What to expect from China? What will it be like? Is it really the case that noone speaks English here? Will there be crowds of local wanting to take a picture with me? A year ago I read books by Lisa See and hadn’t the faintest idea that I would be visiting the amazing China so soon! But the books got me hooked. I also had heard numerous stories from people who had been there and some of that didn’t inspire me that much. Starting from tales of extra long nails, used to pick one’s ears, nose or even other parts and finishing with stories of unimaginable dirt. Usually I am very excited before a trip, but this time I was quite scared.
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My first experience with this country is from China’s third largest city Guangzhou, which is situated in the Guangdong province. There are 11 million inhabitants in this city, but counting in the suburbs, the count is easily 24 million. Many people know this city by another name – Canton, although it has never been the city’s official name. The name Canton can be found on European maps up until 20th century. Mostly known by Canton Fair taking place here since 1957, this city used to be the trading gate between China and the rest of the world. It used to be the only place where China traded. To be honest, that was about all I knew before coming here, and most of that was from Lisa See books. I enjoy reading a book or two about a location before I visit it, and these books where excellent for this purpose, as depicted both Chinese history and local customs.
The city was established more than 200 BC, and coming here I expected much more heritage and ancient buildings. They do have museums, and Nanyue tomb in the city center, but walking in the city you won’t feel like it’s ancient. It might as well be one of the fisherman villages turned into a city in the seventies, as a few other Chinese megalopolises.
Perfectionists City in the Green
The first thing that I hear from the guy who greets us in China is – don’t buy phones on the street! Even if they are real when they are shown to you, the one in the package will be fake! He sees our surprise and adds that city is extremely safe, there are no pickpockets, and there are a lot of surveillance cameras. We laugh about that one – how many could there be? Well, certainly more than we expected, as every pole has one, and you are constantly in the range of at least a few of them. We did see the phone sellers, but they weren’t as annoying as we expected them to be.
We arrived after the sunset, so didn’t manage to see much on the first evening, but the next day is full of surprises. The first thing I see when I open my eyes is enormous skyscrapers and an extremely green city! The bridges are covered in flower pots, many alleys, parks with ponds, bushes and greenery, and a lot of people exercising in the parks. There are many local tourists in Guangzhou, visiting the Chimelong safari, circus, water and entertainment parks. Most of the foreigners come here for business.
Once I exit the hotel, I can immediately see the Liuhuahu park, which is impeccably kept. Not even the smallest leaf on the ground, and it’s full of people cleaning and fixing things, I also see a funny method to cut the branches – a tiny saw is attached to a long pole, a man is using it and four others are observing. Just like construction business in my country!
What is interesting, there are plenty of areas for exercising, and most of the people using elliptical machines are adults! I also saw a lot of American families with young Chinese children in the park. Guangzhou remains a very popular place for foreigners to adopt Chinese children.
How to Get Somewhere in Guangzhou
I had prepared a list of addresses I needed to get to in advance in Chinese language (TripAdvisor also offers locations written in local language). It was very useful, as cab drivers didn’t speak any English. Showing map with English names was useless, I had the impression that most didn’t know how to read the map. Also, cabs are cash-only and will try to cheat you. If you will not go by the meter but agree on the price, it will always be at least double of what it is supposed to be. When the working hours of subway are coming to an end, cab drivers become even more audacious and will ask for five times the metered price. Some will even disagree to go my the meter at all.
Only towards the end of the visit I finally tried the subway. I had heard horror stories of it being so full that foreigners should never try entering, especially during rush hour. Finally I decided to give it a try and it wasn’t bad at all. Certainly not worse what I have see in Moscow or New York, and even if you cannot get in, another car will arrive in just a few minutes. The car and the stations are unbelievably clean. No gum, not a single piece of paper on the floor. The only people whom I saw spitting indoors spoke Russian…
The subway of Guangzhou is the perfectionists paradise. The station at the train level is encased in glass and people wait in the line to get in the car. Whenever you will turn your head, you will see a sign in English and Chinese with the station name and map. We used single ride tickets, those weren’t expensive, and the price varied depending on the distance. Average ticket price is 5 yuan, (1 yuan=0,14 euro) and is never more than 14 yuan. The subway is still under construction and new lines are being added, so some places you will have to go by bus.
Life in Guangzhou
Do Chinese seniors get pension? What is an acceptable salary in Guangzhou? Do people get paid vacation time in China? I had a lot of questions about the life in China. Turned out most of Chinese people don’t speak English sufficiently well to discuss such topics, with a few exceptions. One of those was Danyuan, who said here English name is Doreen. For Chinese our names and surnames seemed as unpronounceable as theirs to us!
