I've never understood why, when you most need to have a lie in and you have an excuse to do so, Mother Nature decides that you should wake up at the crack of dawn. There have been occasions when I've been stupid enough to drink a cup of full strength, turbo-booster, thick espresso coffee an hour before going to bed or have spent the evening drinking Red Bull and vodka, drinks which have the effect of keeping me awake for hours on end. I remember working for the Schiphol Airport Authority and being forced to drink mugs full of syrupy filth, which masqueraded as coffee, and consequently waking up at 4 am, despite having consumed quantities of alcohol and retiring at 3am in an attempt to counteract the effects, with caffeine tearing through my veins shouting "WAKE UP! WAKE UP!". I can understand why I wake up under these circumstances. So why did I wake up at 615am on the morning of our second day in China, having gone to bed at around midnight, drugged by Chinese beer and so tired that I barely made it to the room without collapsing in a somnolent heap?
To make matters worse, my head was pounding, my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth (I don't recall eating a tube of glue before going to bed) and Lisa was snoring away next to me. My mind ran over the events of the last 24 hours and not once did I imbibe anything capable of keeping me awake. Why would I? I was on holiday and this was the best opportunity I had for multiple lie ins and complete laziness. Even worse was the fact that I didn't usually surface this early on a normal working day. What was wrong?
I contemplated this question as I rose to get a glass of water to try to persuade my tongue to extract itself from my palate. One gulp of ice cold water did the trick but my mouth still felt like the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag. I walked across to the window to see how Guangzhou reacted to Sunday mornings and got the surprise of my life.
Outside the window, the main road, Renmin Beilu, was absolutely full of maniacal drivers, challenging each other for every square inch of tarmac, in scenes of total chaos as we had witnessed yesterday. People were strutting around, cycling, exercising (exercising! Yes I did say exercising!) and acting as if they had been awake for hours. I couldn't believe it. The scene in front of me was reminiscent of a Saturday afternoon in the busiest shopping centre in Hong Kong. What were these people doing?
I decided that my watch must be wrong and that I had overslept. I looked again. My watch told me it was now 6.16 am. I lifted Lisa's arm to check her watch, her only reaction being to grunt, and it, too, told me that the time was 6.16 am. In disbelief, I checked the alarm clock by the side of the bed. The time? 6.16 am. I watched the people outside for a few minutes in total amazement. This would never happen in England on a Sunday morning. What were these people doing?
Captain Paranoia once again chose this moment to catch me unawares. "It's something you've eaten. You've been drugged. You'll wake up with a horrific hangover and you'll be violently ill at 6 o’clock every morning on this holiday."
I believed him briefly. Once again I thought about what we had eaten yesterday. Was it possible that the Chinese had a foodstuff which acted like coffee and kept people awake? I didn't think so and dismissed Captain Paranoia once again. Lisa had eaten the same stuff as me and she was so deep in sleep that, had she not been snoring, she could easily have been mistaken as being comatose. Everything was normal in Lisaworld.
Several creatures inhabit Lisaworld, each one taking turns to dictate her actions. You've already met Tonto, the bringer of confusion and bewilderment. The two most common manifestations I have encountered are The Sleep Monster and The Food Monster. When The Sleep Monster strikes, Lisa has to sleep, regardless of her current activity. It is easy to tell when The Sleep Monster is stampeding towards the throne of Lisaworld; her eyes begin to glaze over and she utters the following phrases: "I want to sleep. I want my bed". At this point, Lisa's homing beacon is activated and she heads directly to her bed without passing go and oblivious to the £200 she is meant to pick up. Lisa is unstoppable. When she finally reaches her destination, she collapses in bed and sleeps immediately. There's no tossing and turning to get comfortable; The Sleep Monster demands sleep - and sleep he gets.
The Food Monster, on the other hand, causes the same grim determination but the target is the nearest restaurant. Lisa is usually conscious when this creature takes over and will not be sated until she is filling her face (usually with nachos and cheese). The Sleep Monster was now in control of Lisaworld and nothing would dislodge him from his throne. There was no way she could have eaten anything to keep her awake.
I tried to get back to sleep but all I could think about was the flurry of early morning activity in Guangzhou. Cars horns and the general hustle and bustle kept me awake though I did drift in and out of a restless, post-alcoholic sleep until eventually I gave up and had a shower.
Feeling refreshed but still suffering from a mild hangover, I got dressed and spent a couple of minutes packing my rucksack. I flicked on the TV in the vain hope that I could find something to occupy my mind but, after five minutes of channel surfing, I gave up. Just then, I heard something stirring behind me. The Sleep Monster was doing battle with the Food Monster causing Lisa to stir. The Food Monster won because Lisa sat up and said "FEED ME NOW!!". No she didn't. I made that up. She, too, had a hangover but a couple of hours extra sleep had reduced its intensity somewhat. "Where are we going to go for breakfast?" she asked predictably. I would have plenty of time to find a suitable place to eat in the restaurant, because I knew that Lisa would take ages to get ready. I should have said "Well by the time you're ready it will be lunchtime" but, frankly, I didn't have the courage, being far too fragile to suffer the wrath of Lisa. "I'll find somewhere," I replied diplomatically.
