I woke up with a start. I had had a terrible dream about being lost in a completely foreign place where I was a complete outsider and couldn't read or speak the same language as everyone else. My heart was pounding and I was sweating profusely. I looked around and recognised my surroundings, thanking God that I was in a place I recognised, where I felt safe and could talk to people.
Then I sat up and saw our two small rucksacks, neatly packed and sitting in the corner of the room saying "Safe now, Dave but wait until you get across the border."
Then Captain Paranoia joined in. "You'll get lost. You'll get robbed. Nobody speaks any English. You won't know where you are or how to get home. You're screwed. Ha ha ha!".
I decided to get up and have a shower to clear my head. Lisa was still asleep, oblivious to my trauma. The shower was refreshing and shocked me into full conciousness but there was still something wrong. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I walked over to the huge window in our hotel room, overlooking the skyscrapers which make up Hong Kong's magnificent skyline and thought about things. As I watched the taxis charging up and down Robinson Road, the buses carrying people to their work, the sunlight reflecting off the huge glass edifices dominating Central, the Star Ferry carrying locals and tourists across Victoria Harbour to and from Kowloon, I realised what my problem was.
I was terrified. Here in Hong Kong, I was secure. This morning I was going to leave this haven and embark upon a two week journey around a huge country where a microscopic minority spoke English; where everything was written in characters I could not even begin to understand; where the people were possibly going to be, rightfully, a little bit belligerent towards anyone from the West because of NATO incompetence; where I faced having to eat horrific food; but most of all where I may have to spend two weeks squatting over a hole in the ground whenever I needed the toilet.
Toilets have always been traumatic for me, especially the public variety. In my own home I am perfectly happy with my toilet. It is immaculate and sparkling and, most important, smells of nothing more than toilet fresh cleansing fluid. In my mind, whenever I go into a toilet, whether it is at work, in someone's house, or a public one, it has to be so clean that I could eat my dinner off it. Not that I would eat my dinner off a toilet, mind. It's just that I like my backside to have the same privileges as the rest of my body when it has to perform its main function in life.
I have encountered some of the most horrific toilets known to man in my lifetime, a lot of them in pubs and football grounds. In preparing for this trip I had read sections of the guide book to find out what lay in store for us. I'm sure that Captain Paranoia was turning the pages and whispering in my ear because I ignored useful sections like crime, legal matters, even health and focused my attention on the section labelled "Toilets". This guide book, our survival kit in China, contained important and crucial information to help us on our journey and, out of the one thousand plus pages I had scrutinized half a page about what to do when Mother Nature told me "Hey! Don't you think it's about time you got rid of the rubbish?".
I had been spoiled in Hong Kong. The toilets were on the whole immaculate, even in bars and clubs. I had on occasion been confronted with toilets manufactured in the bowels of hell but had managed to avoid using them. The guide book (or rather Captain Paranoia) told me that such toilets were considered luxurious in China, the Chinese favouring the type of toilet that Satan himself would think twice about using.
People get used to certain kinds of toilet and, according to the book, the Chinese had not got used to the western style. When confronted with the toilets we are familiar with, a Chinese man would refuse to sit on the seat, preferring instead to squat on the loo seat itself. I had sometimes wondered why, in some establishments in Hong Kong, there were two huge boot prints on the loo seat and urine swimming over the seat and floor.
The guide book had one good piece of news. There were western style toilets in China especially in hotels. I decided to make a pledge to myself. I vowed that when Mother Nature reminded me of my obligations for waste disposal, I would leave no stone unturned in attempting to find a western style toilet. I regarded it as my first challenge on a journey overflowing with challenges.
Lisa broke my reverie. "Come on! Come on!" she shouted. "Let's get going!" She sprung round the room like a woman possessed. This gave me the distinct impression that Lisa was nowhere near as apprehensive as I was. There was enough enthusiasm in her for both of us. Captain Paranoia was also enthusiastic about the trip. He was looking forward to tormenting and torturing me over the next fourteen days. I tried to counteract the fear by busying myself packing our suitcases ready to leave with the concierge for the trip. Soon it was time to go. We carried our luggage down to the foyer of the hotel to spend its two week holiday behind lock and key in the concierge's private little holiday home for bags. Part of me envied the luggage. It would be bored but at least it would be safe and know exactly where it was. My suitcase would not be stuck in Tibet holding a battered guide book, asking a man who had no idea how to speak or read English exactly how to get back to Hong Kong.
When we left the hotel to make our way to the railway station in Kowloon, I looked back at the building. Captain Paranoia whispered to me "Take a good long look. You won't see that again for a long long time."
Eventually we arrived at Tsim Sha Tsui to grab some breakfast ("the last good food you'll have for a long long time" whispered my imaginary nemesis). I decided that I needed some true western junk food to set me up for the journey. Where better to pump your veins full of cholesterol and add a few unwanted pounds of pure fat to your belly than a famous American burger outlet?. Like all junk food it was thoroughly delicious and left me wanting more. Why is that? Why is it that the food the experts say is bad for us is always the most tasty? When confronted by a massive burger and a bowl of salad and asked to choose one of them, I will go for the unhealthy, greasy burger every time. Don't get me wrong. I do enjoy a salad. The problem is that it has to be covered in mayonnaise and other fat filled dressings, which defeats the object really. Lettuce is just so bland and tasteless.
