Week 2: Guangdong, Guangxi and Guizhou

The end of a wonderful time in the Philippines was only the start of what had brought me back to Asia in the first place. It was now time to return to China, for a third and rather short stint in the country I can’t keep away from.

Prior to arrival back in China we had the small task of actually getting there. The journey from Hong Kong to China is something that I have done many times over the past two years, and due to their obsession with overloading my passport with stamps I have sufficient evidence to prove it. However, every time it appears to create a new story. Much like everything in China; if you do the same thing twice it is never the same thing.

This time we arrived in Hong Kong at 9:30pm and had to make the decision whether to take the more expensive bus from the airport or risk taking the public bus to a cheaper coach within an hour. Naturally, having spent a vast amount of my budget on the luxuries in the Philippines, we went for the cheaper option. We managed to get together enough Hong Kong dollars to get us to the correct stop. Prince Edward Station. We arrived bang on 11pm, the time when the last bus to Guangzhou had been scheduled. We had just missed it!. Instead now we had to take another option and gather our ideas. This is the kind of situation that I thrive under when I am by myself, however when travelling with someone it appears it becomes a slightly stressful time, especially when I am carrying 4 bags (2 of which, and 25kg, were not mine).

However, we decided to jump on the bus bound for the Shenzhen border and hope there will be an option to get the Guangzhou once we were through customs. As per usual customs was largely a waste of time but time to re-acclimatise to some Chinese customs: the spitting was back.

Once again we were not so lucky when we reached the other side as the last bus for the evening had already left. Instead we had to decide whether it would be worth staying in Shenzhen (the point we had crossed at) or get a private taxi the 2 hour journey to Guangzhou. We decided, given that it would cost more to stay in Shenzhen and Eliana had work in the morning, that we had to get to Guangzhou. It appeared I was tested in my rather poor Mandarin straight away. A man offered us the equivalent of 45 pounds to take us to Guangzhou. However, I managed to negotiate him down to 24 pounds using my broken language and charm :p. I was quite proud of this at the time but in hindsight it would not have cost this in total had we got the simple bus from the airport some 3 hours earlier. Live and learn.

I feel I have no reason to be suspicious of Chinese taxi drivers as all the ‘run-ins’ I’ve had with them have been in other countries (not least in Vietnam). However there was certainly something fishy about this one, especially how he had accepted such a cheap price for such a long distance. Anyway, despite Eliana’s obvious concerns I tried to reassure her that it would be safe, and this was helped somewhat when his wife and daughter joined us in the car. It felt less legitimate but more friendly.

However, after 5 minutes of our journey he pulled up next to another car and told us to get out and get in it as his friend would take us the rest of the way. His friend had a dodgy face. Still, we obliged. After a very private phone call outside the car (with us locked inside) we made a start towards Guangzhou. My duty was to make sure he was heading the right way and to stay awake whereas Eliana’s was to remain calm and try to sleep. The deal seemed kinda fair.

I was praying he would prove me right and deliver us home safe, and he appeared to be until he stopped the car on quiet section of the main road and got out of the car towards the boot (where our bags were). I got out of the car too to make sure he wasn’t doing anything to endanger us. I watched as he changed the number plates on the car and got back in the car. I asked him why he did but he ignored me. It later appeared that he changed the number plate to get through the toll gate to Guangzhou for free. A Guangzhou number plate doesn’t pay but a Shenzhen one does. Therefore he was cheating the system, and not the foreigners in the back. We are both fully aware of the levels of corruption at every level in China, so this wasn’t totally surprising. But it was a little scary at first, especially with a girl in the back.

Despite the panic, we arrived at Elianas in time for a shower and a nap before she had to be up in the morning and I had people to see.
Since Eliana lives in TianHe District I guessed it would be wise to call in on Tony, who lives nearby. Initially I wanted to surprise him by knocking at his door. I somehow remembered his apartment but it appeared he wasn’t in. I knew that his business had been very successful over the past year and that he had begun to rent a second apartment but I didn’t know which one. I called him and it turned out he was living directly above his original place, and using that one as a classroom. It was great to see him, particularly as he had helped me so much during my previous visits. He had to leave quite soon after for work but we will meet again with his new wife when I return to Guangzhou.

Next on my agenda was to get a Chinese sim card so I can actually have contact with people. Up until now it has only been limited internet access that has kept me in contact with the world and the people I want to see in China. One of whom is Danny.