I have never understood why certain people take so long to get ready. Usually, women are the worst culprits but I have encountered men who are just as bad. Many years ago, I toured France, Spain and Portugal for four weeks with two friends, Chris and Onkar. One day we made plans to spend the entire sunning ourselves on the beach (I was young and foolish then), the idea being that we get up extra early and beat the crowds. Onkar was first in the bathroom. Chris and I waited, and waited, and waited. An hour and a half went by. "What the hell's he doing in there?" I asked Chris in disbelief. Chris had no answer. We speculated but could think of no reason why he could realistically spend so long in there. When he finally came out, he was still undressed and half wet. "What were you doing in there?" I asked. "What do you think?" he replied, towelling himself dry. During this conversation, Chris sneaked into the bathroom. Almost two hours later (yes two hours later), he came out. Words failed me. Angry and frustrated, because it was now almost two o'clock in the afternoon, I stormed into the bathroom and found myself standing bang in the middle of Pandora's Box. I have never seen such a mess. There was water everywhere, used and soiled towels thrown about, shampoo all over the floor, soap and hair all over the place and toothpaste smeared all over the sink. To make matters worse, the room reeked. The smell which assaulted my nostrils was a mixture of soap, aftershave, deodorant and a foul stench, the source of which I did not want to contemplate. I was livid. I slammed the door and began to use the towels to clean the place up (we were renting a room in somebody's house). In total, including cleaning up, shaving, showering, answering Mother Nature and cleaning my teeth, I spent around twenty minutes in the room. Needless to say, we never made it to the beach.
Lisa is not as bad as that, but does have a tendency to spend ages getting ready. Usually she goes to bed covered in make-up and has to spend ages smearing a mixture of gooey liquids over her face to remove it. She had the same problem this particular morning except that she was seriously short of goo. She would have to use more conventional means. I have to admit that she did well that day, though, after I had had my morning constitutional (my record still of not having to use a hole in the floor still intact) we didn't manage to check out until around 11.30. Our train to Guilin wasn't leaving until around 7 o'clock that evening so we had most of the day to explore Guangzhou. We left our rucksacks with the hotel concierge and, armed with phrasebook, guide book and water, we made our way to the taxi rank outside the hotel.
We planned to head back to Shamian Island for Dim Sum, which of course meant yet another white-knuckle taxi ride. Maybe I was getting used to the rollercoaster ride because this didn't seem to bother me as much. True, we were still dodging mopeds, buses and pedestrians and, yes, we spent most of the time on the wrong side of the road or heading straight towards a square foot of tarmac along with other vehicles but I felt strangely relaxed. I took the opportunity to focus on the city and its people.
Guangzhou had a few tall buildings but they were nowhere near as big as the skyscrapers in Hong Kong. On the whole, the buildings were quite scruffy, dirty and featureless, though there were some shimmering, modern corporate edifices. Strangely, it reminded me of Birmingham.
The people on the other hand surprised me immensely. I expected to see people dressed in old-fashioned, boring clothes, but there were quite a few men in modern designer suits and women dressed in the latest Hong Kong fashions. Several other things struck me. A lot of people, both men and women, wore ankle tights or pop socks. It looked as if someone had bought a pair of tights and cut them off just above the ankle. Other people carried around tea around in jars and sipped it as they drank. I was surprised by this because the last thing I wanted to drink in these extreme humid temperatures was scalding hot tea. These people didn’t seem to mind. I guess they were used to the oppressive heat. Women carried babies around but I noticed that the babies didn’t have nappies on. Their mums tended to dress them in one piece romper suits which had a bum-sized hole in the back. I wondered what happened when the baby needed to go to the toilet. Experience has told me that babies give no warning when they need to relieve themselves and I didn’t think it would be any different in China. The potential for embarrassment was extremely high. In general, there was nothing odd and nothing special about the Chinese people in Guangzhou. Whether this would be the case in the other cities we were planning to visit, I did not know.
Once again, we arrived at Shamian Island and paid the taxi driver, mentally thanking him for not involving us in an accident and delivering us here safely. In the bright sunshine, the island looked very different. The buildings had a colonial and distinctly European feel to them. There were no crazy drivers around; even the people on bikes and mopeds calmly travelled the peaceful streets of the island. It was so peaceful and relaxing but all that was to change.
We decided to have Dim Sum in the Shamian Victory Hotel restaurant. As soon as we walked through the door, the atmosphere changed completely. The restaurant was absolutely full and the noise from the people was deafening. Waiters and waitresses were running around like maniacs. I stood by the entrance open-mouthed and looked around, hoping that there would be no room, so we could go somewhere more peaceful. But we were caught by one of the waiters. Lisa didn’t have the same inhibitions as I did and held up two fingers to indicate that we wanted a table for two. The waiter beckoned us to follow him and we entered the fray. We weaved in and out of tables and were taken to the far end of this huge restaurant. There were no intimate tables for two; the smallest I saw had ten seats. Every single table was full except for one at the back which had three empty seats. As we approached the table, every diner stared at us. I felt a bit like a film star but I knew that I wasn’t being scrutinised out of admiration or adulation. We were foreigners and outsiders and I felt as if we had infiltrated a secret club. I didn’t feel unwelcome; I felt as if I was a comedian and this audience was waiting to heckle me. Even the ladies bringing round the trolleys of food were watching us.
