Hello China! Stepping off the plane in Guangzhou felt like landing in any other country. Although the immigration lines were long, the process was simple. No questions asked; they just looked at our passports, checked a few things in the computer and sent us on our way without even scanning our bags. This was a relief because we were a bit concerned that the several bottles of prescription meds (malaria pills, antibiotics, etc.) that we carry with us might raise some eyebrows, and China has very severe drug policies.
Upon exiting the airport, we quickly learned that very, very little English is spoken in Guangzhou. Based on the directions provided by our hotel, we were able to find the correct bus (win!); however, once on board, we wondered if we would make it alive, and if we did, where we should get off. It was monsooning outside, which did not seem to faze the driver in the least. He was weaving in and out of other buses and tiny motorbikes, not to mention the horn was blaring for more than half of our 40 minute commute. Keep in mind, both of us have experienced the South and Central American chicken buses, and the fact that this driver freaked us out is a really bad sign. Based on a suggestion from a friend, we found the most hip looking young person on the bus and asked if he knew where we should get off. He spoke a little bit of English, and pointed us in the right direction.
Just like the movies, the streets of China are chaotic, filled with motorbikes and completely lacking rhyme and reason. We quickly learned that pedestrians do not have the right of way, traffic lights and cross-walks do not mean much, and people frequently drive against traffic to get where they need to go. Based on our experience with the wild traffic in Morocco, we now use the term “Marrakech-ing” to describe the process of crossing the street by weaving in-and-out of speeding cars and bikes. Yes, it sounds and is dangerous, but it is the only way to get from one side to the other. It is always a bit of a relief to make it across unscathed.
As usual, one thing we were really looking forward to was the Chinese food! We know, we know, we talk about food all the time, but it is a very central part of our lives. After all, everyone has to eat. Since Guangzhou is not a destination for most non-Chinese tourists, it was easy to find a local restaurant. Surprise, surprise, there was zero English on the menu. But luckily, menus with pictures seem to be fairly common in China. We pointed at a few tasty looking dishes, and next thing we know we had devoured our first real Chinese meal. It was incredibly spicy, and incredibly delicious. We ended our first night in China feeling quite satisfied with the fact that we had managed to enter the country, get to our hotel and eat dinner without having our hands henna tattooed (didn’t get the inside joke? It’s OK, just read this post).
To start our next day, we went to the front desk and asked how to get to one of the city’s museums. The agent responded with a laugh “ooh, it very far.” The fastest way was a taxi, but we don’t do taxis unless absolutely necessary. A colleague of Mike’s gave us some advice about cab drivers when we were in Croatia. He said, “Don’t take cabs. The drivers are all crooks and thieves.” We know that most cab drivers are honest people who work long hours, but we agree with Denis that taking a cab in a foreign place is a pretty easy way to get fleeced. But, back to Guangzhou, we ended up taking a bus back to the airport; then, caught the metro. Guangzhou is a city of about 13 million people; the train system is modern, efficient and absolutely packed. Each train is about 12 cars long, and you can barely see the end of the loading platform. Just when you think no more people can possibly fit into the car, people will run, jump and launch themselves through the doors.
We ended up being quite impressed by the Guangzhou Museum. It is free as long as you agree to having your passport checked (apparently this is how China rolls). The exhibits are visually stimulating with many life-size dioramas to help convey the history, resources and traditional art of the Guangdong region.
After the museum, we hopped back on the metro to the other side of the city. Although we eventually found the Temple of the Six Banyon Trees that was our intended destination, the street life caught our interest more. We found everything from teapot vendors to egg-on-a-stick food stalls. We even saw a few people that were charging money to let you electrocute a caged rat. Along the way, we even ran into one of China’s oldest mosques. Legend has it that it was built by Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, the uncle of the Prophet Muhamed in 650 A.D.
Guangzhou doesn’t make guidebooks’ must-see lists in China, and many people will pass it off as just “another large Chinese city.” What we enjoyed about Guangzhou is that it seemed to be very authentic. Very little English and very few people trying to make a quick buck off of tourists. All in all, it was a fun and eventful introduction to China.