I left the burger bar with mayonnaise and tomato ketchup dripping down my chin and, once again, I turned around to have one last glimpse at a place selling western food. "What am I doing?" I asked myself. What was I letting myself in for? All my fears, banished by my taste buds as I devoured my flab-burger, were returning. It was then that I remembered ... I was about to get on a train bound for China and I hadn't had my morning constitutional. Mother Nature hadn't called. I turned to look for Lisa who was just about to hail a taxi.
"Wait!" I cried. "I have to try to go to the loo." Several passers-by stared at me in disbelief as I rushed back into the burger bar to find the toilet. Lisa looked on exasperated. I found a suitably clean cubicle and tried to let nature take it's course. Except it wouldn't. I could not go. As I sat there, looking at my watch, I realised that if I didn't leave soon, we would miss the train. Part of me said "So what?" but sense prevailed and I gave up. Once again Lisa hailed a taxi and off we went.
We arrived at the station and had no difficulty finding our train. We had a bit of time to spare so I decided to have one last, desperate attempt to pay a call. There was a gents nearby so I handed my rucksack over to Lisa and crossed the threshold ... then promptly walked out again. Out of the magnificent choice of cubicles I could have selected, not one of them was anywhere near up to standard. Call me meticulous if you like but, as I've implied above, a toilet does have to have certain fundamental facilities before I will use it. This one failed the first and most important rule. None of the cubicles had a toilet bowl. Each one was a hole in the floor, with two foot-shaped tiles either side. A moment of realisation swept over me. I was doomed. I would have to squat and suffer. I decided to give it a miss once more, hoping that I might find something in China in three hours or so. Dejected and resigned to my fate, I met Lisa and we walked through ipassport control to catch the train.
Before boarding the train, we bought a few essential items to take with us: water, biscuits and a tube of sour cream and onion Pringles. We descended onto the platform and found our seat. The train itself was surprisingly comfortable. The windows were adorned with curtains and the carriage itself was clean and well maintained. After a few minutes the train slowly pulled out of the station and our voyage into the unknown had begun.
I have always found travel exciting. What I am not so keen on, however, is the journey itself. I find most trips on trains and planes etc. incredibly boring and have to have something to occupy my mind whilst the dreary hours pass. The journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou was forecast to take about two hours but I still needed something to do. Usually I take a good book or a personal stereo and lots of decent tapes or CDs. Absorbing myself in an epic tale of horror or drifting into the world of a heavy metal masterpiece help time pass quickly. Unfortunately to make life easier on this trip, we had packed all of our belongings into two small rucksacks. The advantage was obvious. We would not have to haul huge bags of mostly superfluous luggage around from city to city. The disadvantage was also obvious. Space would be at a premium so certain luxuries, like a novel or a CD player had to be left behind.
Our essential items were all crammed into our rucksacks. I had one pair of long trousers, which I was wearing, and two pairs of shorts. I had enough T-shirts, underwear and socks for a week. Lisa had the same. We had no towels and were hoping that we could survive using those in hotels, though I was very unsure about this. Toiletries were kept to a minimum; we had shampoo, soap toothpaste etc. but Lisa had to sacrifice all of those extra bottles full of substances unknown to man, and travel light.
Why is it that women have so many more toiletries than men? I have asked myself this many times. In the bathroom, I have just a few essential items; toothpaste, toothbrush, shower gel (and that's a luxury!), shampoo, deodorant, soap and after shave. Oh, and an electric shaver. Let me just take a peek into our bathroom to see what Lisa has. Please be patient, I may be a long time...
Okay, I'm back. Here goes (deep breath) ...
Facial scrub, deep cleansing lotion, some kind of weird rock, shampoo, conditioner, mineral bath, body scrub, revitalising smoothing masque, deep cleansing clay masque, bath soak, baby lotion, eye make-up solvent, alcohol-free toner, body lotion, toning cream, lip balm, complete care day cream, moisture surge treatment, turnaround cream, deodorants (plural!), all-in-one face base, face brush, blush, make-up base, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, various odd sized and shaped sponges, lipsticks (hundreds of them), cream shadow, sun cream, perfume (again hundreds of them), styling mousse, energising body spray, firming cream, bust beauty lotion, hair gel, hair wax, hair spray and a mud mask. And that's only a partial list - I ran out of note paper! What's worse is that I can't even begin to tell you what most of these things are actually for. What on earth would you use turnaround cream for? Whenever I think about it my imagination runs amok.
As you can see, Lisa sacrificed much more than me for this trip. I gave up my books and music; Lisa gave up an entire chemist shop.
The one book I did bring, of course, was the guide book for China. I decided to take the opportunity to read about Guangzhou as we travelled.
Guangzhou or Canton, as it is more commonly known in the west, is the capital of the Guangdong Province and, with a population of six and a half million people, is the largest city in South China. Because of its location at the convergence of three rivers and its proximity to the South China Sea, the city has a history of trade with foreign merchants dating from the third century A.D. Today Guangzhou is one of the most affluent and vibrant cities in China.
