|They were all called Fi Shing apparently|
We spent most of the morning planning out what we think we will see and do in China. With communication set to be a problem we want to be sure that connections will work and that we can get across to Laos where we want to. Our plan broadly follows a Lonely Planet itinerary and will see us back on long bus journeys and potentially a twenty two hour train ride. As we planned Stef popped out to a local coffee shop for his morning cappucino and came back incredulous at the way people were treating the children they were adopting. They were simply shoved into a corner in a pushchair or were carried around as if they were a bag of shopping. They were not mis-treated as such but there were few signs of affection and interest in them from many of the adopting couples he saw out and about.
Most of the afternoon we spent in Yuexiu Park. Our biggest challenge was getting there. Fortunately both our hotel and the park were close to stops on the metro so in theory it should have been an easy trip but finding the metro station by the hotel proved to be a bit tricky. We knew roughly where it was but had no idea what the logo or Chinese characters for the metro were. As we were wandering around trying to find our way we saw another backpacker looking equally confused but going in a different direction. We waved copies of Lonely Planet at each other and smiled. There is almost an unofficial camaraderie that springs up when you see another western face. Even though you do not know who the person is, it is just a little something that takes you back closer to your comfort zone, although strangely I do not think either of us are feeling way out of our comfort zone at the moment.
We finally found the tube station and after going down about six flights of stairs we got to the ticket hall. Not expecting machines or signs in English we went to the ticket office and map in hand pointed at where we wanted to go. The lady told us how much it was and have us loads of change. From reading Lonely Planet I knew that a plastic token should be involved somewhere in the process but none had appeared. As we headed for the gates she called after us and pointed to the ticket machines. She had simply given us the change we needed to use the machine. There was an option for instructions in English so we pushed the right buttons, paid our money and out plopped two plastic tokens.
That was probably the biggest hurdle to using the metro. All the platforms and stations were signposted in English and the announcements on the platforms and the trains were also in English so changing lines was also easy. The trains are fast, modern and new and like in Hong Kong eating and drinking is now allowed so they are also clean. The roofs of the carriages are a little on the low side and we both hit our heads on the poles people hang onto in rush hour. The best bit though was the seats. They are not moulded into individual seat shapes but are just one long bench. As they are metal you slip and slide up and down them as the train speeds up and slows down.
We got off at the Yuexiu Gongyan stop and walked up into the Yuexiu Park. It costs Y5 to get in, about 40p, but this is well and truly money well spent. For an extra Y2 you can buy a map of the park, also a worthwhile investment. The park itself is a huge ninety three hectares and it was popular. With so many people living in huge high rise tower blocks they must really serve the purpose of a communal garden. Quite a few of Guangzhou's attractions are located within the park and this also brings the tour groups with all their attendant picture taking. In little quiet corners the older generation were practicing their Tai Chi. From what we have seen so far it does seem to be a dying tradition as we have seen very few young or middle aged people doing Tai Chi, or perhaps they just do it in the privacy of their own home.
The park was spotlessly clean, apart from the odd patches of spit, and the gardens and lawns were all beautifully manicured. One of the things I like about the parks here is that all the trees have name tags so you can tell what they are. They also have signposts telling you which way to go and these were also in English. I think this is lulling me into a false sense of ease that travelling around China will not be as hard as I had expected. In large cities I suspect that will be the case and it is just a matter of getting your bearings like in any other city. In the smaller towns and villages though I think that all the years of playing charades with family and friends will become invaluable preparation.
In one of the park's lakes there were little pedalo style boats for hire. One boat was cruising around with what looked like a park attendant in hot pursuit behind it. At another lake a group of men were fishing and there was a small fish farm further round the lake to keep the stocks up. Paths criss-crossed through the park and we followed them up and down in search of the Five Goat statue. Legend has it that Guangzhou suffered for many years from poor crops and a lack of food and clothes. Five goats, carrying celestial beings, came down from the sky bringing with them gifts that would ensure that Guangzhou would no longer suffer from famine. The statue is huge and impressive but also pretty ugly. It has been made in different sections and assembled at the top of the hill where it now stands. It is a big draw though and a large square around it provides ample space for the snapping pictures and buying tourist tat from the conveniently placed gift shop.
Further into the park is the monument to Dr Sun Yat Sen, who set up the first Provisional Republican Government in 1911, officially bringing to an end dynastic rule. A long flight of stairs, lined with lanterns hanging from the trees, leads up to the monument which is shaped like a large square piece of Toblerone. Inside steps led all the way to the apex but you can only go as far as the second floor. There a door leads outside and gives you a close up view of Sun Yat Sen's last will and testament which is inscribed in gold characters onto the outside of the monument, facing down the stairs. We both stood there wishing we could decipher them.
Our path them took us past a big sports stadium, eye catching as each section of seats has been painted a different colour, and on to the Zhenhai Tower, home to the Guangzhou City Museum. The tower dates back to the late fourteenth century and is the only part of the old city wall still standing. earlier we had passed a section of wall from the Ming Dynasty, itself three hundred or so years old. The trees on top of it needing room to grow has simply extended their roots down and over the wall, forming a vertical curtain of roots.
We paid another Y10 each to get into the tower and worked our way through the museum up to the top. The museum has artifacts tracing the history of the city. The main theme I took away from it is that the local government has recognised that there is a wealth of archeological heritage in the city and they seem committed to protecting it. Only last night we had talked about how unusual a place Shamian Island is with its mix of colonial buildings and central avenue where people sit, relax, meet friends and play games. We both thought it was inevitable that it would be bull dozed and replaced by high rise blocks but it now has protected status and should be safe for a while at least.