Doreen told me that she commutes an hour to work every day and that’s not even a lot, as many people spend much more time on the way! She also helped me organize a few things that needed the caller to speak Chinese, but most of the time she was immersed in her smartphone and I couldn’t find out more. All the Chinese seemed to be very much in to their phones, even in the subway everyone was staring at theirs. They also use a funny communication system – they receive chat messages as audio files, which they listen to and then write back in the chat.
I did manage to find answers to my questions after all, as I met an American from Texas, Lindsay, who lives in Guangzhou for four years now and is married to a Chinese man. The questions that were too difficult for her to answer, she translated to the locals and translated back the answer, as she speaks Chinese fluently.
I had heard that Chinese work months without weekends and that maybe get one free day per quarter, but Lindsay told me that the only people she knew to work on weekends were doctors. I also asked her about pensions, if it was true that those don’t exist, and if they do, what is the amount? She was very surprised and did ask the locals, who confirmed that pensions exist, and the amount depends on the type of work the person did. The best ones are for state employees. They did not mention the exact amounts but said that you can go by. For Chinese it’s considered to be the best to be employed by state, as then the social guarantees are better, more vacation days (yes, those exist), and better medical care and sickness leave payment. The medical services are usually not paid in full, and many chose private care anyway. Lindsay added that she doesn’t get any state reimbursed medical care, but she only paid a few dollars in private sector when visiting a professor.
What about the salary? Guangzhou is not a cheap city, especially if you pay attention to the prices in the shopping malls. Again, Lindsay asked her local friend and his first question back was what kind of job is being done and how many years after university. Seniority is very important in China. We asked about a person with a bachelor’s degree and three years working experience, and the local man immediately answered that 1000 euro would be an acceptable salary.
I also asked Lindsay about access to the Internet, as although it worked, many of the websites I was used to browsing where blocked (Google, Facebook and many more). Lindsay promised to find out from her husband, and next day with a few clicks in Baidu (Chinese alternative to Google) she installed a VPN app on my iPad. Since that day it worked just fine. Didn’t look like Chinese people were missing out on the western Internet, with many social networks and apps of their own they seemed very much self sufficient.
Finally I wanted to know how did Lindsay end up in Guangzhou? Apparently, she was bored. She just came on China on a whim and initially worked as an English teacher. I had heard stories before of locals finding out that you speak English and trying to persuade you to stay and teach their kids the language, especially in the rural areas. We also met a few locals who just wanted to talk to us, practice their language, ask questions. Looking at how thoroughly the locals worked, I got the impression that on the day they all will learn English, they will take over the world. Europeans say that level of efficiency among locals is very low, but I didn’t see so many examples of useless activity as I saw in India. Seems that Chinese are integrating high tech into their daily lives, even just thinking back to the subway.
But everything is not so pretty, especially job safety wise. Watching the workers on the construction sites or sitting on a tiny seat 30 stories high washing the windows and almost dropping the brush, I wouldn’t want to be them or the person passing by downstairs. Another American I met, Andrew, who visits the country numerous times every year, said that China is quite corrupt, you won’t get a construction business contract just like that and to get state contracts is extremely difficult overall. He told us about mistakes made in the state policy, when moving people from rural areas to the cities. Sometimes the infrastructure isn’t ready to take on new inhabitants. The housing is there, but no jobs, medical care or daycare for children. Thus the new houses remain empty for years. He also mentioned air pollution, which isn’t as bad in Guangzhou as in Shanghai. Remembering yellow gray evening sky in Guangzhou, I don’t want to think about what it’s like in Shanghai.
Places to See
Before visiting a new place I often see guidebooks saying “if you haven’t seen this place, you haven’t been there!”. I don’t like such an approach, but I am always curious about what is so special about these places?
The main Guangzhou attractions can almost be counted on one hand – Canton tower, that used to be the tallest man-made structure in the world, boat ride on the Pearl river, Chen Clan Ancestral hall, Sacred heart cathedral, Shamian Island, Qinping market and new Zhujiang city. If you have free time, Danxia mountains (best know as rainbow mountains) are about three hour ride away. They are considered to be some of the most unusual geologic formations in the world.
Tallest towers in the world in my opinion are something of “build it and they will come” type. Same is with 600 m tall Canton tower, which lights up nicely during the night and you can take a bubble tram at the top, but there isn’t much of practical purpose for this structure. Visiting the tower isn’t cheap – entry fee is about 40 euros, and security on site is one of an airport. On a clear day it will take a while (as on cloudy days there aren’t many visitors).
When we were leaving the tower, a Chinese man came up to us and asked where we are from. I thought – here we go again with the intrusive locals. But politely answered that I am from Latvia. He smiled and said – welcome! I am the mayor of Guangzhou! At first I thought he is just messing around, but when he went on to shake hands with the employees, the next elevator arrived with the news crew. I guess this would have been the time to ask for a picture together!
