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China — First Impressions

To enter China, we had to catch the Hong Kong metro to the north-most city, right across the border from China. Then we went through the exit process for HK and walked across a bridge over a river. On one side was the Hong Kong Administrative Region, on the other, the Peoples’ Republic of China. In between, there were barbed-wire encrusted 20 foot high walls rising up out of a 30 foot wide river. This was a serious attempt to keep people from crossing from one to the other. It will be tougher getting back out of the country than it was getting in.
Everything here is under construction, much as it was in Hong Kong. On the train trip from Shenzen to Guanzhou, we saw dozens of large construction projects going on. Railways being put in, highways and overpasses being constructed, underground infrastructure being installed. Everywhere, it seemed, there were piles of raw materials and piles of debris. Most of the work is being done by batallions of workers, with primitive tools and sparse machinery.
We have also gotten lots of stares from people. Some look friendly and inquisitive, and a very few have been glaring and suspicious. We have had people run up and take our photos and asked us to pose with them for photos. We are apparently quite a novelty here. It is an interesting feeling to be gazed at when walking around. Not bad, it just makes you pay attention to what you are doing and saying. You realize that you may be the only white person these folks have ever seen and want to make sure to leave them with a positive first impression.

Internet Black Hole

I’ve been in China (Hong Kong doesn’t count) for about 4 days so far and have yet to touch a computer that has antivirus on it. They are all full of keyloggers and trojans — many of the same ones on several computers. But I set up this account so that when my account gets hijacked over here, it won’t be a big deal. The last city we were in (Guang Zhou) had tons of spyware and very slow Internet. This city (Yang Zhou, I think), at least has fast Internet.
But other than that, the country is very cool. I’ll write a bunch more later about what we’ve done in the last few days, but for now I need to get cleaned up and go out for dinner (aka beer). I might not be able to post for a few more days, depending on our schedule, but I’ll try to get some pictures online at some point.

Guangzhou & Shamian Island

Guangzhou is one of the closest cities to Hong Kong, and it has some fairly cool things in and around the city, so we decided to make this our first stop. There is an island there called Shamian Island which is in the middle of the Pearl River. The whole island is only about 1 mile across and a half mile east to west. There are a lot of places which speak English and have a bit higher quality accommodations than the rest of the city. We chose to stay on the island to ease our way into the Chinese language and culture.
While in Hong Kong, we made reservations to stay in the Guangdong Youth Hostel. This was a challenging and intimidating process thanks to the phones, area codes, and language barriers. Once we were connected to the hostel, they spoke enough English for us to get our name on the list for a place to stay.
When we arrived in Guangzhou, we left the train station and walked a few hundred yards to the metro station. Like the Hong Kong metro, you push a touch screen map of your destination and the display tells you how much to put in. There is even an option for English. Unlike HK, which uses paper slips, a plastic RFID token is dispensed which is then tapped against a sensor. To exit, the token is deposited and the turnstile opens if you are exiting at the correct station.
We got off the metro and walked across the bridge to the island. It was markedly different from the rest of the city, it seemed calmer and greener, and it seemed more planned out. There was a map there to show us where to go and we followed the road around until we came to a barricade with both an Army and a Police Officer. We asked them if they spoke English and they did so exceptionally well. They directed us to take a different road to the hostel, so we did. Later we found out that both the American and Polish consulates are inside the guarded compound. There were quite a few westerners walking around.
The hostel was clean, and the room large and comfortable. It cost 200 Yuan per night, about the same as our hostel in Hong Kong, which was smaller, dirtier, louder, and generally much less desirable. We both took short naps, with the TV blaring away on the only English channel out of the few that came in. I was feeling a bit under the weather with a cold, so I decided to continue my nap while Brian went out and walked around.
After another hour or so, I was feeling a bit better and went out for a walk myself. I walked around the island a couple of times. It seemed like a tourist trap, with little shops everywhere selling the same overpriced trinkets and speaking the same smattering of English (“Hello!” “Very Beautiful” “Please, Welcome”). Most of the people who were working the shops were young, under 18, and female. There were lots of Terra Cotta Warrior chess sets, old coins, finger paintings, Mao books, pictures, hats, etc. Lots of general tourist junk. Lots of shops also had free stroller rental, free Internet, lots of baby clothes, and laundry services.
We found out that most of the westerners were there to adopt kids. Apparently, you must stay in China for at least a month before you are allowed to adopt a child. Since families are only allowed to have one child in order to control the population, many of the disabled or female babies are given up for adoption. This is likely why so many of the things on the island were a bit off. Everything was catering to these western adoptors, playing on their emotions with things that would remind them of the baby they hoped to take home.
We made friends with some of the kids running one of the shops and ate dinner with them at their shop. They seemed like nice folks and were fun to talk with, but were constantly trying to push the tourist junk on us. I guess they must think that Americans really want to buy that stuff. I know that quite a few of the westerners there overpaid and bought things just to support the local economy in the hopes that it would help the orphans and disabled children.
The city has a few Buddhist temples and I went and visited one. There were several beggars outside, some with birth defects, some with bad injuries, some who were just dirty. One old lady tried running me off the sidewalk into the street so I would give her some money, laughing the whole time. I pushed past her. It was sad to see, so I didn’t stick around outside too long.
I also went to a park. It had a lake, a statue area, a couple of large towers, a part of an old city wall, and a statue dedicated to 4 rams. These rams supposedly descended from heaven and founded the city, or something like that. Much of the mythology was lost on me. However, the hilarity of the rules for entry were not. It was apparently against the rules to “schlep things that are flammability or dynamist.” I followed this rule. I think. But I was unclear about the “Hydrogen balls and pets” about which they spoke.
Overall, it was a good place to start our traveling in China. I wouldn’t want to go back — I felt like we saw and did everything there was — but I enjoyed the time we spent there. The next stop on our tour would have us going to Guilin and catching a boat down to Yangshou, a sleepy little town in the countryside of about 300,000. That is far and away the smallest place we’ve been, and should be a good way to rest up from the mass of humanity that is the larger cities.