As I read about the people, the city itself, its festivals and culture, part of my fear began to drift away. The more engrossed I became in the image of Guangzhou conjured up by the guide book, the more confident I began to feel about the trip. Although I knew there would be a culture shock, I gradually came to the conclusion that we would cope with the change and possibly even have a good time, a thought that an hour or so ago would never had made it past the security men guarding Captain Paranoia.
According to the guide book, the city is full of temples, monuments and museums, to provide an insight into the Chinese way of life, but equally, Guangzhou boasts a variety of good restaurants, shops and hotels and an excellent transport system to get us around.
We had decided that, rather than booking hotels in advance, we would familiarize ourselves with each city beforehand and decide where to stay based upon locations of places of interest and transport etc.. We would be leaving Guangzhou by train from the main railway station so it made sense for us to find accommodation in that area so we wouldn't have far to go when the time came to leave. I have to say that this was really my suggestion because I did have an ulterior motive for wanting to be near to our place of departure. Part of this was Captain Paranoia telling me that we would miss our train because we couldn't read Chinese etc., etc. but the main reason was the Tonto gene in Lisa's DNA, responsible for her complete lack of a sense of direction plus Lisa's inability to be early for anything.
Basically, I hate to be late. Lisa hates to be early. Whenever the subject of punctuality marches into our lives, there is an immense tug-of-war with me on one side trying to drag Lisa through the door so that we can at least be on time for our appointment and Lisa on the other side trying to make sure that we do not turn up far too early and end up having to wait. This is particularly true of, say, a visit to the cinema. I have to be there at least ten minutes before the trailers and advertisements armed with a huge box of popcorn and a large cardboard beaker with enough coke to make 5000 children hyperactive for a month. Lisa will happily miss the first five minutes of the film.
The journey to Guangzhou was uneventful. I didn't even notice that the train had left Hong Kong. I expected an immense border crossing with hundreds of red army soldiers boarding the train to scrutinize our passports, visas, luggage and anything else they could find to tear apart, but nothing happened. As I looked out of the window, I noticed that the busy streets and huge edifices of Hong Kong seemed to have been replaced by countryside and small buildings. Everything seemed so calm and peaceful. We passed small villages with just a few people wandering around or riding bikes. Nobody seemed interested in the train as it passed them. There were nondescript buildings, a few shops and houses and one or two children playing games. I was surprised at how ordinary everything seemed. I saw no policemen, and no soldiers. On one or two buildings the red flag of China was blowing softly in the breeze. One other thing struck me: the complete lack of English.
Of course, I expected to see nothing but Chinese text but, like most Englishmen, I thought that the people would be considerate enough to help out their Western friends. But that's when it struck me. Why did I feel that other countries should make life easy for the English speaking population of the world? Americans and British people in general, when travelling the world, insist that their hosts have the decency to help them survive, first by speaking English and second by translating all of the street and shop signs into English for them. In places like Holland, we feel at home because everything is in Dutch and English and everybody speaks our language fluently. Yet few people will make the effort to either speak the language or at least communicate with the natives in their own tongue. A phrasebook costs next to nothing and is definitely worth the effort. People are always more friendly if they see that, as guests, you are trying to adjust to their lifestyle and become part of their culture, albeit temporarily.
On the train, I felt ashamed that I was looking down on the Chinese for not having English translations of every sign. We had a phrase book and I knew how to say "Hello" and "Thank you" in Mandarin. I would persevere even though I could not understand a single Chinese character.
Eventually we pulled into Guangzhou East railway station. It was just like every other railway station I had ever been to. Lisa could barely contain herself. She had had a huge beaming smile on her face throughout the entire journey. She was a coiled spring. When the train stopped it was as if somebody had let her out of a cell for the first time in years. "Watch out China - HERE'S LISA!" she shouted as she threw me aside and trampled the other passengers to get to the door. No, she didn't really. I'm making that up. However, she was very excited and impatient as we slowly made our way off the train. We both set foot onto the platform. Lisa looked around and said "Isn't it GREAT???" I had to agree. My initial fear had gone and, though I had an army of butterflies playing football in my stomach, I was delighted.
We walked along the platform towards an escalator to take us towards immigration. I surveyed the surroundings once more. Another realisation hit me. Apart from Lisa, there were no other western people to be seen. Everyone else was Chinese. I was the only person in the vicinity with blond hair and blue eyes. We stood out like a sore thumb. When we reached the top of the escalator, queues were forming at the many immigration desks. A huge Chinese flag hung at one end of the room reinforcing the fact that we were indeed in another, altogether different country. Never before had I been to a place like this. I knew that from this moment on, Lisa and I would be the centre of attention wherever we went. We were already being watched carefully by a couple of immigration officers ... or were they soldiers? My heart began to beat faster as one of them broke away from the group and walked towards our queue. My imagination once more went into overdrive. This was it. We were going to be dragged away into a little office and interrogated about our purpose in the People's Republic of China. I could almost hear the evil policeman accusing us of being spies. I closed my eyes in the hope that the approaching officer would turn around or even vanish.
A hand closed on my arm. I almost cried out. "Come on, Dave," said Lisa, "He wants us to start another queue." I opened my eyes and saw the now motionless immigration officer pointing to a booth which was just opening.
The sensible part of my mind chastised me in the strongest possible terms for being so paranoid. Of course I was not going to be arrested and questioned about my intentions. There was no way I would be sentenced to years in a jail cell, being forced to eat snake. I felt a complete idiot, so much so that I didn't mention my mistake to Lisa.
