We left the peace and calm of Shamian Island today and made our way to Zhaoqing. Seeing that Starbucks had a free wifi connection we stopped off for a quick check of mail and ended up spending a fair chunk of the day there uploading photos and doing other stuff. Having caught the metro here we decided to whimp out and got a taxi the last few kilometres to the bus station. The doorman at the Marriott helped us to explain where we wanted to go and before long we were in the thick of downtown traffic.
Our first impressions of Chinese traffic were that it was pretty ordered and far less chaotic than in Hong Kong. I have now changed my mind. Except for the lack of cows on the street and the quality of the buses (good) we could have been back in India. Cars, buses, scooters came from all directions and no one paid any attention to any lanes marked on the road. It is certainly not a city that I would want to drive in. The bus depot seemed equally chaotic with taxis fighting with each other to get into the lane to drop people off.
There is a big modern looking waiting room at the bus station and a small ticket office outside and to the left. With Lonely Planet in hand we pointed at the Chinese characters for the place we wanted to go to - success it worked! A point at my watch confirmed that the next bus left in five minutes, not long for us to work out where to go. The bus ticket was mainly in Chinese characters but we could decipher the date, time, our seat numbers and the price. There were other numbers but we had no idea what they were or where to go. Fortunately the lady on duty at the bus terminal door took a look, smiled and pointed for us to go upstairs. It then made sense. "2 43" means second floor, gate 43. The gate had our destination in pinyin and it was only then that I was confident we were heading in the right direction. The barcodes on our tickets were scanned and we were waved through to the correct bus.
The girl attendant on this bus spoke no English so it was down to charades for storing our bags. We hopped on, she came round with a free bottle of water, which seems to be standard practice and off we went. I do not know the name of the bus company we were with but they had an interesting livery. The attendant wore a lime green jacket and the seat backs were in Kermit the Frog green. Yuk.
The high rise mega city of Guangzhou gradually started to be left behind but it was simply replaced by smaller scale housing. Between Guangzhou and Zhaoqing there were some stretches of non built upon landscape but these were few and far between. Any space where land had not been built on was turned over to crops. We passed rice fields, flower farms, a winery and a whole range of other stuff growing away quite happily in what looks like very sandy soil. Water is everywhere about us either as rivers, small ponds or irrigation channels. The ponds were usually duck farms and their banks were full of white birds being fattened up before going to market. Where the land was used for agriculture small shacks were dotted about, clearly the homes of the people who farmed there. Again this drew parallels for me with India. The whole area seemed somehow full to bursting with people and activity.
Being pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get a bus to where we were going we soon learned our first lesson of bus travel in Asia. As the express motorway went off to the left we carried straight on and stopped a couple of times before reaching Zhaoqing. The slower route probably worked in our favour as we got to drive through some of the smaller towns and larger villages along the way. Here there were more parallels with India. Dusty pavements lined busy roads to one side and led to ramshackle housing on the other. Some of the blocks people were living in looked unfinished with no panes of glass in the holes for the windows. Where windows existed, they were usually surrounded by metal grilles which created the sensation for me that people living here must feel imprisoned.
Kids were wandering up and won and the same as kids the world over the were simply mucking about with their mates. We passed a couple of sleeper buses and both agreed they were something we would try to avoid. They seem to have seats that recline almost horizontally and are lined in tow tiers down either side of the bus bunk bed style. When we pulled up next to one there is actually a third row down the middle of the bus. They look like they have barely enough room for your average Chinese person. As I am head and shoulders above most, let alone Stef, I think it would be a very cramped and uncomfortable way to travel.
On the edge of one town one of the sleeper buses looked like it had pulled in to a stop, the give away being all the people on scooters carrying a hard hat, a cheap alternative to taxis. Although they are probably very cheap a scooter taxi does not look to me like the safest of ways of getting from A to B. A sizeable crowd had gathered by the bus and we thought it was just a popular route and that these were people pushing to get on the bus. Not so. A slight traffic jam had built up behind the bus and as we passed it there were signs of confrontation. The drivers side window had been smashed in and the windscreen looked like a couple of bricks had been thrown at it. It was the first sign of anger that we had seen. The Chinese pride themselves on being able to retain their cool and losing your temper in public results in a loss of "face" for all concerned.
