeper into the market you will see just about any creature that can be caught in cages, or already expired, ready for pick-up by the local Chinese cook. For example, I saw monkeys, kittens, dogs, numerous winged animals, various beetles, frogs and other amphibians, snakes, and fish readily being sold. Most of the creatures I saw I never tried to eat during my trip, at least not that I know of, but this market experience was one I’ll never forget.
Walking along the Pearl River is another good way to see Guangzhou. The river is used for transportation and it is easy to catch a ride on a river taxi. Also, you will see the occasional fisherman along the banks. The river is murky and I understand that a lot of refuse is dumped directly into the water. Even so, the scenery around the Pearl is enjoyable, and there are many restaurants along the banks, so you can people watch as you eat.
Guangzhou is a fast growing city where you will see numerous buildings being constructed and industrious entrepreneurs pushing their wares. We visited one of the shopping malls in the area, and were amazed at how crowded it was on a weeknight. I would equate the experience to Christmas Eve shoppers in the U.S. At the time of our visit the Chinese government had recently freed up their restrictions on the economy and it was quite evident the way business was booming and the people seemed to be excited about it.
Being so close to Hong Kong allowed Guangzhou to be connected to current trends in western culture. Much of the youth seem to be embracing the latest trends readily. I found this southern city to be very different from other cities I visited. In other cities we noticed a more obvious influence of the government on the way people live and behave. From what is on television to how a business is operated.
I enjoyed my visit to Guangzhou, but I would not suggest to anyone to make an extended stay, a couple of days should be enough. The congestion and smog can become overwhelming in this city. Traveling away from this huge city will allow you to experience more of what China is about.