We sat down and the four diners on our table tried their best not to stare at us. They continued to munch their food and drink their tea. The waiter threw down two cups and a waitress almost dropped a pot of Chinese tea on the table, spilling some on the tablecloth. The waiter then brought a menu in Chinglish. I settled down to read what the restaurant had to offer us. Some of the culinary delights were (word for word):
Double Boiled Special Buddba Jump Over The Wall
Braised Whole Adductor w/vegetable Star Jelly
Boiled Chicken In Rose Stoy
Stewed Water Snake
Routine Old Chicken Soup
Today’s Long Time Soup In Pot
Roasted Cod Fish In Maggi
Goose Wind In Cassorle
Victory Restaurant Bun In Small Food
What a choice!
“We don’t want this menu,” said Lisa. “It’s not Dim Sum.” She beckoned to a waitress and pointed at the women pushing around trolleys to show that we wanted Dim Sum. The message got across because the waitress bought a green card covered in Chinese symbols similar to those we had seen in Hong Kong when having Dim Sum at the Jumbo Restaurant in Aberdeen. Each item cost 5 yuan (roughly 30p) so we could afford to try a few things. Lisa put her hand up to attract the attention of one of the women with trolleys. As the woman approached, I briefly looked around and noticed that a lot of diners were staring at us and whispering (as if I could understand Chinese!), waiting to see what we ordered or how we would react to the food. The trolley was full of small bamboo baskets with lids. The woman lifted a lid to show us its contents. When I saw the food, my reaction was predictable.
“No way!” I said when I saw the brown mass covered in dark brown sauce. If I had not known better, I would have sworn that it was moving. Lisa on the other hand, had a moment of complete madness. She nodded and the woman dumped the basket on our table. “What are you doing?” I asked in total disbelief. “That looks absolutely disgusting! I’m not having that.” Our fellow diners were trying their best not to snigger. Lisa examined the basket. “Oh no!” she said. “What in God’s name is that?” pointing at a bulbous object within the other foul looking substance. “It’s your lunch,” I said, a second before receiving my first punch of the holiday. The trolley woman ticked one of the boxes on the card and walked away, only to be replaced by another. In fact, there was a queue of them waiting to pass our table. Call me psychologically disturbed if you want, but I was convinced that these women were fighting for the right to present their wares to us and laugh at our reactions. I imagined that they were saying “Let’s see how they react to this!”
The next woman offered me a bowl of white bean congee. I had seen this stuff in Hong Kong many times but had never before been tempted to eat it. Looking at the indescribable mound of inedible rubber sitting in front of Lisa, I concluded that congee would at least be relatively safe to eat. So I had a bowl full.
Lisa looked at me, looked at the blubber in front of her, looked at my congee, looked at the bulbous brown object resembling an elephant’s eyeball, and uttered the words I was dreading to hear: “Shall we go 50-50?”.
“No way! NO WAY! I would not touch that stuff with a chopstick, let alone put it anywhere near my mouth. Do you think I’m crazy?”
“Be adventurous.” she said, trying to appeal to the testosterone-crazed section of my brain which becomes activated whenever anyone questions my masculinity. This time, I was not going to be coaxed into doing something dangerous and stupid.
“I’ll be as adventurous as you were when Henry gave you that red bean lolly.” I replied. As you can imagine, the next few minutes were spent with argument and counter argument, discussing why I should or shouldn’t try to eat half of Lisa’s insane choice for brunch. My willpower is really strong, which is why, after a further few minutes, I found myself holding a huge piece of Lisa’s rubbery dinner, with chopsticks, praying that I wasn’t about to eat snake - or worse! It looked like something you would expect to see in a low-budget horror film. The dark brown sauce dripped menacingly into the basket. Captain Paranoia was having an absolute field day.
"It's snake! No it's not! It's jellyfish. Even worse. It's armadillo's intestines "in pot". You're gonna be sick all over the table and I can't wait!".
I turned to Lisa. "Well go on then!" I said, hoping that she would try it first. She did. I watched as she chewed on the revolting mass of gelatinous gunk expecting to see her wince and spray the entire contents over the table. Then something surprising happened. She nodded and smiled. Taking this to be a signal that the stuff was actually edible, I stuffed some in my mouth and began to chew. Whether she did it on purpose, I do not know. Whether Lisa, paying me back for months of torment and ridicule, decided to punish me, was immaterial. The overpowering sensation assaulting my taste buds dismissed such thoughts. It was disgusting. As I spat the semi-chewed contents of my mouth onto the little plate in front of me, I could have sworn I heard a few sniggers in the surrounding area. I looked up and immediately saw diners and waiters look away trying not to laugh. I wiped the brown liquid from my chin and turned to Lisa to give her my opinion.
"That was absolutely disgusting!" I said, considering myself to have been kind to the chef. Lisa managed to swallow a bit. "That's oyster sauce," she surmised, "but it's really strong."