Immigration and customs was a formality and we marched triumphantly past the sign which said "Welcome to the People's Republic of China" to the beginning of our adventure.
* * *
Guangzhou East railway station was an absolute nightmare. It was full of people purposefully marching about yet appearing to go nowhere. We were barged and pushed and stared at as we wandered around looking for an exit. The Chinese symbols representing the word "exit" were familiar to me after spending so much time in Hong Kong. Perhaps I was optimistic that I would be able to recognise them in China amongst the other thousands of characters telling everyone else what they needed to know. Not surprisingly I couldn't find them. Neither could Lisa. We descended into the main concourse of the station hoping the way out would be obvious. It wasn't. There seemed to be no organisation and no help for the hapless travellers. Every railway station I had ever been to before, in Europe, America, even Hong Kong, was planned in such a way that passengers knew where to go to buy tickets, have a snack before their journey and finally board the train. I could see no ticket office, no trains, no railway staff and most importantly, no exit. There were a few stalls selling food and other stuff but apart from that it seemed to me that everyone else was in the same predicament as us; desperately searching for a way out. The scary thing is that these people could actually read the signs.
We wandered around for at least a quarter of an hour in the dark, featureless building. I began to have visions that we would be stuck here for the remainder of our holiday and that I would be writing about my two weeks trying to escape from Guangzhou East railway station. Then we spotted what could have been the exit.
We walked past a stall selling food for the umpteenth time, once again shaking our heads at the woman as she tried to coax us into buying some food and saw daylight. Outside the chaos was even more turbulent than the main station concourse. Here, traffic was joining in the fun. Cars, motorbikes and buses were pouring noxious fumes into the atmosphere as people tried to get in and out of them at the same time. I looked at Lisa and laughed. How on earth were we going to get to the place we wanted? The buses had numbers but we had no idea where they went. I didn't want to risk jumping on and trying to communicate where we wanted to go with a driver who didn't speak English, whilst a number of impatient people tried to push past me. So we decided to walk and see what turned up.
The weather was hot and humid. Three months in Hong Kong has acclimatized us to the high temperatures and mugginess of this area of the world but Guangzhou was very much hotter than Hong Kong, probably because it was inland. My T-shirt was soaking wet and my money belt was irritating me so much that I was tempted to take it off and throw it away. Sweat poured down my face and the rucksack was glued to my back by a film of moisture. My throat was drier than the hottest desert and I longed for an ice cold beer.
Eventually we arrived at what looked like a taxi rank. Once again the scene was riotous. Queues for the taxis were none existent and even the cabs themselves were not in any kind of order. "Let's just try to jump in a taxi," Lisa suggested, trying to join in the apparent chaos and confusion. At the front of the so-called taxi rank, there were three queues of cabs all apparently waiting for passengers. Next to this was a queue of people who looked as if they were waiting for cabs. Yet nobody was actually getting into a taxi.
"Bugger this," I thought. There was no way I was going to stand in the intense humidity at the back of a queue of people who were doing nothing. For that instant, we forgot our prime directive to try to fit into the local culture. We became obnoxious tourists and jumped the queue. We leapt into one of the taxis. I fully expected to be bawled at by the irate driver in a language I didn't understand. But, to my amazement, he pulled away. Nobody in the queue seemed to have a problem with this. Nobody started waving their fists angrily because we had pushed in. I just didn't understand what was going on.
The taxi itself was very similar in appearance to those we had encountered in Hong Kong. Apart from the colour, there was one subtle difference; the driver was caged in. The interior looked a bit like one of those American police cars in futuristic films where they throw prisoners into the back and the cops in the front are protected by a screen. In this case, the caging only protected the driver, so it was possible to sit next to him in the front but not actually be able to touch him. Another subtle difference was the hand-sized gap where, presumably, passengers could pay the fare. We jammed the guide book through this gap and, still driving, he looked at it blankly. I reached through and pointed at the Chinese text for "Main Railway Station". The only problem was that as the taxi bumped along, I found it difficult to keep my finger on the text. When the driver nodded and handed back the book, I prayed that he had not misinterpreted where my finger was pointing and was now taking us to the long distance bus station. I decided to try to follow our progress on the map in the guide book hoping that we would not get lost before we had actually got anywhere.
Of course, it was impossible to work out where we were going. I gave up after a few minutes. I noticed that the street signs were written in western characters as well as Chinese but the map in the guide book, though adequate, didn't do justice to the sheer size of the city. The streets were filled with cars, buses, lorries, mopeds and bikes, but mainly mopeds. This was moped city. The main roads were long and wide and so full of traffic that vehicles could easily spill out onto the footpaths, which wouldn't have surprised me at all. There appeared to be only one rule for traffic in this crazy city: ignore all other vehicles. If the steering wheel of the car hadn't been on the left, I would have had no idea which side of the road the taxi was meant to be driving on. The taxi driver fought for space with mopeds, buses and even pedestrians. At one point, we were approaching the junction of two main roads, yet there were no signs, traffic lights or any other driving aids to direct people. Drivers saw where they wanted to go and just went for it completely oblivious to everything which just happened to be in the way, like dogs, small children and lorries. The most amazing thing on that initial journey was the fact that there were no accidents. As we watched, vehicles of all shapes and sizes were narrowly missing other vehicles, yet surprisingly, the drivers did not once wave, shout or curse. Road rage, like the highway code, seemed to have disappeared from Guangzhou.
