Guangzhou, known to many in the West as Canton, is a city of a “mere” 3.5 million residents – less than half the population of Shijiazhuang – yet it’s one of the most important cities in China and the first that many travelers visit on their arrival. Its position on the Pearl River provided it the opportunity to become one of China’s earliest points of contact with the outside world, and it’s remained a massive trade port for the more than one thousand years since.
I have to admit – I was pretty interested to see what it had to offer.
Unfortunately, by the time I’d made my way from the more distant Guangzhou East Train Station to the Central Station (an area where Lonely Planet said it would be easy to secure some lodging) my energy was dwindling. And by the time I actually found and checked into a place…my head was throbbing. Throbbing from the effort of pushing through the MASSIVE crowds of thousands, and from fending off the relentless touts. Apparently the pre-Chinese New Year migration had already begun – and to keep things in order they’d set up a series of deafening loudspeakers to blast information across the station’s huge courtyard. It hadn’t stopped even at 2am when I finally fell asleep. Nor had the crowds tapered off in the slightest. Chinese New Year causes one of the largest annual human migrations on the planet – and there I was, a single foreigner, trying to sleep right in the middle of it.
My room was a tiny, stained-wall, windowless rat’s nest immediately next to the station. But I didn’t care. I was too tired to care. I finished squatting in the communal bathroom, rinsed off in the shower about 6 inches away from aforementioned squatter, and knocked out.
Sometimes you just can’t appreciate all the conveniences in your daily life until they’re gone.
The next morning I knew I had to find someplace else to stay, so I checked out of my little shoebox and took the metro to Shamian Island – a small tourist haven separated from the “mainland” by one very thin canal.
Wow. Was this still Guangzhou? I felt like I was right back in Hong Kong! Even the smoggy, suffocating pollution had somehow turned into sunny skies on this tiny island sitting on the edge of the Pearl River. The streets were spotless, the store clerks spoke English, and they even had a Subway sandwich restaurant.
I knew that this was no way to experience the real China. But for once I actually wasn’t looking for experience – I was looking for a livable, easy-to-navigate spot to ride out the weeks until Chinese New Year and get some programming work done. This meant accessible food, accommodations, and Internet. Shamian offered all three.
I checked into a youth hostel on the island and immediately made friends with a single Aussie traveler named Dave. Despite nearly half a year on the road, this would be the first hostel I’d stayed at since Tel Aviv. And the vibe was just wonderful. Friendly staff, huge, brightly lit rooms, free Internet, and located across from a small park that sit right on the riverbank.
I’m SO glad I decided to give Guangzhou a shot and check out this corner of the city before calling it quits after my experience in the central train station area.
…An experience that was reconfirmed yet again that very same day. Since I wasn’t sure where I’d be spending the night, I’d left my luggage at the previous evening’s hotel – so after a quick breather in the hostel I had to head back across town to pick it up.
Wow again. My mood flipped.
Tens of thousands of people pushing and shoving their way through clouds of smoke and pollution. Tens of thousands more laying all over the ground waiting for their connections. Communist-sounding loudspeakers rattling your brains with their blaring and incessant announcements. How could this be the same city?? I had to get out of there!
Pick up my bags, take the subway back.
It’s a pleasant, sunny afternoon in a park on the Pearl River.
Although I was fairly certain I’d found a good enough spot to hang tight until the New Year, one problem still remained: I was sharing a room with nine other travelers, making it difficult to put my full energy into productive venues. And because Guangzhou is such a major metropolitan area, getting a single room would either mean staying in the shadiest of lodgings or paying nearly as much as in Hong Kong.
Luckily, a solution soon presented itself.
Located a short one-hour’s flight from Guangzhou is a smallish city called Guilin, lauded by travelers for its stunning (and believe me, it is) karst topography. One more hour outside of Guilin by bus is an even smaller town called Yangshuo: a small, beautiful, bohemian-style backpacker’s colony. And since it was off-season, cheap lodging was supposedly plentiful. Virtually everyone in my Guangzhou hostel had passed through Yangshuo at one time or another, and although most of them expressed the utmost disdain for Guangzhou’s offerings, they had nothing but rave reviews of Yangshuo.
And to top it off Dave had found a flight the following morning that cost only pennies more than the 18-hour train would have. I was concerned about relocating to a small town so shortly before the holidays – as getting a train from Guilin to Shijiazhuang to spend the New Year with Andy would certainly be difficult. But I decided to do it anyway. Having a travel companion, even if just for the short flight and bus ride, sounded like quite a nice idea – and 3 weeks of a spacious private room in a beautiful mountain town would be worth the risk. So I bought myself a ticket and was soon on my way to the mountains of Guilin.