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Morning exercise in Guangzhou

The last few days have been pretty tiring with lots of walking about  and adjusting to a new style and pace of life but today we move on to China proper where the fun will really start to begin. We did a quick hop to the Post Office before we left to send another parcel home. It was quite a fun experience. You join one queue with all the stuff you want to send and they tell you how much it will be. They then send you somewhere else where they get the best size and type of packaging for you and you then go back to the first place, get the parcel sealed, fill in all the paperwork and settle up. Its quite a long winded process but its much cheaper to post stuff from here than it is from Canada.

From our hotel it was a short walk to the Kwee Kwam Motor Road company, the bus company that will get us to Guangzhou. We now have so much more sympathy for foreigners in the UK and how hard they must find it to get about. It was the same lady behind the desk who was here the other day when we came to enquire abut the buses and she was equally as functional. We bought our tickets and she gave us a small map to tell us where to o at the border,. We had timed it well because the bus to the border on this side left ten minutes later. The driver was a friendly chap and showed us where to shove our bags. He then headed off up the road we had walked up when we first arrived, through a very seedy part of town full of car and bike repair shops. From the look of the spare parts on their shelves I would be amazed if they ever got anything to work.

We stopped a couple of times and more people got on with bags and cases. The tower blocks started to reduce and we were soon in an area with smart looking new apartment blocks. A little further on and round the corner we were at the border, There was a constant stream of people all with little trolleys/collapsible wheels pulling boxed of stuff behind them, The all seemed to be in  nig hurry as if they were catching the last bus out of a burning city.

With our packs hoisted once again we started through the formalities. Leaving Macau was simple enough. We then had to go round a corner and down a corridor where we had to fill in a health declaration from. This was to say we had had no contact with poultry markets in the last seven days or with people with coughs, sniffles, diarrhoea, aids et etc etc. The impact of SARS has well and truly hit and is still being felt. From here it was into a massive hall to go through Chinese immigration, itself a painless process (except that we had not picked p the entry form we needed to fill and we went into the wrong lane so got politely chided by the officials!). As we stood and watched the goings on while we waited to get through it was as if we were watching a film that had been speeded up. There was a constant stream of people coming through all herding through the railed off lines to get through the control like ants. The shift for the immigration staff changed, a very military process. The new shift all lined up down one side of the hall and then marched in file around and behind the gates to take over from their colleagues. This border crossing is a massive facility which presumably in forty five years time will be surplus to requirements when Macau's Special Administrative Region status ceases.

Having cleared immigration we now had to find the Kwee Kwan bus station on the Chinese side. The little map the lady at the Macau office gave us helped but really all we needed to do was to follow the flow of people down the escalators, left a bit and down again and their office was on the right. Here for the first time we were faced with what is to come. A big departures board was above the ticket office with a few numbers for the times that buses departed but every thing else was in Chinese characters and there was no bus set to leave at the time shown on our tickets. Perplexed we tried to ask the ladies behind the counter. They changed us on to an earlier bus but both they and we were relieved when one of their colleagues turned up who spoke some English. She had a superb accent, very Queen's English in some parts, very Chinese in others, and she saw us safely to our bus. It turned out that she was the attendant on the bus and was with us all the way to Guangzhou.

The bus headed out of Zhuhai, the border town on the Chinese side, stopping to pick up more passengers. The road ran along the shore of the Pearl River and it was lined with formal gardens laid out with colourful flower beds and borders. Unlike parks in Hong Kong couples here were seen arm in arm, or having a smooch and a cuddle. A little out of town we passed the local fishing fleet, a mass of junks that looked like they had seen better days. We were both surprised by the journey. The bus was a modern coach, better by far than the ones we had been on in South America, even their deluxe ones. The TV actually worked and we had a Disney film instead of Steven Siegal blowing up some corner of the world. The roads were in really good condition so we had a fast and trouble free ride.

For a while we were driving through banana plantations (memories of Ecuador) and farm land but for most of the time it was a journey through heavily populated high rise blocks. These really are mega cities with millions of people living in close contact. The strange this is that it all looks relatively new. Outside Zhuhai there was a development of very smart looking two storey houses and we passed another similar development further on. Apart from these through everything else is tower block after tower block. Its easy to understand how something like SARS would spread quickly in such a dense concentration of people.

Not only were the roads in good condition (they all looked new and we passed many toll booths along the way) but they were long and straight stretching away for miles into the distance, just like those in the middle provinces of Canada. They were busy but not crowded and a lot of the traffic was buses and coaches, many from the Kee Kwam company. If all buses are as good as this one we should have reasonable journeys across country. The buses seem to be allied to the better hotels and use the hotels as their  pick up and drop off points. When we arrived in Guangzhou, we drove firstly on the expressway, a road raised about four storeys off the ground, and then along the river. The bus stopped in front of the Landmark Hotel, not much of a landmark for us as it is not listed in Lonely Planet!