<I had arranged with Danny (the woman who I lived with for 5 months last year) to spend the night at hers. She was more than happy for that so I jumped on the metro and headed for ‘home’. After about an hour and a short, but stuffy, bus journey I arrived at her apartment block. There was a strange feeling about walking around Foshan and it really dawned on me how much I really missed it and how much freedom I had whilst I was there. This meant I stepped back in time and used the same elevator I used last year to the same room, 1905. It was great to be greeted by Danny again and she had specially made some sweet buns which she thinks I love. Her nephew was there too so it was nice to meet him. He is taller than me….and Chinese. One thing that did surprise me was that there was no dog(s). Last year we had a dog called Simba who was a bit of a loveable rascal. I learned via Danny before that she had somehow lost Simba soon after my departure, fair enough. However, I also knew that she had since got a new dog that had given birth to 3 puppies, yet there were no dogs. I asked her where they were and she told me she had also lost this one. I am not sure how you lose 2 dogs in a year but she seemed quite nonchalant about it all so I’ll take her word for it.

Over the next couple of days I went between Guangzhou and Foshan but I was not really able to see everyone that I wanted to see, particularly Benny and Zoey. I hope I will have time when I return to Guangzhou in August. I did, however, manage to eat some of the lovely street food I love and replace my camera. This was a little frustrating as I began last week with a new camera and it had already broken. I tend to take a lot of naff photos, and few good ones, but I felt lost without a camera. I hope I can claim back on it if it’s under warranty when I get home.

On my final morning in Foshan Danny asked me to join her and her nephew at morning tea (one of the Cantonese rituals I really enjoy, unless I have had a drink the previous night). I really enjoy breakfast Cantonese style and a lot of the food we ate was quite sweet. This was Danny’s treat and it was delicious. When we returned to the apartment Danny had 5 patients waiting for her (who seemed to rely on her every word). I packed my bag and when I had finished Danny came back into my room and told me we were going for lunch. I had only just finished chewing the last of my breakfast. Still, I am never in any position to turn down food.

We went to a Yunnan style restaurant where we ate from a hotpot. There was a range of different meet and veg going into the hot pot, perhaps most interesting was the chicken head. I wondered who would eat it but the oldest woman on the table grabbed it quite quickly. I wanted to take a picture of her chewing around the eyes but decided I didn’t know her well enough. It was at this moment, as I sat around a table with 7 Chinese people, only one speaking any form of English, and eating proper Chinese food that I realised how truly lucky I have been. This kind of experience does not come to everyone.

I was quite conscious of the time (as the Chinese never are) but I didn’t want to seem restless. Fortunately we left lunch in time for me to get the metro back to Guangzhou, buy my train ticket and have one final meal with Eliana before my train. There was one small hitch: the train had no beds of seats. This left me with two options; a 16 hour train with a seat or a 12 hour train standing. I went with the standing option. 18 months after the last time I stood up on a train over-night I was at it again, and I hadn’t learnt my lesson? I said my final goodbyes with Eliana, although we are likely to meet again when I return and I jumped on the train thinking I only had minutes to spare. As all Chinese trains seem to be, it was packed….and I really needed the toilet.

Naturally, as the only foreigner on the train and being packed in like sardines in the standing section, i was greeted with a few stares and sniggers. The train eventually did start moving and I had to begin to count down the minutes until 7am….in 12 hours. Still, I like all this, don’t I? As time went on and as my legs became more weary I sat on my bag, being careful not to sit on anything valuable. There was a skatty man opposite me having one of those ‘little emperor’ tantrums about no one moving their bags so he can put his where he wanted to. People were giving me the universally understood look of ‘we are not all like him’. He managed to calm down when he started eating nuts, but he killed a few minutes for me.

The night wasn’t that exciting, but it was certainly unforgettable. I eventually tried to get some sleep but the Chinese trains are hotbeds for selling junk…and people actually buy it. Every 5 minutes a new trolley would come down the aisle which meant anyone with standing tickets that tried to sit had to stand again. It’s fair to say the night was fairly sleepless. But then again, this is China and this is how they do it, so I can do it to. If I embrace it I can’t complain.

Anyway, after 12 long hours I finally arrive in Liuzhou, which is not really a city on everyone’s to-do list. I decided, since I was not staying overnight, to store my luggage at the station and explore the city quite aimlessly.

Initially I ended up in a street market selling all sorts of food and meat. I stopped at a man who looked as though he was selling homemade caramel. I bought some without hesitation before asking what it was, to which he told me ‘tang’ (sugar). I had just bought a bar of sugar for breakfast. Naturally I then picked up a bao zi to fill my stomach whilst I admired the street barbers (much to their delight). After walking more than I should have I bought a map. Upon looking at the map I decided on a destination and sort out the bus to get me there.