My first mistake had been to allow myself to be talked into eating Lisa's foul choice. My second mistake came almost immediately afterwards. When the rubbery mass had been in my mouth, I had detected a hint of pork. I told Lisa this and delved into the concoction to see if there was anything else in there. I avoided the bulbous object (I was still at this stage convinced that it was an eyeball) and plunged into the murky depths of the oyster sauce with my chopsticks. Probing around, I managed to grab something else and fish it out. "Ah!" I confidently said. "This looks like cabbage or something similar." I shook as much oyster sauce off the cabbage as I could and plunged it into my mouth. The moment my teeth penetrated the "cabbage", I realised my mistake. I was eating raw ginger. This was what had made the oyster sauce so strong. I blew the ginger out of my mouth onto the plate, rather like spitting out a large ball of mucous. There were more sniggers.
"I'm not touching any more of that," I said. Lisa agreed and began to poke around in the basket. "It's pig fat." she said. "This is so bad for you. I have to find out what this is.", pointing the chopstick ominously at the eyeball.
I have a thing about eyes. One of the reasons that I have never had contact lenses is because I am far too scared to even think about touching my eyes. A friend once told me that he had been out on the beer and tried to take his contact lenses out only to find them, after ten minutes of pulling, twisting and scratching, that he'd removed them half an hour before.
Lisa held the chopstick like a dagger, poised to penetrate this ugly, brown object. I knew that if it did turn out to be an eye, then I would definitely throw up on the table. I looked away as the chopstick plunged towards the object. I expected to hear the sound of an eyeball being punctured and its contents slopping out. Instead, Lisa said "It's only an egg!" and proceeded to eat it. I had had enough of this "dish". It was time to eat my congee.
That was mistake number three. As I've said, I'd assumed congee was like porridge but the taste in my mouth was far from that of Ready Brek. This time, I couldn't spit the stuff out, so with my stomach doing somersaults, I swallowed the offensive goo. I pushed the bowl away and suggested to Lisa that we try to use the phrasebook to order something we recognised. I think that this was the point when we fully appreciated the phrasebook. We pointed to items of food and got a knowing smile from the waiters and waitresses, before they whizzed off and brought us familiar and wholly delicious Chinese food.
As I was savouring the new dishes, I noticed that there was not a single knife and fork in sight. It's not that I expected there to be but I imagined the predicament of someone who had never used chopsticks before and the fun they would have had trying to tell the hapless waiters what they wanted. It was also evident that the local Chinese were interested in how we coped with chopsticks. I'm not an expert but, after many trips to Hong Kong, I am not bad.
Soon the people at our table departed, leaving just the two of us. However, within minutes another Chinese man sat down and muttered something to the waiter. I assume he ordered tea because a little later a pot and cup appeared in front of him. Then he did something very strange. He positioned his chopsticks vertically in his cup and poured tea down them. While he was doing this, the waiter lingered patiently behind him. When the cup was filled, he poured the entire contents of the cup into the tray being held by the waiter. Lisa and I both looked at each other in puzzlement and began to speculate why he had committed this bizarre task. Our conclusion was that the first cup of tea was incredibly weak and he was simply pouring it away. We later found out that he was in fact cleaning his chopsticks. I think he must have been uncomfortable with the way we were talking about this strange ritual because he looked over to us, said something to the waiter and left. The waiter took his pot of tea and cup over to another table. Captain Paranoia began whispering and I tried to ignore him. It was then that I saw the back of the T-shirt he was wearing. Written in English, on the back of his shirt was: "BRITISH SUCKS. We are not a Spice Girls Oasis fans". This time, I listened to the captain and requested the bill by waving a note in the air.
We left the restaurant having eventually enjoyed our Dim Sum and began to explore Shamian Island. It was nice to see the island during daylight and, as we watched the dusty cars and buses travelling on the main road adjacent to the island, we began to appreciate just how peaceful this little haven was. Once again, the temperature and humidity in Guangzhou were off the scale but there were pockets of shade in the park areas on the island to provide shelter from the sun's harmful rays. Small stalls scattered around the island provided ice-cold water (probably at inflated prices) to help us to cope with the climate. From the south side of the island we could watch the boats, weighed down by their cargo, floating peacefully along the Pearl River, and we were oblivious to the mayhem occurring in the rest of Guangzhou.
In due course, it was time to say goodbye to this peaceful place because we were running out of time to explore the rest of the city before catching our train. Reluctantly we left the island by one of the northern bridges and proceeded to our next destination, Qingping market.
In order to reach the market, we had to walk across a footbridge over the main road running alongside Shamian Island. The fumes and dust from the traffic rose up and threatened to choke us as we made our way across. When we had reached the other side, I almost suggested turning back because we had to cross a building site, full of very strange looking people, to reach the market itself. However, the market was covered and would provide shelter from the searing heat, so we made our way to it across mountains of rubble. The people around the market had clearly not seen many foreigners before. Not only were we stared at as we walked, we were also followed, very closely in some cases, and, presumably talking about us. I was relieved to reach the market and shelter from the sun and dust.