On the opposite side of the road was a small park full of men playing a game using Mah Jongg style tiles. A pattern was marked our on a board and there seemed to be a complex process of moving pieces around. Others were doing their daily exercises using pieces of equipment left in the park for the purpose. As much as we watched the locals, they gazed in awe at us standing there with our backpacks on. They have a shy curiosity and backpacks are obviously a much less common sight than the uncommon sight of Westerners.

Our hotel was a little way away on Shamian Island. Too far to walk we flagged down a taxi and showed the driver on the map and in Chinese characters, where we wanted to go. This was met by a big shrug of the shoulders and a shake of the head and off he went. The next taxi did the same thing, and the next. We knew we were probably not pronouncing the destination correctly but that that the map would work. Flummoxed we headed into the Landmark Hotel and asked for help at their transport desk. The chap there spoke some English and said he would sort us out. There was a queue of taxis at the hotel and he bundled us into the next available one. The driver did not look pleased and had a suspicious scowl on his face all the way.

Although this city is bigger in size, height and sprawl that Hong Kong it somehow seems much less chaotic. The streets are busy with traffic but not crammed so full that they feel they are bursting. people are going about their business but there does not seem to be the money, money, money rush. This view may well change tomorrow when we head further into the centre.

We finally made it to our chosen hotel, the Shamian Hotel, and booked in for a couple of nights. A board behind reception showed the room rate and the preferential (discounted) rate which seems to be available to anyone who asks. Registration slips were filled in and we were given cards with our room number. The keys are held by an attendant who oversees the floor and watches the comings and goings of the guests. No doubt in the not too distant past they reported back any suspicions or unlawful activity. We have a large, clean comfortable room with a little lounge area all for around £25 a night. From our window we can just see the Pearl River.

Hungry, we went over the road to the Rose Garden Club restaurant for a bite of lunch and a couple of beers. We could see people setting up stalls by the river and as we left to go for a wander it turned out to be the restaurant. They have so many tables and staff out here that they must be expecting to get very busy. What surprised me though was that the waitresses were al dressed up in Santa costumes. I had not expected to see Christmas in China at all.

Playing games

Walking around we began to see the first signs of this area's popular business activity - child adoption. By law, if you want to adopt a child here you have to come and live here for a month. A few of the shops offered baby strollers (not pushchairs so you can tell where the adoptees come from) on free loans and we saw many Western, mainly US, couples walking around with Chinese babies. From their age they probably fall outside of the suitable criteria for adopting in their home town so they come here instead. One conversation we overhear was "this one cost $50,000", pointing to a small child in a push chair. The shops are also geared up with lots of baby and toddler clothes and suitcases to hold all that extra stuff. We pictured the conversations that could take place when these couples go home and back to work. Work colleague "hey, did you have a good holiday in China? Buy any nice souvenirs out there?". Parent who has just adopted replies "Yeh, great holiday, bought a baby for the bargain price of ...". I am sure that the couples involved will give a great and loving home to a child who would otherwise grow up in an orphanage but it just seemed strange to us to see a trade in babies. You could sense people looking at us thinking "they are here to adopt too".

Shamian Island is a small piece of land, much of it reclaimed, that looks like it has a fascinating history. We ambled along the Pearl River and then up and through the island making our way back to the hotel. Most of the buildings have plaques on the front explaining that they are garricked buildings (which we later learned means protected) and telling who they were built for and when. It is a real snapshot of colonial powers at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. A fair chunk of the buildings were for British companies and others were originally embassies. The buildings here created a strong and prosperous impression but they look a little out of place in China. Most seem in pretty good condition and some have been converted into apartments. Of those in disrepair there are signs that renovation work is underway. One private residence, now propped up by stout bamboo scaffolding, looked like it must have been spectacular in its day.

We decamped back to the room for a while before heading out for dinner. We toured the available options before ending up in a place two doors down from the hotel which had a big sign declaring that it was Guangzhou's restaurant of the year in 2003 and 2004. It looked pretty empty as we walked in but they were still happy to serve us. There was a very brightly lit main restaurant with private dining rooms all around it. Guffaws of laughter followed by heated conversation kept coming from one of the private rooms each time its doors were opened.

The English speaking waitress was duly despatched to help us order. She told us what the most popular dishes were for westerners - sweet and sour chicken, beef in black bean sauce - so we opted instead for fried goose in sauce, shrimps in sauce, mixed vegetables and steamed rice. The dishes we ordered were written on a piece of carbonated paper and a copy was left on our table. As dishes were ready they were brought out from the kitchen, passed to the waitress who put it on the table. The kitchen person then stamped the order on the table to say "dish delivered". It was simple food but very tasty and we washed it down with a bottle of beer, all for about £10.