My very first taste of Guangzhou would have been just over 20 years ago with my partner in crime, Dean. We were staying in Honkers for almost a week when we learned of an exhibition showcasing some of the terracotta warriors. You know the ones. All we needed, and really wanted, to do was get up to Guangzhou to see them.
We had our pamphlet, packed a few snacks for the train ride and set out as early as we could. Arriving at the station in Guangzhou was a little overwhelming, to say the least. In a time before smartphones, translator and map apps, finding where the exhibition was held posed to be a bit of a problem. Things can also be a tad tricky when you don’t really speak a word of Cantonese. As you may imagine.
Nobody we asked knew of the exhibition or its whereabouts, neither did the people at the front desk of the nearest major hotel we could find. Our moods were hitting the gutter, big time, and we quickly became as impatient as the people we tried to get help from.
No terracotta warriors for us, I’m afraid, so we got the next train outta there and went back to Honkers.
My most recent trip to Guangzhou was a whole different experience. This one was for work.
A rather late landing from Yiwu, thanks to shitty weather that stuffed up many flights, and my colleague and I were checked into our own rooms at La Perle International in the Tianhe district. The weather wasn’t crash-hot the entire time we were in town. Overcast, occasional drizzle and lightning with humidity so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Days were spent trawling specific market buildings for goods to take back to Sydney. An absolute assault on the senses when you’re jostling through hundreds of retailers and buyers clogging narrow walkways, dragging bags of stock, yelling, shoving and shuffling whilst obliviously peering down on smartphones.
The unglamorous world of buying.
My escape from it all was early in the morning, or after work, when I’d hit the streets and explore the surroundings; camera in hand. The Tianhe district is a mix of commercial and residential; dilapidated and new apartment buildings, shopping centres and hotels. There’s not a great deal of character to it, but once you get off the main roads it doesn’t take long before you stumble upon places where this enormous city seems to slow down a bit.
As the sun struggled to get through layers of cloud and pollution, early morning revellers buzzed about the streets taking children to school or made their way to work; stopping at their favourite dumpling, youtiao or steamed bao and mantou vendor for breakfast on the run.
Pork hock for breakfast, anyone?
This guy was torching a bunch of hocks before tossing them into a pot for hours of slow braising. I came back in the evening and saw the finished product being hacked with a cleaver, served over noodles and doused in rich broth. Yes please!
The nearest strip to our hotel – Longkou East Road – is peppered with small restaurants specialising in a number of things. Tucked in amongst it all is an almost hidden local market that sells mainly fresh fruit & veg and butchered pork.
A couple of shops sell household commodities and kitchenware, dry-goods and pantry items, dried pulses, chillies, fresh noodles and dumplings and a dazzling array of eggs. There’s even fresh and live seafood.
Following work on our second day we taxied to Shamian Island after lunch, as my colleague said she stayed there last time she was in town. Talk about a part of the city that feels nothing like China!
Flanked by the Zhujiang River on one side and a canal on the other, this 1 kilometre long island is filled with colonial European buildings thanks to the Brits and French settling and transforming the area in the 1800’s into an enclave of schools, administrative buildings, banks and places of worship.
It’s undoubtedly serene, despite the unbearable humidity, and wandering its virtually traffic-free, tree-lined streets is an ideal way to take a breather from the manic city beyond its peripheries. It was also where my camera battery decided to pack it in after two shots, hence the four iPhone pics you can see below.
On my final morning in town I checked the map on my phone for anywhere that may have looked remotely interesting. I was hoping to see a part of Tianhe that wasn’t a busy thoroughfare and choked with vehicles and humans. A bit tricky when all it showed was main and subsidiary roads, so I ventured out and followed my instincts.
The city seems to have tried it’s hand at tarting up the relatively polluted canal with a boardwalk along its eastern side, so I followed it down a couple of blocks. A couple of turns through the residential area and I ventured off the roads and into pedestrianised passages between squat apartment buildings with just a couple of metres between them.
There was even a temple or pavilion of some sort wedged between two modern buildings; upturned plastic chairs, carved window frames and loft voids filled with smokey incense.
As locals buzzed through the dimly lit passages, I felt like I was walking through some kind of Blade Runner set. This was what I was the Guangzhou I hoping to discover.
A grocer setting up his shop for the morning punters, an auntie sitting on the steps watching the city emerge, people stopping by the markets to pick up freshly butchered meat for dinner and a bloke prepping for the lunch trade at his neighbourhood eatery.
Pity I had to get back and head to work. I was in town for a reason, after all, but I could have easily disappeared into the laneways and explored all day long.
Perhaps I’ll return one day.