The ‘Up all night’ look
<I aimed for a park, such is my appreciation for everything beautiful nowadays. Naturally I fell asleep on the bus but arrived at my destination ok as it was the final stop. When I got off I bought some grapes and admired the lake, as you do. As I did so I felt the sleepless night creep up on me and I dropped off for 2 hours beside the lake in the baking heat beside my grapes. It felt quite romantic despite being alone, if that’s possible.

Following my rather long nap I climbed to the highest point in the park, up a limestone peak. As my feet were beginning to hurt I did so bare footed.

<It was becoming evening but I had until 11pm before my train, quite luckily as I couldn’t find my way out of the massive park. Instead I arrived back at the train station after stopping off for some dinner and washed in the dirty open toilet there. I was quite surprised when a man, obviously festinated with my half naked body, decided to copy my every move, even putting his feet next to mine in the sink. That was weird.

The train that night was much more comfortable, giving me a bed to sleep on. I slept most of the night, so nothing really to report there.

The next day I arrived in Guiyang and was surprised, even after all this time, that the train station was packed at 7am. I have come to the conclusion that China really does have a population dilemma.
I had previously written directions to my hostel in the city so caught my bus to a nearby stop. I walked a short distance to that hostel and managed to obtain a bed and a shared hot shower after the sweaty sleeplessness of the last two days this felt like heaven.

<During the day I decided to leave the city and explore an ethnic minority village (of which there are many in Guizhou). I got a public bus for 30p for the one hour trip. 2 girls sat next to me on the bus and were keen to talk, yet they could not speak English. Instead they patiently allowed me to practice my Chinese. It was quite refreshing for Chinese people to speak to me very slowly and have the patience to work out exactly what I was trying to say, this meant I wasn’t so embarrassed about making mistakes. I am thankful to them for this and it gave me a new confidence in my limited mandarin Chinese.

<Eventually we arrived at the town, Qingyun, built amidst a wonderful landscape. The girls invited me to join them around the town as they were quite familiar with it. They found out it was my birthday the next day so they bought me some local food which we tried together. Later we ended up in a restaurant where they ordered me 3 pigs knee-caps and spicy tofu as a birthday present. Very cultural but not my ideal meal. Still, I was very thankful for their company and hospitality.

Pigs Knee caps and spicey tofu

This was a very nice day even if I didn’t see much of Guiyang. When I got back to the hostel I found out I my room had other occupants. One of which was a Chinese girl from Hunan province. She agreed to go to the shop and have a few beers with me. Together we sat with 2 other Chinese people from the hostel and enjoyed a beer to the Chinese version of X factor (which is awful considering the great singers in China).They were all keen to practice their English with me and celebrate the arrival of my birthday. One boy in particular (and he really looked like aboy) was keen to speak with me despite his very strong dialect accent preventing him from communicating in mandarin with the others.

The next day was my birthday and much like last year I did not see another foreigner throughout the day. This time I had to wake bright and early to go to the train station I Guiyang. I arrived in what I thought was perfect timing for boarding but the notice informed me that the train had been delayed for 2 and a half hours. Since I had already had my ticket stamped I had to wait. As a result I spent a large portion of my birthday in a train station waiting room. Thankfully I had charged my PSP.

Once we eventually got on the train I was sat amongst a range of Chinese people. It later turned out that they were one big family. The woman beside me was a very angry lady who kept asking me to put my bag somewhere else despite being nowhere near her. Opposite me was a very old lady who liked shouting and another ‘mini emperor’ who wanted to impress me by spitting his guts out by my feet every 5 minutes. I looked at him with disgust but he was quite proud. On the other side of me was a mother and her new born, nappiless, baby. The baby was very cute and very playful which made the 5 hour journey a little easier. I eventually decided to eat the noodles I had brought with me, when the baby, who had a lot of breast milk throughout the trip, then didn’t seem so cute. As I enjoyed my noodles the mother of the baby lifted her son in the air (I knew it was a boy because everything was on show) and parted his buttocks. So the baby was going to poo from a height of 1metre onto the train floor whilst I watched eating noodles…on my birthday. Happy Birthday Todd. I looked around but no one else found this remotely abnormal. I finished the noodles and looked at the clock.

<I was met in LiuPanShui (my home for the time being) by Dina, my guide for my work. She took me to my hotel that I will stay in during my time here. I was astonished. It was just what I needed, a nice bed and a private washroom. Now to remove the bags from under my eyes. Before I went to bed I went out with the new colleagues to a hot pot restaurant to try the local delicacy. The food was nice and I had a beer bought for me to celebrate my birthday. This was what it was all about.

I was later encouraged to sleep, but the mosquito in my room had other plans. That was the end to a very busy and very exciting week. The week ahead promises to be every bit as enjoyable.

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