On Chinese soil
I had to pinch myself this weekend to make sure I wasn’t dreaming: Friday saw me crossing the border from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Republic to the People’s Republic of China. Yes, I was really there in mainland China, Red China, Communist China, whatever you might call it. Who would have thought it at this time last year?
I finally had two consecutive days off – a rarity here – and decided to take advantage of them by making my first foray into terra incognita. I was excited and nervous at the same time, since it was my first real venture into the unknown alone. But, I had my trusty Lonely Planet Guide, bless those folks, and I had my passport with valid visa, so what the heck?
A trip, like the course of true love, never runs smoothly, and it’s best to remember that in advance. I arrived in Guangzhou (Canton) after a two-hour train ride and had no problems getting through customs. Getting to where I wanted to be was another story altogether in this massive city of 12 million.
My plan was to find a hotel along the Pearl River for the night, because a view of the water is always a treat. I got aboard a subway train – thank heavens for directions in both Chinese and English – and started towards my destination. Little did I realize that the train trip terminated one station before the one I wanted. When I found myself back where I started, I had a blinding flash of insight.
I eventually made it to a station that I thought was within shouting distance of the river, only to emerge from the underworld to see nothing but land. Cars, busy streets, shops, pedestrians, but no signs of water, not even from an overpass above the street. I tried to ask two policemen which way to go, but they spoke no English and didn’t seem to understand, even when I mimed swimming for them. I finally found two teens who spoke some English and they told me that it was waaaay too far to walk to the river. I ended up back at the subway station where I’d exited, bound for a spot that was definitely near the water. An hour later, after two line changes, I emerged victorious. (Is that a hint to take a taxi next time?)
The riverside has both walkway and bicycle path, and many people still use bicycles to get around, despite all the car traffic. I saw all kinds of goods being transported on the backs of bikes, and people of all ages were pedalling away, some with friends clinging to their waists from behind.
The path along the water is also a hub of activity after dark, perhaps because of the hotels, perhaps because it’s a pleasant place to walk. Wandering from my hotel towards the pier for an evening river cruise, I encountered vendors hawking ripe red cherries, tempting chunks of pink watermelon, ripe bananas and coconut water sipped from the whole coconut. Many offered their produce from baskets tied to bamboo poles and slung across their shoulders like the scales of justice – a reminder that China is an interesting mix of old and new.
Tourism Guangzho – if there is such an institution – has created a wonderful enhancement for evening river cruises. Buildings along the water are colourfully lit, some with lights, others with neon. The warm breeze makes it pleasant to sit atop the deck and watch the play of reflections on the water and the interesting architecture lining the banks. There’s even a light show: columns of tiny LEDs creating pictures that change from minute to minute.
Serendipitously, I encountered a university student from Nanjing who was delighted at the opportunity to practice English. We chatted during the cruise, and she used her smartphone app to look up words she can’t remember. (Technology is amazing!) Afterwards, she invited me to join her for breakfast at a renowned dim sum eatery. Even though she wanted to set off at 7:30 a.m. – ugh! – I agreed.
We met again the next morning at the appointed spot, and we hailed a cab to take us to Tao Tao Ju, the restaurant. In a city where few people speak English, I was lucky to have a tour guide who is fluent in Mandarin.
We arrived at the restaurant by 8 and the place was jam-packed. Xinran, my new friend, informed me that older Chinese often arrive at these places at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and spend the morning sipping tea, eating slowly and chatting with friends.
I looked around, and it was not only the elderly, but entire families who were out for Saturday breakfast. Although I always think of dim sum as more of a brunch item, it’s clear that I was in the minority here.
We were escorted to a table and wander down to the food counters. There was a table with hot and cold dishes displayed. I passed up the chicken feat in sauce and the cubes of congealed blood, but the spring rolls and sesame taro balls were tempting.
Moving on to a grill, we ordered some noodles. It was evident the cooks take great pride in their work, stir-frying each portion separately with care and focus. Nearby, cooks did the same with kettles of steaming soup, placing a bundle of homemade noodles in a bowl before ladling out the aromatic creation. A waitress armed with scissors snipped the noodles into smaller sections and the dish was ready.
Finally, we headed to the table displaying the types of dim sum I recognized as traditional, contained in bamboo steamers. There were more than a half-dozen varieties, but Xinran settled on the hargow (shrimp) and we were done. We returned to our table to mimic the elderly patrons: we talked, ate and drank cups and cups of jasmine tea.
We left Tao Tao Ju and make our way to the Museum of Folk Art. There on the grounds of an old Chen clan ancestral hall, we visited exhibits showing life and craft in ancient china. The buildings and grounds themselves were a living example. The tile roof was adorned with hundreds of creatures, including dragons and other beasts, all painted in bright colours. The heavy wooden doors were festooned with paintings of fierce gods designed to keep evil spirits and intruders away. Many of the rooms and much of the furniture was wood, lovingly carved with intricate designs. Light filtered through stained glass crafted with care and lanterns of painted glass colour the space above our heads.
It was a treat to have a “guide” steeped in the culture; I learned so much more than I would have on my own.
Afterwards, alas, it was time to go our separate ways. Xinran was off to Chengdu for a few days, while I planned to visit one of the other city museums before catching a train home. I bade her a fond farewell; she made me feel very welcome in China.
Since I was now a pro at using the Guangzhou subway system, I hopped aboard to head to the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, a museum that Lonely Planet calls one of the best in China. When I arrived, I was floored by the stunning building that confronted me: red sandstone walls stood only a few stories high, decorated with a seal featuring a dragon and a phoenix. I ascended the stairs to the entry and found that once inside, I must climb higher to a square courtyard ringed with benches, grass and trees. In the center was the entrance to the tomb of a king who reigned in about 111 BC; it was discovered accidentally in the 1980s in the midst of the hillside where it is on display. The contents were all in place, giving historians, archaeologists and us a window into life in Canton 2,000 years ago.
It was almost like a page lifted out of the story of an Egyptian pharaoh, sans pyramid. A tomb, its entrance hidden to foil raiders, holds a king, his riches and goods that he’ll need for the afterlife, and the bodies of those who were sacrificed to join him: four concubines, his secretary, his guards and other soldiers. Even pets met their fate.
The display cases held treasures that bore witness to the advanced civilization of the time: trade with other countries, a system of waterways, glass making, woodworking tools and fishing lures. The king himself was buried in a shroud made of jade pieces sewn together with silk thread. Objects were wrapped in silk before burial, and twenty-odd types of silk were unearthed. Not bad for ancient times, eh?
After wandering the tomb exhibition, I enjoyed the somewhat whimsical contrast of the building’s other large collection: ceramic bed pillows through the ages! I was more grateful than ever for down.
Time marched on, so I marched along, too, and head for the train station and my home-away-from-home, but not before China had cast a spell on me. I’ll be back.