My first description of Qingping market has to be the smell. When we reached the first stalls I had no idea what could be causing the stench attacking my nostrils but I soon found out. Memories of our first Dim Sum course and the dreaded congee flooded into my conscious mind as we entered. Thank goodness we had some water to cool us down and help to remove the dry feeling trying to persuade my stomach to release its contents. I gulped the water and began to examine the wares of the market sellers. I have never seen anything like it. We saw dried snakes, dried seahorses, foul smelling herbs and spices, turtles and tortoises (minus their shells), huge dead insects, dubious mushrooms, deer antlers and assorted lizards. Many people were buying these items and the market sellers were trying their best to persuade Lisa and I to follow suit. One particularly large beetle conjured up an image of insect in pot and I almost gagged. Lisa seemed unperturbed by the surroundings and began to dawdle and examine the goods on offer. Admittedly, scattered amongst the evil dead creatures, were a few other interesting things but such was my revulsion that I couldn't concentrate on them. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel (literally) and hurried along to meet it. I reached what I thought was the end of the market, I noticed that there I was wrong and realised with horror that there was worse to come. I waited patiently for Lisa, trying to ignore requests to purchase insects and snakes, but most of all trying to ignore the sounds emanating from the remainder of the market branching off to my right.
Lisa finally arrived and said "Did you see some of the things they were selling. Yeuch!"
Yeuch? YEUCH?!? I would have said "BLEUUUURRGGGHHHHH!!".
"The best is yet to come," I said cryptically. Trying desperately to compose myself we turned into the second part of the market. It was like a take away menagerie. Hanging up were cages full of live animals, which I can only assume were there to provide a meal later in the day. There were monkeys, geese and birds crammed into cages big enough to contain only one creature. The animals were so crammed that they squawked and squealed, searching for pity. I was almost tempted to buy the lot and free them, though I suspect that they would have been rounded up again. Some of the less fortunate creatures had already been introduced to their maker; there were ducks attached to huge hooks by their nostrils. Further on were huge vats full of live frogs and fish. Two things pushed Lisa and I close to the edge. The first was tub full of rabbits, climbing over each other in an attempt to escape their incarceration. People were buying them, the market sellers picking them up by the ears and stuffing them in a bag. The second and final straw was a little kitten, hanging up in a cage, meowing frantically. I cast my mind back to the cat, snake and chicken soup and asked Lisa if we could leave this horrible place. She agreed. As we left, however, the stalls selling animals became stalls selling meat. I couldn't bring myself to even look at the meat in case I recognised a poor furry creature. Diverting my gaze, my eyes fell upon a vat full to the brim long, white wormlike monstrosities, which were dead fortunately, We left Qingping market, trying to avoid the man on the very last stall selling tiger feet.
Looking back, I think Lisa and I were both stunned into silence. We walked along a road for around five minutes before I said "That was utterly disgusting". Lisa just nodded. I still felt slightly nauseous and needed to get out of the heat. We stopped for a second to get our bearings and decide where to go next. We had already selected a couple of temples to visit, but it was unlikely that we would have time to see them all. The Temple of the Six Banyan trees seemed to be the most interesting according to the guide book so we hailed a taxi and left the area.
The taxi was cool and, as is customary in Guangzhou, the driver felt the need to race through the narrow streets as if his life depended on it. This was the last thing I needed in my current condition. I tried to ignore the bumps and turns and near misses and concentrate on the streets through which we were rampaging. There were many small shops selling all sorts of stuff and I was reminded of Qingping market by certain retailers selling glazed ducks, which were hanging up and baking in the sun. However, the most surprising shop I saw was a Manchester United souvenir shop, complete with crest, coloured in the infamous red, white and black of the club. It reiterated the point made by the Vietnamese barman we had met last night; that Manchester United were indeed very popular in China. I will never understand why but I can imagine pompous fans saying "because we're the biggest club in the world". I still stand by the premise: support your home town team. If you happen to have been born in Trafford then, of course, you are entitled to support Manchester United - and good luck to you - but what annoys me are fans from London, Birmingham etc. who claim to be fans of Manchester United.
I once had an argument with a United supporting friend of mine about this. He was telling me a story about when he went to see Arsenal versus Manchester United and was sitting in a pub listening to a bunch of Arsenal fans. One Arsenal fan said "Show me a Manchester United fan from Manchester and I will show you my arse" (or something like that. Anyway, my friend told me how he replied to this challenge, saying, "I'm a United fan and I'm from Manchester." He was pleased about this because he thought he had proved that the Arsenal fan was indeed talking out of his arse. I replied "And your point was what?". "That Manchester United fans do come from Manchester!" he answered triumphantly. "But you come from Oldham." I said. "You should be an Oldham fan. You only support Manchester United because they are famous and successful. You are not a true football fan.". We frequently had this same argument and, despite his protestations, I still stand by my philosophy. Support your home town team through all the highs and lows (and, believe me, supporting Walsall, there are many more lows). I will now get down from my soapbox. Thank you.
The Temple of the Six Banyan Trees did not stand out. The taxi pulled up and Lisa and I looked at each other. It was an ordinary Guangzhou street and we could see no signs indicating that we were in the right place. The driver looked at us expectantly, so I pointed at the guide book showing the name of the temple in Chinese. He looked at me as if I were a complete imbecile and pointed at the adjacent wall. "This must be it," I said to Lisa. The taxi driver had dropped us off at the right place. We saw a small sign indicating that the entrance fee was one yuan.
