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The Guangzhou skyline (that's smog)
Guangzhou, our last stop in mainland China, is described in the book China By Rail as follows:
"'Vibrant, energetic and ambitious' might be one chosen description; 'pushy, greedy and overcrowded' is the alternative way of looking at it. Most people find the noise and dirt here very unpleasant, even by Chinese standards, and as there aren't many spectacular things to see, do not linger."
Unfortunately, after our whirlwind tour through several interesting cities elsewhere in China, we were due to spend two nights in Guangzhou. Even more unfortunate, this passage was describing the region of Russell's ancestors ("Guangzhou" is known in English as "Canton"). And while we try to form our own opinions outside of the tour books, the above description set an apt tone for our arrival.
On September 30th, our train was due to arrive in Guangzhou at 7:41 AM. Due to another mysterious standstill outside of the station, we didn't arrive until 8:30 AM. Things went downhill from there. At every other city in China, our local guide has met us on the platform right outside the train, usually holding a sign with some semblance of our name on it. When we debarked in Guangzhou with our army of luggage onto the noisiest, most crowded station yet, there was no one there to meet us.
We had no idea what to do. This had never happened before. Both Russell and Gail were suffering from no sleep on the train, so our judgment was undoubtedly impaired as well. We stood with our luggage for fifteen minutes until everyone else had left the platform. Still no guide. We began to move. We dragged our luggage (four backpacks, five rolling suitcases, a camera bag, a computer bag, and a box of food) down the two flights of stairs from the platform into the central area of the station, and stood there for fifteen more minutes. Still no guide. Our next move would be to exit the station, but if we did that we would not be able to re-enter. We exited the station. Still no guide.
We now found ourselves in the hot, blazing sun and intense humidity outside of the Guangzhou train station, surrounded by crowds of Chinese people yelling at each other in a cacophony of unintelligible sounds. Old men kept asking us (in Chinese) if we wanted to rent their luggage rollers. Old women kept asking us (in Chinese) if we wanted to buy their maps.
Our next plan of action would be to find a telephone in order to call the China Travel Service. Leaving Gail and the boys with the luggage, Russell ran around the station plaza searching. No phones. We moved again, dragging our luggage down three flights of stairs to the underground tunnel that crossed the street. Three more flights to get back up to street level again. Our goal was the McDonald's diagonally opposite the train station (we had not had breakfast yet) so that we could just sit down somewhere out of the heat and humidity. Unfortunately, to cross the second street we would have to climb up two more flights of stairs to the overhead walkway and back down again. At this point we could go no further than crossing the first street without collapsing. We found ourselves at the only place in Guangzhou louder than the train station: the Guangzhou bus station.
We parked ourselves in the entryway to the bus station (out of the sun) and gave Cameron his book and Joss his Game Boy. Leaving Gail and the boys with the luggage, Russell ran upstairs to the phones. They only accepted telephone cards (no cash) and wouldn't accept Russell's MCI number. Russell ran over to the McDonalds. No phone. Russell ran to the hotel around the corner. Still no phone. By now it was 10:15 AM.
Russell finally found a public phone kiosk a block down the street, where a crowd of Chinese people were not forming neat or orderly lines around the phones. He succeeded in pushing his way through, grabbing a phone, and getting hold of Nina at CTS, who connected him with our guide, Ricky. Ricky said he had been looking all over for us. Russell described where we were, and Ricky said he would be there in five minutes.
Meanwhile, Gail had been enjoying herself immensely, people watching. She remarked to herself that the people of Guangzhou look a lot more like Russell, especially their noses. Russell met back up with the family, and we waited for 20 more minutes. Still no guide.
Russell trekked back over to the public telephone kiosk and phoned CTS again. Nina advised us to stay put, and she would contact Ricky again. Russell met back up with the family, and Ricky finally showed up. He apologized profusely, explaining that he had been outside of the train station (not on the platform) looking for a family of four American-looking people (apparently, three American-looking people -- including the only two non-Asian children in Guangzhou -- and an American-looking Asian weren't good enough). We had to drag all of our suitcases back through the underground tunnel to the train station in order to meet up with the van. By the time we reached the Bai Yun Hotel, it was 11:30 AM. It was a good thing that we had no tours scheduled for that day.
Checking in did not go any better. In the first place, Ricky was unable or unwilling to provide us with any meals in compensation, despite our having missed breakfast and lost three hours of our day. Our breakfast, lunch, and dinner would all be on our own. Furthermore, the hotel gave us two separate rooms that were down the hall from each other. Gail asked Ricky if he could do anything about it; he spoke to someone in Chinese and said that nothing could be done. Ricky then left us for the day.
By now the family was hot, tired, hungry, and cranky. After skipping the hotel's "Western" restaurant as too expensive, we wandered into the hotel's "Chinese" restaurant in search of dim sum (Chinese tea pastries) for the boys (they have been craving pork buns ever since we arrived in China). Working our way through the non-English speaking waitress staff, we succeeded in getting a fairly inexpensive lunch that included nine pork buns that the boys devoured. (Our experience is that the hotel restaurants increase the prices on their "Western" menus, assuming that Americans/Europeans have more money to spend and won't eat in the "Chinese" restaurants.)
Things began to go better after lunch. Gail, the incredible wonder woman, went to Reception and got us moved into two rooms that were still unconnected but at least adjacent to each other (Ricky had said that there were none available). She also called Nina at CTS and got us a few small items in compensation:
Nina also apologized profusely and explained that Ricky was fairly new, having just graduated this year. Apparently, it had never occurred to him to hold up a sign or wear any identification so that we could have found him in the crowd.
Reluctant to move from our room, we spent the afternoon homeschooling the boys. Gail, the incredible wonder woman, spent almost two hours hand-washing our accumulated (and filthy) dirty laundry in the bathtub. By dinnertime, we decided to venture out of the hotel to the Friendship Store across the street. There, we found our most recognizable groceries yet, and picked up enough supplies for our two dinners in Guangzhou. We also strolled through the department store -- we have now reached the point where venturing into Chinese markets and stores in actually quite fun. The clerks tend to leave us alone after they discover that we can't understand a thing they say. (We also saw at least three little Chinese boys wearing yellow silk outfits.)
We spent a quiet evening admiring the view from our eighth-floor room, and Cameron was finally able to play a game of Chinese Chess with Dad. Tomorrow is National Day, October 1st, which celebrates the 1949 "liberation" and birth of the People's Republic of China. Things can only get better... we hope.
The view from our hotel
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