Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 9-10: Guangzhou

I'm sitting in an underground internet cafe with about 200 gaming teenagers.  The two girls to my right are furiously clicking away at a Chinese version of Dance Dance Revolution, while the guys to my left are watching movies while loudly video chatting and surfing the web at the same time.  This is more or less a microcosm for what we expected all of China to be like.  With the notable exception of places of congregation, like internet cafes and train stations, our first stop in China has been a pleasently surprising revelation.

So much of the experience of travel has to do with expectations.  One of the main reasons people travel is to experience new things, whether that is a foreign culture, an awe-inspiring vista, or a curious meal.  Over time a traveller's expectations become more and more concrete, because a) you've seen more of the world, b) the abundance of travel media, whether they take the form of travel guides, documentaries, or travel blogs, and c) the world is getting increasingly globalized and places are sadly (to the selfish traveller) losing some of their uniqueness.  This is why travellers every year are searching out ever more remote locales. 

We had done a decent amount of research into China, but at least based on our first two days, pretty much all of our expectations were wrong.  Times like this are why I travel.

Guangzhou is a large city in southwestern China with 11 million people, one of the many cities in China with over 10 million people that most people have never heard of.  We picked it as our entry point into China purely because it was in the region we wanted to start in and it had the cheapest flight from Singapore. (My China visa was about to expire so we came here before Burma.)  I expected a brash, crowded, dirty, hectic city void of personality.  There are a lot of people, but there is also plentiful common spaces, with large squares, wide sidewalks, numerous parks, and a nice walking strip by the river.  It doesn't feel crowded.  The metro system is probably the best I've been on anywhere in the world; a train comes every 2 minutes, it's clean, fast, cheap and goes everywhere you want to go, including inside the train station.  The neighborhood we stayed in, Shamian, is leafy and calm, older women doing some form of synchronized paddle dancing in front of the colonial buildings in the mornings, people of all age using a badminton birdie as a hackeysack in the afternoons, middle aged guys using the public outdoor gyms.  The focus on public exercise is pervasive.

Guangzhou is better known by it's former name, Canton, and is the heart of Chinese Cantonese culture.  Which to us means we won't begin to learn the language, and more importantly delicious food.  Every meal in China so far has been a treat, the majority of them from the various street stalls serving up delicious freshly cooked treats, from dumplings and buns, to pick your own ingrediant soups to mystery meats that we generally steer clear of.  Every restaurant has a veritable zoo of caged animals outside.  Some you wish you hadn't seen, like snakes and turtles, others you just really have no idea what they are, like some sort of spiky armadillo.

So far our favorite activity has been just walking the streets checking in on everyday life, sampling teas, watching calligraphers, joining the crowds around impromptu checkers matches and jesting with the hawkers. Guangzhou is large enough that nobody notices you, which is nice. We've had perfect spring weather and with the good value accomodation and food, we're really enjoying our time here so far.

1 comment:

  1. i'm jealous!!!! i'm still trying to figure out my plans. hopefully i can join you guys in shanghai.

    and yeah, they eat some weird stuff down in the south.