I must confess that I wouldn't know a Banyan tree if it came up to me and hit me repeatedly shouting "I'M A BANYAN TREE" but, when we entered the grounds of the temple, I could not find anything, even resembling a tree. A quick look at the guide book confirmed that the six Banyan trees giving the temple its name do not actually exist any more. However, the temple is dominated by a huge pagoda standing tall and proud in the grounds. The octagonal pagoda, at 55 metres, is the tallest in Guangzhou and was built in 1907. The guidebook claimed that it was possible to climb it for five yuan but we weren't allowed to on this particular day, which was a shame because I would have liked to have explored it, despite the risk of Tonto getting us lost inside.
The pagoda apparently has 17 floors but this is not obvious from the outside, where it appears to have only nine. Each of the external stories has bells on each corner and there are many glass cases scattered on the outside of the pagoda, each containing a small statue.
The temple itself dates from the sixth century AD and is still active. As we strolled around the temple, we realised that we had be careful about offending the monks and the people praying by being discrete and courteous and not behaving like wild tourists, making noise and taking pictures of everything that moved. The monks themselves seemed pleased that we were visiting their temple; each one smiled and nodded curtly as we walked past them. We watched from a distance as people prayed to the Buddha, trying to keep a low profile to allow them to meditate. I don't know the ritual for the prayers (perhaps it depends on the individual) but I was interested in the actions of one of the people praying. She lit some jossticks and, kneeling, held them up to her forehead, her lips moving as she prayed silently. She then bowed three times and placed the jossticks in a golden pot positioned in front of three huge statues of Buddha. Only when areas were free of people did we wander in to have a closer look at the statues. Each huge sedentary Buddha was made of gold, seemingly casting a protective gaze over their subjects.
The temple was so quiet, it was like Shamian Island; a haven from the madness that is Guangzhou. We sat down and watched the monks and worshippers and felt strangely at peace. However, although there were ample places to shelter from the sun, the heat was still very oppressive and I needed to replace the fluid, which had soaked my T-shirt. A shop in the corner of the temple sold water and I made my way across. Having purchased the life-saving, ice-cold liquid, I noticed a collection of photographs on the adjacent wall. By this time, Lisa had joined me and we examined the photos and were reminded of our reservations about visiting China. The photos portrayed the images we had seen not long ago in Hong Kong, of the return of the coffins of the three people killed by the bomb in Belgrade. Pictures showing, the arrival of the plane in China, the protests in Beijing, and the embassy itself engulfed in flame reminded us of the ill feeling here. One photo struck an immediate chord. In it, a solemn woman held a card with a bullseye over her chest saying "Who's next?". I noticed, after a couple of minutes, that one or two Chinese people were watching our reactions to the photos. Although there was no threat whatsoever, we felt it was time to leave the temple and take on Guangzhou once more.
Looking at the guide book, we noticed that there were a few other temples dotted around the city so we selected one within walking distance and made our way there. The only problem we had was that the map in the guide book wasn't detailed enough to include all of the little windy side streets of Guangzhou. The inevitable happened; Tonto reared his ugly head and we got lost. Every street looked the same; lots of little shops, hundreds of people and cars and mopeds zipping down the narrow roads, trying not to hit pedestrians. Eventually we had to ask for directions. The people were as helpful as they could have been under the circumstances, being confronted by two lost tourists who could not speak your language and having to explain directions from a single phrase in a book. A few people merely pointed, not giving us any indication of the distance nor the exact way to go - how could they? After about fifteen minutes of asking we found ourselves on a main road, whose name we recognised. For good measure, we asked another man, who not only pointed us in the right direction, but also followed us to ensure we actually got there. I said "Xiexie" (pronounced "share-share" and meaning "thank you"), one of the few words of Mandarin I could speak and the man smiled and turned around to resume his daily activities. He had walked nearly a hundred yards out of his way to make sure we didn't get even more lost. Unfortunately, it turned out that the temple was closed for renovation, which was a shame.
Time was moving on but we had a little time to see something else before our departure. We caught a taxi to Yuexiu Park, which was fairly close to the hotel, to see the Zhenai Tower. This is also known as the Five Storey Pagoda and is the last remnant of the ancient city walls. Now it doubles as Guangzhou Museum, tracing the history of Guangzhou, including a scale model of the city, portraits and stories of colourful people from Guangzhou's history and many artefacts from various dynasties. Apparently Guangzhou used to be a walled city but it was demolished, which I thought was a shame. The tower was the highest portion of the north city wall and, from the top storey, we had a superb view of the city as a whole.
We spent a little too much time in Yuexiu Park and had to hurry to get something to eat before catching the train. For that reason, we decided to temporarily forget our philosophy of submerging ourselves in the culture: we had tea at McDonalds. I know! I'm still ashamed, especially since the place looked exactly like every other McDonalds in the world. We found a seat and scoffed our Big Macs, whilst watching the maniacs on the main road nearby. As usual, the pace was frantic, even in the late afternoon on a Sunday. I remarked to Lisa that I will remember Guangzhou, not for the temple or the peace of Shamian Island, but for the psychopaths in the cars. It somehow seemed fitting that we should spend our last moments watching cars, bikes, mopeds and pedestrians fighting for room on seemingly lawless roads. I hadn't forgotten that we would still have to join in this battle ourselves when we collected our bags and made our way to the railway station, but it was nice to escape from the mayhem and watch it from the safety of a fast food joint.