While we were in Starbucks I had read the notes in the front of our Chinese dictionary - a sure sign of boredom but this time round it worked in our favour. It explained how to track down the Chinese characters, identify the pinyin (roman alphabet) equivalent and from here translate into English. It sounded easy enough so we gave it a go on the bus. On the seat back in front of us were four characters and we managed to decipher three of them. Next to the "no smoking" symbol were eight characters. We cracked two but the rest eluded us. Some are very simple but others are extremely complex running to over twenty strokes. AS there are about fifty thousand characters in existence we have a long way to go but we only need about twelve hundred to be able to read a newspaper.
Rather than the little over an hour we had expected the bus to take it was just under two hours before we reached Zhaoqing. The sun was starting to set and was a solid orange ball set against a grey sky. Strangely, compared to pretty much every other sunset I have seen the colour of the sun did not extend at all across the sky. It was just a single disk of contrasting brightness against the gloom. Much smaller than the three million mega city pf Guangzhou, Zhaoqing's three hundred thousand residents still seemed to live in densely packed accommodation, particularly compared to the similar sized towns we have been to in Canada. That said, the countryside is not far away. On the way into town we passed a man on a scooter driven van which was in effect a large wire cage. Inside was a great big porker of a pig!
Zhaoqing is set against a mountain backdrop and the city has grown up on the shores of a lake. Whilst calmer than where we have been to before it is still a real hustle and bustle of a busy place. Our preferred hotel was a short walk from the bus station so we hoisted our packs and set off, laughing at the scooter taxi chaps who were trying to persuade us to get onto the back of their bikes. Even though this is a sizeable town and one that gets a reasonable right up in Lonely Planet we got the feeling that not many foreigners come here. We stopped for a late lunch before checking into the hotel and near to us was a group of school girls all chattering away filling in job application forms. Every now and again I heard a bit of English and I am sure they were trying to work out a sentence to ask us a question but their courage failed them.
We crossed the road and headed for the Duan Zhou hotel. From the outside it looked smart and modern but as we got closer and then into reception it looked as if it may have seen better days. Nevertheless our spacious room cost us only £10 a night. We spent some more time trying to decipher Chinese characters in preparation for trying to get a good evening meal. Lonely Planet lists a street with food stalls which we passed coming from the bus station. Having walked past it we thought we would try to find something a bit more up market. We rejected McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut hoping that our ploy of basement food courts in shopping malls would pay dividends. It did not!
Undeterred we ambled back down the road our hotel is on. It seems to be one of the main roads in town so we reckoned it was a good bet for food. Shops filled the street on either side, some blasting out music at defeaning decibel levels. We passed the local cinema with its adverts for Harry Potter and were tempted to see what it was like dubbed into Chinese. We both thought we would probably find it funny for a while but would then want to leave.
Turning back to the hotel we spied pictures of food and steps leading up to a restaurant. It was large, clean and we were met by a friendly smile. As we walked to our table I knew we were in for more fun. The menu was under a sheet of glass on the table top. There was no pinyin and no pictures in sight. For the first time in our lives we were hungry and had no easy way to decipher what was available. We had brought our dictionary with us but stupidly had left Lonely Planet with its menu decoder in our hotel room. Fortunately, our waitress had a sense of humour and soon we were all giggling at our combined attempts to order food.
Rice was understood but then putting "fried" after it resulting in a bowl of chips rather than rice. Pork and chicken were understood but then she pointed us to the relevant sections of the menu where different options were listed. She finally sussed that we did not understand the characters and when she pointed at a dish we just said "yes, one please". Vegetables was easy, we just pointed to the table next to us where a mother and daughter were eating. They had a dish brought to them and the mother tried it and spat it out in disgust. Next thing they were up from their table. It looked like they were so incensed at something going wrong that they walked out without paying but not before the mother did an almighty clearing of her throat and spat loudly next to us. I think she spat into a bowl but it could have been on the floor. The spitting is still something we are not used to.
With our chips we had a large portion of steamed pak choi and then two bowls that were entire meals in themselves, one sweet and sour pork, the other fatty and bony chicken. It was not a bad meal and we washed it down with fragrant jasmine tea. There was far too much food for us to eat and the whole lot cost us about £3.