Guangzhou By Bus
The beauty of being an English-speaking foreigner in Hong Kong is you can always find someone who speaks English. The exciting and certainly curious thing about traveling to Mainland China is there are very few people that speak English especially those involved with the basic services travelers rely on including taxi drivers, hotel personnel and restaurants. I suspect that my lack of knowledge of Cantonese and Mandarin will be frustrating; I look at it as a challenge. A challenge to communicate. A challenge to learn to communicate using something besides words. Even the Roman alphabet is useless here. At least in other foreign countries reading the words and using phonetics with a decent phrasebook or dictionary can help. But not in China. Not really.
Arriving at the Airport Express train station in Hong Kong we schlepped our bags the China Southern Airlines check-in desk to Check in for our China Eastern Airlines flight. Hmmmm. How’d we figure that one out? I’ve commented briefly before on the Hong Kong metro and transportation system, but this airport express train deserves praise. With its new airport Hong Kong has dialed in the process of ushering passengers to and from its new international transportation center. Simply take a quick cab ride to the airport express terminal and buy a couple tickets for about 150 Hong Kong dollars (I’ve begun to refer to these as Honkies; picking up the expression from Phoebe) and proceed to a wall lined with airline check-in counters. Simply check your bags, get a boarding pass and hop on the train to the airport. Simple and clean.
Of course, arriving at the metro less than 30 minutes before departure the chances of actually getting on that flight and taking advantage of such efficiencies would be unlikely. But why not play a bit dumb and give it a shot.
“Sorry. Flight finish. You go airport standby more flights. Full. All full.”
Soon I’d be speaking this broken English even to my travel companion. No luck in losing our baggage. So the schlep continues. At Hong Kong airport after unsuccessfully standing by for a later flight we decided to take a bus. I would have preferred a train. But the train station was an hour away and then we’d take a 2.5-hour train ride. The bus would leave directly from the airport and have us in Guangzhou in a couple hours.
Guangzhou is a big Chinese industrial city where some 8 million people call home. Taking a bus or a train offers the traveler so much more than simply hoping into a flying tube where you land in just a few hours to a land far removed from where you left. You lose the experience of segueing into the geography, culture and climate. But transporting oneself this way does have its price. Yet with patience, understanding and a genuine desire to culturally immerse and integrate yourself with the local people it’s simply the best.
So with my nose and forehead pressed against the window of our bus I watched the steel, glass and modern city of Hong Kong disappear as our modern bus hauled us toward China. In less than 45 minutes we were stepping off the bus at the Hong Kong immigration stop. Handing our immigration cards to the Hong Kong officials and ushering down a hallway lined with posters depicting loose line drawings of suspected pickpockets and suggesting a watchful eye be kept on all belongings.
Twenty minutes later we stopped again. This time the Chinese border. Another immigration card and stamp in my passport and I’m in China. An x-ray machine for luggage sat against a wall of a short passage way. Some people placed their luggage on the conveyor others simply walked past. I put my bags on. I looked but couldn’t find anyone monitoring a screen. Must be simply a test. Some sort of placebo. Who are sheep and whose independently minded. Funny.
On the other side of hallway is China. Fast speaking Chinese representatives waved me onto a different bus than I exited. This one much older and perhaps never attended to with a keen eye for cleanliness or basic superficial maintenance, yet I noted the tires seemed adequate and assumed this would safely take us to Guangzhou. The newer and cleaner bus would make its u-turn and head back to Hong Kong and bring the next batch of travelers to China.
Through the glass of my window my eyes were glued to the Chinese landscape. Subtropical without the sun. Palm trees. Rice fields. We passed small towns centered around industrial factories. White tiled block buildings of 3-5 stories. Sometimes simply just bricks. Some without windows looked like they should be abandoned but the drying clothes hanging outside each window was evidence of life. Every town, every dwelling people hung their clothes to dry. They gave this buildings color. As I looked closer I noticed most apartments were drying similar clothes most lime green or sometimes reddish pink colors depending on the town, I realized these were the uniforms warn by workers in the factories.
The factories had signs facing the roadway. Most simply Chinese lettering impossible for me to decipher. Occasionally, mixed with Chinese letters signs would scream attention for ratings (ISO 9001 or ISO 9002). Sometimes a few English words: quality manufacturing, factory. The only familiar name I noted was Adidas. Or was it Puma. Either way it said the same thing: tennis shoes. Well maybe running shoes, basketball shoes, gardening shoes or walking shoes? We seem to have shoes for every activity these days. And plenty made in China.
Every town is under construction with either more housing, warehousing or factory space in development. At first I thought these factories and housing were very strategic with their close proximity to the road and on the main rag toward between commercial and shipping ports of Shenzhen and Hong Kong. But by the time I was in Guangzhou I realized that the massive economic explosion in China is fueling a construction boom not seen perhaps since the industrial revolution in the U.K. and Europe in the 18th century.
Perhaps most odd to me that surrounding the factories, the cranes, the scaffolding, the bricks and mortar and the clothes lines were farmers working rice fields ‘ rice fields in the shadows of both heavy and light manufacturing facilities. Also dotting the highway we’d whiz by chicken and duck farms. And most curious to me were the palm plantations also in the shadow of heavy industry. Groves of closely clustered palms winding around the three story tenement buildings and small flat roofed structures. Hanging precariously from the branches of each tree was a plastic shopping bag that bulged with something. What was the bag collecting? And how long had they been there?
Good god. I was watching the innocence of simple life of old China slowly dissolve into an industrial landscape that in less than 10 years has contributed into making China ‘the factory of the world.’