Eventually, and with thanks to the Almighty, we pulled up outside Guangzhou's main railway station. After paying the taxi driver, we turned to look at the place. I would never have believed that there was a place on earth, let alone China, which was more crowded and mixed up than Guangzhou East, the station at which the train from Hong Kong had delivered us. But before me, stood a building which was much bigger and a hundred times more chaotic. The blazing sun was cooking me as I stood so we approached the station building itself looking for shade so that we could get our bearings and find a hotel.
Earlier we had singled out the Friendship Hotel, which according to the guide book, was about half a mile from the station. On the station concourse, there were many small shops and mini market stalls and a lot of people milling around. Unfortunately, every single square millimetre of shade was occupied. The temperature and humidity were both beginning to get to me. I do like sunshine but, being fair skinned, I have a tendency to cook. The humidity helps this process, basting my pale skin in sweat. It was difficult to cool down because the water we had brought from Hong Kong was almost boiling in its bottle. My T-shirt had become one with my body and my normally frizzy hair was limp, lifeless and drenched with perspiration.
Eventually we saw a man relinquish his claim to one of the few refuges from the intense heat and rushed over to claim it for ourselves. This created another problem. Though we were temporarily safe from the intense glare of the sun, we were right in the firing line for touts, beggars and passers-by, who had rarely if ever seen a non-Chinese person. I started off politely shaking my head as beggar after beggar marched up to us with filthy outstretched hands, demanding cash but as they became more persistent, and started to touch us to attract our attention (as if a shake of the head and a smile turning to a snarl wasn't enough) we decided to hand our sanctuary from the heat to another person. Luckily, though, we knew where we had to go to find our hotel. Unfortunately we had to cross the Guangzhou equivalent of the M6 to get to it.
I didn't fancy being smeared across the bonnet of a car or squashed by a madman in a bus so we started to look for an alternative way to get across the road. The road itself was slightly higher than the station and we noticed a few steps leading downwards to the left. I assumed that this was the entrance to a subway so we made our way towards it. The steps led to a tunnel which I thought would lead beneath the main road to the other side, but, unexpectedly, the tunnel descended and evolved into a subterranean labyrinth of shops. The ceiling of the tunnel was extremely low and we found ourselves surrounded by stalls selling everything from electrical equipment to food, from clothing to furniture. The maze provided a respite from the intense heat and humidity outside so we slowly explored, trying to ignore the stares of the local people. Eventually we found another set of steps and walked up expecting to find ourselves on the other side of the main road. We were still on the same side but just a little bit further down the road. Was this the Tonto effect taking over again?
Undaunted, we plunged once again into the depths of the subway cum market-place and tried to get our bearings. We were beginning to attract the attention of some of the stall keepers who had already seen us meandering around looking lost. We were both gradually boiling in the intense humidity so Lisa suggested that we ditch our, now steaming water and buy new, colder supplies. We approached a stall selling drinks. I pointed to a large bottle of water half buried in ice and held up two fingers to indicate how many bottles I wanted. The lady on the stall rescued two bottles from the ice and handed them to me. She said something in Chinese which I assumed to be the price. I assumed that sign language would be the same in China as everywhere else - I had managed to communicate my needs to this person so far, after all. I rubbed my fingers together to express my desire to pay for the water. In return, she made a gesture which puzzled me completely. She held out her hand, bent her index, middle and ring fingers and stretched out her thumb and little finger at approximate right angles. Then she looked at me expectantly. I returned her gaze as if somehow the answer would leap out through her eyes and into mine, immediately informing me what this bizarre hand signal actually meant. After a few seconds, the look on her face told me that she knew that I had no idea what she meant. She turned around and began looking for something.
"Wait a minute," said Lisa from behind. "She's telling you how much it costs. I read this in the guide book."
Lisa began thumbing through the guide book as I reached into my pocket to offer her some cash.
"Found it," said Lisa and showed me the relevant page. The book showed diagrams for the gestures to indicate numbers in China or, as the book referred to it, "finger counting". Numbers one to five were the same as I expected but things became different from six upwards. Looking at the diagrams, I recognised the gesture being made by the stall keeper. She was telling me that the water would cost six yuan.
"Aah!" I exclaimed and fished out the correct cash from my wallet. I handed it over triumphantly to the lady and she replied with a friendly nod and smile. I made a mental note to learn Chinese finger counting.
We moved away from the stall, with a lot of people watching us and talking about us. I don't say this in a paranoid way. The people genuinely looked interested and amused at the exchange. There was no hint of "stupid bloody foreigners". I felt buoyed up by the experience and couldn't help smiling as we sought a way out of this underground labyrinth of shops.
After a few more minutes, we came across a tunnel which didn't seem familiar. At the end of this new tunnel was a set of steps. Up we went and thankfully found that we had reached the other side of the road. The guide book said that the Friendship Hotel was on a street called Renmin Beilu. We found this easily enough but couldn't see anything like a hotel as we began to walk along the street. We stopped a bit further on and examined the guide book once more. I looked around but couldn't see the hotel at all. Just then, a man came up to us and presented us with a glossy sheet of paper.
