Wednesday, 29 May 2019

In search of the real Guangzhou

I had some time to myself on my first full day in China. My Japanese colleagues were due to arrive that evening, but in the meantime I had time to go explore, and see some of Guangzhou’s attractions. I had slept remarkably well, considering the 17 hour journey I’d undergone the day before, so after waking feeling relaxed and refreshed, I set off to grab something to eat.

 Breakfast was included with my hotel booking, and was provided at a restaurant a few doors down from the hotel, at the end of the block. It was a self-service affair with a good selection of varied and satisfying items. The fried noodles and fried rice were especially tasty, whilst the fried eggs were a welcome bonus. There was even a toaster, although on day two a handwritten message informed guests that it wasn’t working because, “the furnace has broken.”

After eating my fill, I returned to the hotel and before going up to my room, asked at reception for a city map. This seemed a simple enough request, especially as virtually all hotels I’ve stayed in have been able to provide guests with a simple, and normally free map of the surrounding area.

Not so in Guangzhou, it would appear, as my request was met with a mixture of slight indifference and mild amusement. Undeterred, I asked for the location of the nearest tourist information office, only to be met with the same blank response.

It began to dawn on me that whilst China welcomes millions of international tourists per year, most of these visitors would not be independent travellers like myself, but would instead be members of organised parties, travelling with specialised tour operators. Such companies will handle all the necessary travel arrangements, hotel bookings, local transport, visa requirements, insurance, thereby negating the need for tourist information offices.

An organisation called Travel China, which is part of the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and is responsible for the development of tourism in the country. It’s still hard to understand why this agency doesn’t appear to have offices, unless I’m correct in thinking that independent travellers are few and far between.

I have to say that apart from at the airport, I noticed very few people of European origin whilst travelling around Guangzhou.  I must have stood out like a sore thumb, but no-one seemed to bat an eyelid; instead they were all totally engrossed in their smart-phones; a technology the Chinese really seemed to have embraced. People were using their phones to pay in shops, purchase tickets for the metro and a host of other things besides. With earphones in as well, many were walking around totally wrapped up in their own private bubble.

So despite China being the fourth most visited country in the world, with 14.2 million tourists last year, finding basic tourist information such as a map and a list of places to see, doesn’t appear to be easy.

I berated myself at the time for my lack of preparedness, and especially for not having purchased a guide book prior to my departure. On my return I made a point of checking to see what type of guide books were available. I found that whilst there are some, the range is nowhere near as extensive as for other parts of the globe.

Publishers Dorling Kindersley offer one of their superbly illustrated guides, which is packed with all sorts of useful information, but it is a bulky publication which covers the whole of China, and therefore of limited use to someone like me only there for a few Other publishers, such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, offer less lavish publications, but as far as I could make out, there are none specifically for cities such as Guangzhou.

I took a peak at my map of the metro system – the one I’d downloaded and printed off at home. I noticed a station, just a couple of stops away from Guangzhou Railway Station, called Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. The name intrigued me so I purchased a single-trip ticket for just 2 CN¥ , and made the short journey.

When I alighted from the metro, I found myself in a neighbourhood which was altogether much more pleasant than the environs of the main station. It’s probably true the world over that large railway stations don’t always attract the nicest sorts of people. By and large it is the immediate surroundings either in front, or to the sides of where the trains depart from, which aren’t always the nicest of places, as aside from the travellers and commuters in a tearing hurry, you often find a right rag-bag mix of people, often with nothing better to do.  

There was a strong police presence as well at Guangzhou station, which added to the sense of tension, so walking out along a tree-lined boulevard  and then seeing the impressive octagonal structure of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, surrounded by its own attractive and peaceful gardens, was a welcome sight indeed.

Sun Yat-sen  was a Chinese politician, medical doctor and philosopher who served as the first provisional president of the Republic of China, and the first leader of the Nationalist Party of China. He is referred as the "Father of the Nation" due to his role in the revolution of 1911, which led to the overthrow of the last Emperor, and the end of the Qing dynasty.

Doctor Sun was admired by the communists as well as the nationalists, not just for his achievements, but for his work in trying to unite the different factions in China for the common good.

After Sun’s death it was decided to build a memorial hall in his honour. The hall was  built with funds raised by local and overseas Chinese people, with construction work commencing in 1929 and completed in 1931. It is a large octagonal structure with a span of 71 metres without pillars, housing a large stage and seats 3,240 people.

I must have spent a good couple of hours at the hall, walking around and reading the various posters about the life of Dr Sun and his achievements. Fortunately the displays were in English as well as Cantonese. It was nice and cool inside the hall, so much so that when I left the heat and humidity really hit me.

I noticed a small gift shop, close to the rear entrance to the gardens. There were a number of outside tables and some much welcome shade. I treated myself to an ice-cream; a local version of Walls’s Magnum. As I walked across to this little “picnic area,” I passed a small group of visitors who looked as though they’d come from a different part of China. Although none of us could understand each other they gestured that they wanted their photo taken with me. I naturally obliged, and they responded with smiles and much head nodding. This was the only such interaction I had, because as stated previously, I was otherwise completely ignored.

I was gagging for a beer by now, so walked around the block, passed cafes and kiosks where workers were grabbing a quick lunch, but could find no signs of a bar. This appeared to be the norm in Guangzhou, as during my three days in the city I did not find a single bar, let alone anything remotely resembling a pub.

Beer was readily available in restaurants, with a meal, and I will go on to describe, in greater detail, some of the beers my colleagues and I encountered, but I will do this in a subsequent post. For now, we’ll leave me heading back to Guangzhou station, and to the hotel.


Etu said...

That was a fascinating read Paul, thanks.

My daughter spent most of a year in China quite recently, teaching English to small children, and it was interesting comparing your respective accounts.

retiredmartin said...

As Etu says, a fascinating read. Interesting point about maps and lack of independent tourists, Richard Colwell makes similar points on his blog after visit this year.

Paul Bailey said...

Thank-you both for your kind comments. Yes, there's not much assistance for independent tourists, but on the other hand, a little ingenuity combined with dogged determination, goes a long way.

Before I left, I spent time reading some of Richard Coldwell's experiences in Beijing, and I do know that if I'd had a couple of extra days to myself, I could have found a few similar beer places in Guangzhou.

It takes time with any new location to find one's feet and get one's bearings; especially when it's one where spoken and written English are not commonplace. We take our Roman alphabet for granted, which makes Chinese characters all the more puzzling.

I will reveal more in my next post, and if I am ever fortunate enough to return to China, I shall know what to do, and where to look.