Pearl river flows through Guangzhou, and numerous companies offer to take a boat ride. The most convenient location for the boat ride is the Tianzi dock, there are many people offering cruises, but most will drive you to another dock much further away. This place is not so tourist friendly anymore, there are crowds, you can only pay by cash and the prices are steep – 10 to 25 euros per person (more expensive tickets are for the evenings and higher class boats). Tourist attractions in Guangzhou are not cheap at all. Even the VIP super-extra boat that has tea and snacks, actually only offers one tiny paper cup of green tea and tiny plate of banana chips, not that fancy at all. After the boat ride we didn’t feel we got our money’s worth. Yes, it’s fun to see the lights and bridges, but actually the same view you get from a restaurant near the river, where you see all the colorful boats passing by!
Chen Clan Ancestral hall – folk art museum
Chen Clan Ancestral hall is a building build in 1894 for the purpose of being a study room for young adults passing the state exams. Now it’s a folk art museum, which is being renovated, so many halls are closed. The place is quite nice – small figurines, lanterns, and nice souvenirs for those staying at home (rice paper, brushes). Many local groups visit this place, especially school children.
This is where we met the first group of children that were collecting signatures on a large poster (and gave you a small present, if you did sign it), and of course, they wanted a picture together. Later I saw several such groups in other places, but due to their limited English language skills, they couldn’t explain what is it exactly that they collect the signatures for. I also had an adventure related to taking pictures in this place. A young Chinese woman wanted a picture of us together, so she gave her friend her phone to capture us, she was very excited that I am so tall. Initially she was just standing next to me, but then I felt that any second now a kiss is going to land on my cheek!!! Another group of students really wanted to shake hands with us, so when we saw yet another group approaching us, we tried to disappear quickly.
Sacred Heart Cathedral and contrasts
Several stories tall houses, undergarments drying in the wind, 20 stories tall shopping centers with architecture like from the seventies and right next to that – a catholic cathedral build in the 19th century. It was build thanks to Napoleon III and French catholic donations. The services are in Chinese and English.
Contrasts continue on also on the small streets surrounding the cathedral – you can buy live chicken, dozens of different types of eggs (some seem covered in mud?), also sweets, twenty types of rice and dried mushrooms.
Shamian island is the most European place in all Guangzhou, reading about it I thought – why would I visit a place in China that is so similar to my home? This island was artificially created, and was divided between British and the French in 1859, owners of companies lived here. This place also had embassies and was an important defense line during first and second opium wars.
This place is extremely popular with the locals, you can see numerous photo shoots taking place here for weddings and catalogs (featuring as short models as the rest of the locals). Observing the photographers is even more interesting that seeing the place itself, although green, lush gardens in the center of the island are pretty impressive too.
Qingping Chinese medicine market
Next to Shamian island is the Qingping street, that is the Chinese medicine market. Dried mushrooms, herbs, seahorses, berries, antlers, unknown powders and pastes. You can buy goji berries in the size of the bag that potatoes usually come in. Buckets of ginseng is another typical sight.
It’s perfectly safe to visit this place, as tiny streets don’t harbor anyone bad. I read in one of the guidebooks that this market used to be more interesting, as you could buy more exotic substances, but the state has taken care of that not to scare the tourists. The only question I had was when I saw a cat in a crate, but I wouldn’t want to believe that something bad could happen to him, as I saw plenty of other, healthy cats roaming around, looking like their master is just a few feet away.
New Zhujiang city
Skyscrapers rivaling Canton tower, office buildings, shopping malls, fancy hotels, all of that you can see in the new Zhujiang city, which is the financial center of Guangzhou. Life doesn’t stop here in the evenings either, as many of the cool restaurants are located here.
There is a US embassy in this area, next to that is a movable police station like something out of an anime (maybe Hello Kitty?). Police transport here is weird. I saw a police bike and a police golf cart, but no regular police cars.
The modern Guangzhou opera house is located next to the skyscrapers. Looks like a submarine! Also Guangzhou library is here. A long walking path lets you see Canton tower from the far and the Asian games stadium is here. Many of the major shopping malls are located here, such as Grandview Mall.
Shopping in Guangzhou
Guangzhou is a trade city, so one might think that it is suitable for shopping, only if it all wasn’t so small! It’s going to be difficult to find shoes larger than size 39, and if you are taller than 1.50 m, I suggest you don’t waste your time looking for clothing in China. All of those tiny shoes and clothes are also extremely expensive, and not just the foreign brands but the locals too! I noticed in the subway that locals dress very nicely, like they would have just stepped out of an editorial. Seeing the prices in their shops I understand why they are so obsessed with shopping in the USA or even my hometown Riga.