"You look for hotel?" he said in broken English. "Friendship Hotel very good."
"Where?" I asked. He pointed to a building not ten feet away from where we were standing. Emblazoned on the roof of the building in letters big enough for me to be able to read without my glasses, were the words "Friendship Hotel". Tonto was taking hold.
We followed the man into the hotel foyer as he explained the hotel rates to us. The hotel was far from what I expected. We were prepared to stay in a basic hotel and, as long as it was comfortable and clean, it would suffice. This hotel, however, was gorgeous. It was better looking than the hotel we had been staying at in Hong Kong. I looked at the shiny piece of paper he had given us. The rates for this hotel were incredible, the rooms looked like the kind I would expect to be staying in on a business trip.
"How much are the rooms?" I asked myself more than anyone else.
"I can get you a room for 250 yuan," replied the man. I looked at Lisa. Instantly she began to barter. After a conversation between the receptionist and the little man and Lisa, we got the room for 200 yuan, approximately £15.
The bellboy took us to our floor where we were introduced to the floor attendant, who looks after all of the guests on that floor. This is a feature common to most hotels in China and provides an extra level of security because the attendants are present twenty four hours a day. We filled in registration forms and were escorted to our room. I tipped the bellboy and closed the door.
The room was excellent. We had everything you would expect for a business hotel including telephone, TV, radio, alarm clock, minibar etc. By now it was two in the afternoon and nature was calling me. I went into the bathroom and found, to my unending delight, that the toilet was a real one, not a hole in the floor. It was pristine, with a sheet of paper across it saying "Sanitized for your protection". I could now answer the call of nature instead of ignoring it.
"I'm going to be about ten minutes," I said to Lisa, closing the door. As nature took its course, I had a closer look at the bathroom. It was spotless and bordering on luxurious. I couldn't believe we had found such a place for a relatively small amount of money. Captain Paranoia tried to ruin the moment by telling me that there was a hidden surcharge but we had paid cash and could walk out at any time. I ignored him.
While I was busy, Lisa was discovering the delights of the minibar - a cool 8 yuan for a beer. The air-conditioning was blowing ice cold air around the room to cool our sweating bodies, so I took off my T-shirt and money belt to languish in the cool atmosphere. Unfortunately, I discovered that the combination of intense heat, sweat and tightness of the money belt (resulting from Captain Paranoia's insistence that I was going to be robbed as soon as I boarded the train) had left its mark - literally. I had a red money belt-shaped indentation around my stomach, which itched annoyingly. Fortunately an ice-cold shower soon put paid to that.
For the next hour we relaxed, trying to decipher the programmes on Chinese TV and sipping ice-cold beer and scoffing our sour cream and onion flavoured Pringles. I decided that this was a place on the road to heaven and began to wonder why I had had so many concerns and anxious episodes about this trip.
After a while, bored with the Chinese equivalent of Coronation Street, we felt that it was time to explore our surroundings. I suggested that we try to get our train ticket to the next destination sooner rather than later, given the proximity to the main railway station. We handed our key in to the floor attendant and ventured downstairs armed with water, phrase book, Chinese-English dictionary and, of course, the guide book.
Lisa had read in the guide book that it was possible to purchase train tickets from hotels so we checked at reception. The receptionist spoke relatively good English and we managed to get our message across. She summoned a bellboy who took us outside to another building, housing the hotel's travel service. Here, however, the young women behind the counter didn't speak English very well.
Lisa was already prepared. Laying the phrase book on the desk, she pointed to the Chinese phrase for "I want a hard sleeper to ..." and then held up two fingers to indicate two hard sleepers. We then had the problem of trying to get across our destination and the time we wanted to leave. This was incredibly difficult, but with the aid of the guide book (to tell her our destination) and a few rough diagrams (to indicate that we wanted bottom bunks), we thought that we had finally communicated our needs. Whilst the woman went off to sort out tickets, the bellboy, who had been reading the phrasebook intently, began coaching us in Mandarin. He pointed to the phrase "I want a hard sleeper to ..." and said the Mandarin equivalent very slowly. Lisa repeated him. He laughed as did another travel service assistant. He said it again. I repeated him this time and got a slightly better reaction. After a few more attempts, we both got it right, which not only impressed the bellboy but gave him an immense feeling of satisfaction. The woman came back with a bit of paper and after another round of sign language and scribbled diagrams, we worked out that we were supposed to return at six o'clock to get the tickets. Unfortunately, time had moved on quickly, leaving us an hour and a half to wander around before the tickets arrived, so we opted to go for a little stroll around the local area.
As we walked south down Renmin Beilu we couldn't help but notice that everyone who passed us, without exception, was staring at us in disbelief. Once again I felt like an alien. Even people on mopeds and bicycles were concentrating more on us than the road ahead. Geoff, one of our colleagues in Hong Kong, had warned us about the attention we would get. Apparently, a woman on a bicycle had been so mesmerised by the sight of Geoff (a six foot three Canadian) in one city that she had failed to notice a lamppost, hitting it full on and falling off her bike. Luckily the only thing that was injured was her pride and, after Geoff and helped her up, she continued on her journey, totally embarrassed by the episode.