As I get older, I find that my memory is failing me and it failed me now. Having retrieved our bags and fought our way towards the main railway station, I discovered that my recollections of the chaos there had somehow dissolved. We stood in front of the station and watched huge crowds of travellers, shopkeepers, taxi drivers and beggars bouncing around haphazardly in no particular direction with no apparent purpose. I concluded that the scene in front of me was so traumatic that my subconscious mind had tried to exorcise it to protect my sanity. Now the full horror of the mayhem which was Guangzhou Station stared me in the face and, when I remembered how difficult it had been to find our way out of Guangzhou East railway station, which was smaller, I began to panic.
There were people everywhere as we fought our way towards what we thought was the entrance. When we got there, we found that it was a shop built into the station itself and I anticipated another half an hour wandering around looking for signs which would guide us into the building. To aggravate the situation, beggars were approaching us from all sides with outstretched hands and, in our attempts to avoid them, we found ourselves aimlessly meandering in circles with the rest of the throng. It was at this moment that I saw our saviour. A man, carrying a suitcase, was marching purposefully towards the station. "Follow him", I shouted to Lisa, pointing at towards him. The man strode towards an opening and disappeared inside. We pushed our way through the crowd, shaking our heads at the vagrants in our way and entered the station to witness a nightmare.
Inside, was another opening with an X-ray scanning device being policed by a uniformed woman barking instructions at the top of her voice. Between the two openings was a small room barely big enough to contain twenty people, which actually contained about a hundred travellers fully armed with suitcases, rucksacks, huge boxes and seemingly most of their furniture. I suggested to Lisa that we count the people and measure the space and submit this tiny hellhole to the Guinness Book of World Records as the most number of people to be crammed into a confined space. I tried waving my train ticket towards the uniformed woman but she ignored me and continued to yell. The heat and chaos of the situation finally made us snap. Lisa looked at me; I looked at Lisa. A telepathic communication passed between us - "Bugger this - let's go for it." So we did.
Ignoring all people in front of us, we barged our way through the crowd towards the scanning device, tickets held high as if they were our passport to freedom. Incredibly, nobody tried to stop us and people actually moved out of our way and incredibly, when we reached the uniformed woman, she allowed us through without forcing us to submit our rucksacks to the X-ray device and without checking our tickets. I felt a bit mean and selfish when I looked back at the crowd trying to get through the gap and being forced to scan their luggage and I'm sure that a lot of people were angry that we had pushed in -but at that precise moment, I didn't care. We had a train to catch and we were going to have to find our way to the correct platform (I had been listening to Captain Paranoia all the way from the hotel and his constant warning - "You'll catch the wrong train. You'll end up in Tibet").
I didn't think that anywhere on earth could be more chaotic than the concourse leading up to Guangzhou Station. I was wrong. The interior of Guangzhou Station was far worse. There were lots of shops and stalls and hundreds of people either sitting down on the floor (there were no seats to be seen) or queuing up to ask uniformed personnel where they had to go to catch their trains. If the Chinese didn't know where to go, what chance did we stand? Stepping over prostrate travellers we walked around looking for boards to tell us where to go. At least there were boards at this station (unlike Guangzhou East) but the problem was that all of the text was in Chinese - which is understandable of course. As it turned out, it wasn't difficult to find our platform because the train ticket contained the number and time of the train as well as the name of the destination in Chinese characters. It only took us a few minutes to locate the information on a display and determine the platform number. We bought a few provisions from a shop (water, beer and Pringles) and wandered through the crowds to a gate where another uninformed woman stamped our tickets and ushered us towards our train.
The Chinese rail network, though overcrowded, does seem to be very organised. Our ticket showed us the platform number, the train number and our carriage number. On the platform, each carriage had a guard to make sure that the correct people boarded the train. We handed our tickets over to the guard and were given a numbered plastic tag each, which identified our beds for the night.
The carriage was divided into ten doorless sections, each containing six bunks or "hard sleepers", at right angles to the length of the carriage. Each section had three bunks at either side, one at the bottom, one in the middle and one at the top. The bunks themselves were padded slightly and had a sheet, a pillow and a thin blanket. A corridor ran the length of the carriage and the windows on either side had no curtains whatsoever. We walked along the carriage, attracting the curious gaze of the other passengers and eventually found our beds, which thankfully were in the same section. When I saw the layout of the beds, it suddenly dawned on me what the woman in the travel section of the Friendship hotel was trying to tell us about bunk allocation. It was clear that we had not managed to get our request across because we had asked for two bottom bunks. What we actually got was one at the top and one in the middle on the other side of the compartment. A woman, sitting on one of the bottom bunks allowed us to sit down and joined her travelling companion on the adjacent bunk. I stood up and looked at my bed for the night. It seemed so high, with just enough room for me to lie down. I wondered whether I would end up sleeping on my back with my nose touching the ceiling or if I would be seriously injured if I fell out in the middle of the night. A closer examination revealed a bar to prevent such accidents occurring.
Worse still was a constant dirge emanating from the speaker in each compartment. It was loud and awful and the speaker was about three inches from where my head would be when I retired for the night. I prayed that they would turn it off at a reasonable hour so that I could get some sleep. I rejoined Lisa on the bottom bunk and we began to play cards.