The new city has such large shopping malls as previously mentioned Grandview Mall, next to it is the Tee Mall and Tai Koo Hui, and not far from the opera is the Friendship Store. What surprised me the most in the Grandview Mall was the contrasts of it all – 7 stories high place with fanciest brands, cafes, even an aquarium, but once you enter the restroom, there is a hole in the ground, so called “oriental bathroom”. No paper, no soap, not even the hose as you would usually expect it in Turkey.
When I visit exotic places, I always enjoy visiting the supermarkets. Guangzhou has an upscale supermarket called Taste. You can buy Chinese hands cream with snake extract, chopsticks, rice bowls with cats and numerous fruit (including the stinkiest fruit in the world – durian). I also enjoyed just watching what is inside the freezers. Funny thing though, couldn’t find a single Chinese made brand of chocolate! And, as in many places in Guangzhou, it was tricky to pay with a European credit card, only one cashier knew how to do it. Most of the ATM’s work just fine, but sometimes you have to look for one really hard, easiest way to find one is to find a large hotel.
Guangzhou has also a different side of shopping – for wholesale purposes. Hundreds of thousands of useless plastic toys, home design items and trinkets. Star Wars figurines, Hello Kitty purses, key chains and so, so many pillows, shelves, garden gnomes and lamps. One of examples of such shopping malls is the Onelink Plaza that has about 7-8 regular floors and at least as many showroom halls floors. Such stores are nothing unusual around Sacred Heart cathedral. You have to bargain to get a better price, but usually you would need to buy quite a few items then. Many of the clerks told me that they only start giving discounts if you buy at least a hundred items. But sometimes you can get a better price if you buy even just two. Such places sell toys where on the package every sentence has at least three mistakes in the English language and probably most of them would be banned in the European Union. When you enter the store, don’t be surprised that the clerk won’t pay any attention to you, will be eating or even sleeping.
Eating in Guangzhou
Visiting Guangzhou did not become a test for my tastes, as not only I could eat the food here, I quite enjoyed it! Chinese told us that we are extremely lucky to start our visit with Guangzhou, as Cantonese food is the tastiest in all China! But, there were the weird bits too, such as poultry would be brought together with the head of the bird. Everywhere we went, it was the Swinging Sally principle – one large table in the middle of the table that you could move to bring the desired dish closer to you. It was also interesting that firstly all the meat dishes were served and only in the very end we got rice, noodles and bread. We didn’t see almost any dessert, it usually was just some fresh fruit or egg tart (from the Portuguese times). You could drink very light beer or traditional puerh tea, which is fermented for many years. Supposedly very healthy but tastes like water from the bog, autumn leaves and old sneakers.
One of the most interesting locations for a meal is the Hongxing seafood restaurant, which is next to the Tainzi dock. You can see and eat everything that lives in the water, starting from sea cucumber to five types of prawns, crocodiles and enormous crabs.
For regular meals we chose a restaurant not far from the hotel. The way we made the selection was that we looked which of the places had the most locals in it. Of course, all of the menus where in Chinese! But the waiter took out her smartphone with a translation app, we could type in what kind of dish did we want and she would show which is the one on the menu. For longer visits to China and especially outside the large cities I would recommend a dictionary that works offline. Although there are numerous free wifi spots in Guangzhou, most of those require local phone number to be activated. Sometimes locals would activate the access codes with their phones and help us out.
There is also plenty of opportunity to eat in one of the skyscrapers, such as Canton tower, IFC or any of other hotels that usually have a restaurant on the top floor. I would suggest booking in advance, as these locations tend to be very popular. Interestingly, none of the local waiters accepted tips, even run to give those back. Even one of the shopping malls assistants rushed to find me when I had left some small money not waiting to get it back. People where very polite in Guangzhou and always tried to help us, and only school girls wanted pictures with us.
I have been to many cities and countries in the past few years, most of those I would gladly visit but wouldn’t want to live there. Guangzhou is one of the few cities where I could picture myself living in! People are polite, try to help and it is a very safe place. A proof of that is the postal station in the middle of the city, where they sorted packages on the street and none of the passers by expressed any interest in the packages. No obtrusive scratchers with long nails and no dirty streets (even saw them being washed with soap!).
Guangzhou does have a few cons though. Smoking is allowed almost everywhere, which means that you will have to eat your meal covered in cigarette smoke. No interest to the post packages from passers by, but probably also no interest to deliver the post – none of my postcards reached their destinations, and – pollution. Even when the days where supposed to be sunny, we never saw the sun, the city was covered in smoke-like clouds. The only sunny morning was after it had heavily rained on the previous day.
All pictures by Jekabs Andrusaitis. Don’t forget to check out all of them in the beginning of the article!