After about twenty more minutes the temperature began to drain me once more. Looking at the guide book, I noticed that we were very close to the Hard Rock Cafe. I suggested that we go there "to cool off". Lisa, understanding me completely, agreed, so off we went for another ice-cold beer. When we entered the place it was deserted, except for one or two customers and two barpersons. Hard Rock Cafes everywhere are almost identical and this was no exception. The customary guitar-shaped bar invited us to sit down and I could almost sense the beer pleading with us to liberate it from the barrels and bottles. Of course, we obliged, but, realising that it was happy hour, we liberated rather more than we expected, the obvious consequence being that we gradually became very tired, so much so that we headed straight back to the hotel rather than exploring further.
On the way back, I noticed something else odd about traffic in Guangzhou. On each traffic light there was an LED display showing numbers, gradually counting down from 30 to 1. I realised that it was a countdown to the time that the lights would actually change from green to red (or vice versa). In this city of chaotic traffic and a non-existent highway code, the authorities had decided to increase the mayhem by giving drivers an excuse to either press the accelerator instead of the brakes when approaching a green light or encouraging the driver's equivalent of premature ejaculation at a red light. I couldn't believe it. I watched open-mouthed as drivers sped through red lights rather than slowing down. Imagine what would happen in Britain if we had a similar countdown. It would be a boy racer's dream come true. Murray Walker wouldn't need to go to a Grand Prix to watch cars hit high speeds from standing when the lights changed; all he'd have to do would be to stand at his nearest traffic light and watch what happened when the lights changed.
When we arrived back at the hotel, we called into the travel office to pick up our tickets. The woman seemed genuinely pleased to see us, mainly because all of her attempts to tell us what time to pick up the tickets had not been in vain.
After a couple of hours sleep, we examined the guide book to select a place to eat. It wasn't difficult. It had to be Shamian Island, a small haven from the bustling streets of Guangzhou. We risked another incredibly scary taxi journey but thankfully arrived in one piece.
The island itself is situated on the Pearl River and, because it is entirely surrounded by water, albeit not much water, its claim to be an island is just about legitimate. Shamian Island is around 900m from east to west and around 300m from north to south and is, as the guide book claims, a calm and peaceful place. The restaurant we selected was the Li Qun restaurant, after all, our first meal in China had to be Chinese. The street naming convention on the island made the restaurant easy to find, the streets running from north to south being called Shamian 1-Jie to Shamian 5-Jie respectively. Not even Lisa could get lost on this island.
The restaurant had a few tables outside but we opted for a seat inside. The waitress showed us to a table, the rest of the restaurant's patrons giving us the customary "aliens have landed" look. Captain Paranoia took this opportunity to surface and try to make me squirm. "The menu will be in Chinese. You won't know what you are ordering. You'll end up being poisoned!". The waitress gave me a menu and, to my delight, it was in both Chinese and English. However, when I looked closer, the language resembled English but was not quite there. I had read about this in the guide book. Translating Chinese to English for a Chinese person is not as straightforward as translating from, say, French to English. The result is Chinglish, a language we encountered many times, especially on restaurant menus and instructions in hotel rooms. In some cases, I suspect that the translations are not Chinglish but are genuine English but so unusual that they need to be seen to be believed. Here is a word for word set of Chinglish/English hotel rules and instructions we came across:
Guests are not permitted to bring poultry into the hotel.
Inflammable materials, explosives or other dangerous articles are not permitted in the hotel.
No clamouring, quarreling, fisticuffing or indulging in excessive drinking and creating disturbances in the room, the corridor or the lobby.
Promote bygiene and civiligation. The illegal activities of gambling, smaggling, harbouring criminals and articles, prostitution and adultery are strictly prohibited, Spit and litter everywhere are also strictly prohibited.
All the pets are not allowed to bring to the hotel. Fight and scuffle, making trouble after drunken are prohibited at out hotel. Loud bustle in the public place are also prohibited.
Whenever discovered, the hotel has the right to stop these phenomena.
You can control the room temperature at your like.
Acoustics control panes is fixed on bedside cupboard.
Acentral illumination sistem is provided in the room at our hotel. Please insert the key plate into the key hole then electricity and illummation will come right away.
No guest is allowed to up anyone for the night.
No birds, domestic animals or other unsnairy articles are allowed to be brought into the hotel.
Playing recorder loudly in the hotel is forbidden.
To those who have violated the “Criminal Laws of the people’s Republic of China”, the public security and judicial organs will investigate and affix their responsibilites for the crime in accordance with the law.
Back at the restaurant, the menu in front of me was mostly in Chinglish, but the truth of what we were being offered was obvious and almost turned my stomach. Here are some of the worst choices - and this is word for word as they appeared on the menu:
Stewed Pig Intestines
Fried Insect In Pot
Fried Frog In Pot
and worst of all:
Cat, Snake And Chicken Soup
The majority of the menu contained meals you would normally expect to see in a Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world. Call me unadventurous but I did not go for the cat and snake soup followed by fried insect. Lisa and I selected a pork dish, roast goose and rice noodles with beef washed down with a couple of beers and I have to say it was truly excellent. While we were eating, I did find myself looking at the other diners in the restaurant wondering whether anyone was eating the cat and snake soup and I couldn't help looking out for people with a huge beetle on the end of their chopsticks. Luckily, I didn't spot anything out of the ordinary on anyone's plate.