There is a lot of banter between Lisa and I when playing card games and this occasion was no exception. As the train pulled out of the station, we yelled, laughed and accused each other of cheating (which Lisa does whenever she wins!). After about half an hour or so, I noticed that the other passengers in the vicinity, without exception, were watching us avidly. I could see them laughing and openly pointing at us, curious about our activities. We smiled back and some of them nodded to us. Once again, the atmosphere was friendly, even though our fellow passengers regarded us as strange.
After a while, the urban chaos of Guangzhou receded to reveal more of the Chinese countryside. Grey buildings were replaced by green fields and farms, not too dissimilar from English countryside. Scattered throughout the fields and meadows were farmers wearing the traditional flat conical hats I had always associated with China. It was a pleasant experience watching rural Chinese life from the train and I felt comfortable and relaxed.
My reverie was broken by the smell of cooked chicken. A man was wheeling a huge trolley, full of chicken wings, along the corridor. By this time, I was starving and my stomach needed something more fulfilling than sour cream and onion Pringles. The man looked at us and said something in Chinese. I knew exactly what we wanted so I had held up two fingers to indicate two portions. Somehow my message didn't get across. The chicken seller said exactly the same thing in a much louder voice. Clearly he thought that I would somehow become fluent in Chinese if he raised the level of his voice. For some reason my mind settled on the same wavelength as the chicken seller and, once again I held up two fingers, this time saying "chicken", as if he would understand me. The people in the compartment began to giggle. The chicken seller raised his voice even more, still convinced that the higher volume would make me understand Mandarin. I retaliated by shouting "two pieces of chicken" very slowly at him, foolishly thinking that if I raised my voice and pronounced the words slowly and carefully, then he would miraculously be able to speak English. After a few minutes of yelling at each other, I pointed at the chicken in his trolley and held up two fingers directly in front of his face. By now, the people in the carriage had been to the other carriages to bring everyone to watch the show. I was openly being laughed at - so was the chicken seller. At last, he got my message and grabbed two chicken pieces and gave them to me. I wasn't keen to spend the next ten minutes in a shouting match to determine the price so I handed over fifty yuan. He returned thirty yuan and proceeded on his way.
Almost immediately, another trolley appeared carrying drinks - beer in particular. Lisa leapt off the bunk and shouted "BEER! GIMMEBEERNOW!!". No she didn't. I made that up. She held up two fingers and said "Tsing Tao", which for the uninitiated is the most widely known Chinese beer. The woman pushing the trolley stared at Lisa for a few seconds and then, to Lisa's delight, pulled out two large bottles of ice cold Tsing Tao. Lisa turned around and looked at me triumphantly as if to say "See! I don't have a problem getting food and drink."
"Right," I said. "You can buy the food from now on!". When the beer trolley departed, so did most of our audience. Those remaining just carried on talking as we munched our chicken and swigged our beer.
The train continued on its merry way, while we played cards and listened to loud and crackly Mando pop blaring out of the speakers. Some of the tunes were recognisable; the Chinese version of "Que Sera", that timeless song by Doris Day, was one of the better songs we had to endure.
Just before nine o'clock, the train stopped and a lot of passengers got out to buy food from the station. They returned with bags full of, what looked like, bird seed and began munching it, spitting the inedible bits onto the floor. I commented on this to Lisa and was immediately rewarded with a bag of the stuff being thrust under my nose by a smiling fellow passenger. I politely declined and turned to my sour cream and onion Pringles.
At 10 o'clock, some three hours after our departure from Guangzhou, the lights went off. I climbed up onto the top bunk and almost killed myself when my skull crashed against the ceiling. Letting out a scream, which was a combination of an expletive and a cry of pain, I somehow managed to crawl into the space that was my bed for the night. I rested my head on the pillow and could have sworn that I heard sniggering from a nearby bunk.
Incredibly, the awful music was still blasting out of the speakers, at a volume much louder now that my ear was directly next to it. I prayed for it to stop and, miraculously, it did. Only then did I notice two other disadvantages of being on the top bunk (apart from the speaker and the vertigo). First, positioned next to me was an air-conditioner blowing cold air straight onto my neck. Second, the cigarette smoke from the carriage seemed to have risen and accumulated at the top of the carriage. I would have choked but the air conditioner did blow the smoke away from me, although I had to pull the blanket over my head to protect me and to make sure that I didn't get a stiff neck in the morning.
I settled down, tired and ready for sleep. Exploring Guangzhou in high heat and humidity had taken its toll and I began to doze. The darkness and the gentle rocking of the train helped me on my way. Then suddenly, the train stopped. Although it didn't seem to slow down, I was aroused from my semi-conscious state by the lack of noise and motion. Then the lights came on. Shocked by the sudden invasion of brightness, I sat up in bed, ready to check my watch - and promptly smashed my skull on the ceiling once more. I won't repeat what I said but it brought guffaws of laughter from Lisa in the bunk below and a few more sniggers from the rest of the compartment. My watch told me that I had it had been twenty minutes since the lights went out. The thought of this train stopping throughout the night and waking everyone up did not appeal to me at all. I was exhausted and needed a good night's sleep. Feelings of extreme fatigue washed over me as I tried in vain to sleep again. Just when I was about to give up, the lights went out and the train started to move again. My last thoughts were a plea to heaven to allow the train to reach Guilin without stopping anywhere else.