On the ground floor of the museum they had a model of the city. We thought we had travelled quite a way on the metro but from the model we have covered less than ten percent of the total size of the city. Shamian Island is one of the few low rise areas of the city, its buildings being only about six or seven storey's high. On the island there is one high rise hotel (its prices are quoted in US dollars and it is no doubt full of baby buyers) but compared to the rest of the city even this is small. What was also interesting from the model, and that does not come across on our map in Lonely Planet, is that the whole city is really built on a series of islands. Water is pretty close everywhere you look.
From the top of the tower you get great views out and over the city. The park stretches out before you but the skyline is again dominated by tower blocks. It is funny how quickly you adjust to a new environment but we had expected nothing less, so much so that neither of us had any interest in going to the main "downtown" area as we both know what to expect.
Throughout the park were dotted lots of little cafes and we stopped at one for lunch. Life was made easy for us because the dishes were out on display in front of us. You get a polystyrene box with the bottom filled with steamed rice. The top is then filled with whatever dished you fancied. Sitting at the cafe and eating lunch was our first real introduction to us being an oddity and the subject of curiosity. As we sat down to eat an old chap at one of the other tables looked over and, with a big surprised grin on his face, motioned that we were very tall. Another couple as they left stopped and chatted in broken English. They have a daughter at university in London.
A large group of school children going past gave us our first introduction to the term "laowai" which means foreigner. Foreigners are still unusual and it is usually uttered with surprise and curiosity. We spent the rest of the day off and on smiling, saying hello and laughing at the shouts of loawai. Even our clothes attract interest. One chap studied my walking boots intently and on the way home Stef's convertible trousers (that zip off into shorts) were the subject of great scrutiny and curiosity on the metro.
I am sure we will get used to the calls of laowai as long as it stays as harmless fun. What will be harder to get used to is the public loos. Even here in the park where the toilet blocks looked new there were no "western" style toilets, simply posh holes in the floor. For you men out there it is not such a problem but us girlies are not used to squatting over a hole. A little acclimatisational practice over the last few days stood me in good stead but even Stef agreed that it travellers tummy hits a hole in the floor will be a problem!
As we walked back down to the park entrance I mused over how China so far is very different to what I had expected. OK, we have not hit the rural areas yet but what we have seen so far is very modern, much more so than I expected. Inevitably there is McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut and we have even spent time today in Starbucks at the Marriott Hotel. The transport networks are efficient, hotels are comfy and of a good standard, the food has been superb so far and the people seem initially cautious but a quick "hello" in Chinese usually results in a chuckle and a grin.
|At the top of the fourteenth century Zhenhai tower|
From the park we headed for the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. Crossing the road at street level was a non starter, four lanes in each direction, but again driving on the right (Hong Kong and Macau drive on the left). Down in the subway for the metro we tried to work out which subway exit we needed. A group of three teenagers came to our rescue and in good English asked if they could help. They pointed us in the right direction and off they toddled, no doubt chuckling about the stupid foreigners who could not find their way.
We made it to the museum just before they stopped selling tickets for the day. It is a key archeological find. Builders digging foundations for a new apartment block found the tomb in 1993.They have identified from artifacts in the tomb that it is the burial site of the Nanyue King who ruled from 137BC - 122BC. It is the largest king's tomb of the Western Han Dynasty found in south west China and it has given lots of information about policy, economy and culture in the south during this period.
The tomb was carved into what is called Elephant Hill and had seventeen metres of ground above it. You are actually able to walk into the tomb chambers themselves, a somewhat strange experience and one that would probably horrify western archeologists. The main chamber held the coffin of the king. Behind him was a store room. A chamber on the right had four sacrificed concubines and a separate chamber on the left had cooks and household servants. Musicians and eunuchs were also part of the overall funeral scene. They have been able to recover about one thousand items from the tomb. Flooding from rainwater means that the wooden coffins and screens and the human remains were virtually all destroyed. However, they have a huge collection of pottery and other artifacts that have enabled them to piece together the story.
At the time this king died, people believed that covering a body in jade would prevent it from decaying. The King was wrapped in a shroud and that in turn was covered in jade. About three thousand pieces were used in total. Pieces to cover the head, hands and feet were stitched together with red silk. Those for the torso, arms and legs were stuck to the shroud and silk was then tied around them in a geometric pattern. The end result looked like a slightly strange jade suit. I had expected the jade to be green but it was grey and while, almost like marble. The body was laid to rest on five large discs of jade. More jade was placed under the shroud both in discs and as decorative amulets and necklaces. The King's head rested on a silk pillow that was full of pearls.
From bronze supports they found they have been able to reconstruct ornate and decorative wooden panels that would have been placed inside the tomb. They had also been able to trace where the stone that lined the tomb came from and recreated the path it took down and through the connecting waterways to get it to this site. A variety of cooking stoves, storage jars, vats for wine and musical instruments, including large sets of bells, were all uncovered from what must have been a very well filled tomb.
Unfortunately time was not on our side and I would have liked to have spent longer there looking and the exhibits and reading the explanatory panels that were in English. But it was closing time and as we moved rapidly through the exhibits lights were turned off behind us and doors were swung shut and locked.
We spent an hour or so in Starbucks so that Stef could top up his caffeine levels and then headed back to our hotel. We went back to the same restaurant as last night, this time trying the sweet and sour chicken, a local Cantonese speciality. Not surprisingly it was tastier than what we get in the UK but the UK version is not too far from the original.