When we left the restaurant, Lisa told me about the restaurant next door, where she had been to the toilet. We walked past and saw cages outside with live geese, ducks and strange birds which resembled pheasants, and tanks filled with water, containing snakes, which were fully submerged but kept drifting to the surface to come up for air. The sight of these caged birds made me feel guilty about eating the roast goose. It seemed that Chinese people liked to see their food alive before buying it to eat. I was just about ready to comment on this when I saw a young boy tucking into a duck's head inside the restaurant. I decided to keep quiet. What I needed was another beer and the Shamian Bar was within spitting distance.
The bar itself was deserted; I began to wonder whether anyone in China actually frequented these places. It looked like any bar I'd ever been to in Hong Kong but in this case we were the only customers and there were four people working behind the bar. One of the barmen spoke very good English and engaged us in conversation. "Where are you from?" he asked. "Manchester in England" I replied. "AAHH!! Manchester United! Everybody in China LOVES Manchester United" he said. I cringed. Living in Manchester and having to face smug Manchester United fans on a daily basis is one thing but I didn't expect to find Manchester United fans here.. What am I saying? Of course there would be Manchester United fans here - after all, most Manchester United fans come from outside Manchester. This proves my point. The barman reassured me about the bar, telling us that it would fill up around midnight and would get very rowdy very quickly because, basically, Chinese people cannot take their beer. My impression of the place was that it would be a bit too expensive for the local people based upon the price we had paid for beer.
The barman was from Vietnam and had learned Chinese and moved to China. He was working in a bar to save up money for his studies and his dream - to leave China and open a Japanese restaurant in the United States. He told us that he was an excellent cook and planned to move to Oklahoma in two years time (he had friends there). We wished him luck and gave him a tip - don't eat cat, snake and chicken soup - only kidding; we left him a few yuan and left in search of another bar to have our "one for the road".
The next port of call was Lucy's Bar and Restaurant on the south of the island, situated next to Shamian Park and overlooking the Pearl River. This place was far livelier than the Shamian Bar and was full of western tourists and businessmen. We took a seat outside next to the park rather than sitting in the restaurant area itself. The intense heat of the day had by this time dissipated and now the evening was mild and pleasant. Before ordering the beer, I went inside to search for the toilet. I was told to use the toilet in the park - I grimaced at the possibility even though it was only a pee I needed. As I wandered into the park, my nose told me where the toilets were located rather than my eyes. The stench was totally disgusting. I held my breath and prayed that I could keep it held for the duration of my call to Mother Nature. I failed within seconds of entering the pit from hell, masquerading as a public convenience. The first thing I saw was a pipe against the wall, severed at the bottom, pouring water into an overflowing plastic bucket, which was covered in a substance I didn't dare contemplate. The pipe itself was leaking and spraying water over most of the toilet building; I had to duck to get past and relieve myself. A bit further past the drain were the cubicles I knew were just holes in the floor and which had no doors to give people the privacy they desired. I knew this because as I peed, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, a man squatting there. He finished before I did and then the role of the foul plastic bucket became apparent to me; It was used to flush the holes in the floor. The man grabbed the bucket, seemingly ignorant of the foul alien material covering it, and threw it aimlessly into the cubicle. He then walked out. When I had finished, I ran out vowing next time to risk arrest by peeing against a tree.
I returned to Lucy's to find an ice cold beer waiting for me. Lisa and I chatted about our exploits so far and my initial fears had long since vanished, along with, I hoped, Captain Paranoia. Lisa was totally absorbed by the Chinese culture and I wasn't far behind. Although at this stage, we hadn't really delved into China very deeply, I knew that there was much more to see and I began to look forward to it with excitement rather than trepidation. We left shortly afterwards and found a taxi to take us back to the hotel.
Our final taxi journey of the day was our most memorable. At this late hour there seemed to be more traffic on the road than ever and I still couldn't grasp the road rules. I tried to look out for traffic lights counting down to see how our driver reacted but stopped after he shot through a red light. A little further on, we saw an accident. This didn't surprise me at all. Two taxis had somehow hit each other head on and the drivers were busy assessing the damage to their vehicles. I also noticed that people on mopeds didn't seem to care for road safety, either in the way they weaved in and out of moving cars, lorries and buses, or in the protective gear they were wearing. The crash helmets looked like hard hats worn at a building site but that's where the similarity ended. A well aimed pebble would have split the thing in two. Some of the helmets had visors, some did not. In my opinion, the mopeds should only have carried one person at most, yet almost all of them had at least one passenger. I was amazed to see men not only giving lifts to their girlfriends without insisting that they wear crash helmets but and also allowing them to ride side saddle. Maybe it was the cool thing to do, I don't know. The girls were either very brave or very foolish. Worse, I saw a couple of families of three, with the husband and wife both protected and the poor child sandwiched between them without any protection at all. As fascinated as I was by these crazy people, I found it difficult to watch them zipping in between much bigger vehicles in case they had an accident. They wouldn't have stood a chance.
I was relieved when we finally arrived back at the hotel and was looking forward to a good night's sleep. We had a rough plan of action for our second day in Guangzhou (assuming we got up early enough). I fell asleep dismissing Captain Paranoia's attempts to ruin my day.