So I predisposed to not like Guangzhou. The only train ticket I could get was an overnight Hard Seat ticket. Hard seats are uncomfortable, they are hard, the seat is at an acute angle so it’s pushing you forward, you can’t lie back, there’s no armrest to lean on, only the person next to you if they’re obliging (my neighbour wasn’t) no table or seat in front of you to put your head down on because you’re facing other people and you can’t get up to go to the bathroom or anything because someone with a standing ticket might steal your seat, there’s no-one to tell you when or where your stop is or what stop’s next like there is in other classes, you just have to be alert and hope your Chinese is good enough, they keep the lights on all night, ignorant people blare music from portable speakers, kids are crying and it’s really noisy, they squeeze six people onto seats made for four, nobody helps with your bags and the overhead storage. I ended up hugging my bag all night and trying to sleep on it, I’d say altogether I got a grand total of one hour’s sleep. So I was really grumpy when we got to Guangzhou. Then I had to deal with the metro, trying to buy a ticket to Hong Kong, discovering my Hong Kong hostel had no record of my prepaid booking and trying to close my Chinese bank account… The first day in Guangzhou was basically a write-off.
So it really goes to show just how nice a place Guangzhou is that it finally won me over and I ended up liking it a lot. It’s very different to anywhere else I’d been. It was much sleeker, more modern, without having erased its old past, the streets were wide and open and most importantly (and unusually) the whole place was spotless. It felt strange after the smog and poverty of some places I’d been. They also speak Cantonese in Guangdong so my little bits and pieces of Mandarin were less than useless, they were insulting in some contexts. The Guangdong region was formerly known as Canton, and apparently it’s where most of the Chinese food that we’re familiar with in the West came from. I say apparently because while the food was nice, I didn’t recognise anything at all. My Chinese roommate Gianna took me for dinner to show me traditional Cantonese food.
We went to explore the Shamian area after dark, a much more old fashioned area with lovely architecture, and then got the ferry back to our hostel.
The next day I was in a far better mood. I made the hike to Enning road, former residence of Bruce Lee, but it’s not much to look at. Then, I went to the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum. It’s a lovely building, with nice grounds, but not worth paying the entry fee for. Inside is kind of just an amphitheatre. I might have gotten more out of it if I could read Chinese. Sun Yatsen was a famous revolutionary from Guangzhou, a doctor, a founding father and first president of the Republic of China. He was a supporter of democracy and was central to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. He co-founded the Koumintang. He seems to be universally liked in China and it wasn’t until after his death that communism took over.
Yune Xia park is a nice quiet place to explore, very steep though, and there’s a huge statue of 5 rams in the centre because why not? Nobody was able to explain the significance to me. There are the remnants of ancient city walls as well. Most old cities I visited seemed to be surrounded by these huge, thick walls that you could walk on, but as the city expanded beyond them they were demolished or fell into disrepair. The best examples I saw were Xian and Pingyao. I got lost looking for 6 Banyan temple and ran out of time.
Two friends of mine from Dalian had moved to Guangzhou so we met for lunch. It was nice to have my last meal in China with friends. We had Gansu food which is spicy and involved donkey meat (which wasn’t bad at all). Then they dropped me to Canton tower as they had to go back to work. I explored for awhile, there was a huge library with ‘reading experience room.’ I reckon Guangzhou would be a pretty comfortable place to live for anyone moving to China, it’s only two hours away from Hong Kong as well.
The next step was to be the most nerve-wracking of my trip – officially leaving China.
Because Hong Kong is not in China, it’s a Special Administrative Region (SAR) , I had to go through immigration at the train station. Due to the monumental incompetence of my employers I didn’t have the right visa and there was a gap of a fortnight where I had no visa at all. So I did what I always do in these kinds of situations abroad: feign ignorance and only speak Irish. the immigration officials had good English so I knew she was asking me about the gap and what was my business in China. I kept up with the “Ní thuigim” and “Is Éireannach mé” until eventually she called the supervisor over who basically said ‘Look, if she’s not supposed to be in China, she is trying to leave. She’s practically doing our job for us, just let her through.” I have a feeling the Irish and the Hong Kongese are kindred spirits.
I got on a really nice and train and waved good-bye to China!