A Travellerspoint blog

Out of the Frying Pan into Guangzhou

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As the train crept out of Beijing West Train Station, almost imperceptibly moving, the harsh feeling of an end to the known and a leap into the unknown was yet again inescapable. Gone were the comfortable surroundings of the 4 star hotel, the friendly shop owner next to the hotel that provided water and breakfast every day, and the array of friendly and well priced restaurants that had become ‘home’ over the past two weeks. The journey from Beijing to Guangzhou proved a neat metaphor for the whole journey so far in China, just as you settle and get used to anything you are confronted with another ‘first’.


Guangzhou is a city with an official population of 11 million, although many predict it closer to 15 million, making it China’s third city in population size and also importance. Having been a world port for hundreds of years and an important trading post for the whole of China, Guangzhou exhibits a multicultural mix that very few cities in China can boast.

Having ‘jumped’, in the loosest possible meaning of the word, off the train at Guangzhou Railway Station, the first thing that was noticeable was the wall of heat and humidity that was there to greet me. (Trust me when I say that 29 degrees and 92% humidity are numbers which at home create a strange excitement, but when you have to function as a human in such conditions they appear to be a sadistic joke played for crimes in a former life). Despite the station clock indicating half past the eighth hour of the day, the heat was already unbearable and as I was forced to move through the throngs of humanity at the station, I began to slowly shut down, just doing the bare essentials to keep moving towards the exits. As I dragged and hauled my two bags through the security scanners, I glimpsed a sign that read ‘Roger/Anna/Shreya/David’. At least I was in the right place and, in the heat and exhaustion, these words were tantamount to paradise!


The first impression I must have given I barely dare consider: skinny westerner, with a massive rucksack and duffel bag being dragged along behind him, covered in sweat…Hmmmmm note-to-self: get a damn porter!!

With no rest or refreshments on hand, we met our mentors for the year, our cultural, professional and general life trouble-shooters if you like. Having been introduced to various senior members of the school, we were whisked across town to what turned out to be one of the top 2 or 3 restaurants in the city and were treated to ‘dim sum’. Dim sum, is a Cantonese expression that finds its English equivalent in ‘brunch’. A wide array of snack dishes were brought to the table, ranging from amazing prawn and beef dumplings, to a sort of sweet cake flavoured with water chestnut and of the texture of jelly!! It was amazing to find such variety on one table, and it is in this setting that the Chinese eating culture comes into its own as a social tool. A large round rotating glass top is placed in the middle of the table upon which all the food is distributed; the diners then rotate the table taking what they want of the food. It is a wonderfully social and unique way to enjoy food and it means you can enjoy the whole range of dishes not just one. If I were to leave now, this would be the thing I would miss the most for certain!!


It turns out table etiquette is not the only difference between England and China. It was gone 4pm by the time I landed at my school and as I walked through the gates I was greeted by a quite staggering scene. Einstein and Confucius had turned out as part of the welcome party!! My home for the next year is a mix of state-of-the-art campus and indeterminate institution.


The facilities are unbelievable; the 400m running track, numerous basketball courts and state-of-the-art gym make it feel like more like a holiday resort for those of a sporting disposition… Then comes the institution. As I walked through the door of my fourth floor dorm in the teacher’s block, my heart hit the ground; the bed avec mozzie net attempting to fill one corner and a desk with a TV perched precariously on it in the other, could not disguise the spartan walls that consumed the room on all sides. The bathroom was discovered: a squat with shower head attached 5ft above were to be my washing facilities for the next year. As my eyes took in what my head refused to accept, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was graffiti on the wall. Intrigued, I wandered over, only to be confronted with the harsh reality that, to avoid the asylum being taken over by its inmates, my predecessor had kept a rather grave count of ‘dead cockroaches’ on the wall over the desk… Wormwood scrubs eat your heart out.


Now, to say it was a slightly harsh bump back down to earth after the high life of Beijing would be gross understatement. However, spare a thought for my fellow teachers; they have exactly the same set up as me in terms of rooms but they share two, or often three, to a room, a lot of them living away from young families who are only seen at the weekend. The shift in my mentality from frustrated to a wave of guilt, followed by the feeling of luck, was immediate upon this discovery.

I must also be fair and not work quite so hard to undersell my area; the place where once the city’s outskirts lay - with my campus originally boasting a rural setting - is now a construction site. The school is rapidly becoming swallowed by China’s unstoppable march towards development as both the city, and the modern world, encroach upon its once rural demeanour. The brand new 6-lane highway running parallel to the school is dwarfed by the dozen 50-storey-plus tower blocks shooting up over the back of the school to compete for areal dominance with the dozen already there.


Having set out to find my way around the city in the two weeks I had to settle in, Guangzhou has brought many different surprises and new experiences to my attention. Firstly, there is the bar that adorns a local roof in my area, where, after you walk past its entrance a few times, you might just wonder what the beer signs high on the wall are hiding and discover that at the top of the stairs lies a flat roof complete with cheep beer, a street style bbq in the corner cooking up Guangzhou’s best in ‘sh*t on a stick’ cuisine, and a big screen TV with the footy on in the corner. Also of great enjoyment has been a square in the centre of the city. If you are lucky enough to wander across its heart come nightfall, you will find it comes alive with locals meeting here to play badminton, roller blade, line dance to all genres of music imaginable, practice tai chi and, my personal favourite, hacky sack.


Now, for the uninitiated, hacky sack is effectively a collection of weighted plastic circles attached to a set of feathers about 4 inches in length with the aim being that the circle of 5 people keep said hacky sack airborne for as long as is possible, whilst taking it in turns to use just one touch from their feet. As the locals make this look ridiculously simple, flicking with their heels and ‘catching’ it on their feet before flicking it on again, it seems that the English feet are less well suited to such sports. Usually a local will ‘tutor’ the foreigners (us) until such time as he gets bored and wants to play properly. Now, something amazing occurred just a few nights ago: as the crowds started to drift at 10ish, the loyal locals started to move away, normally a sign to go, yet, to the amazement of those that witnessed this, a wave was given in our direction to join the pro game…comfortably the proudest moment in China yet.

So, there you have it. Guangzhou is to be my home for the following 10 months and I hope you enjoy exploring it through me. Next up is the story of the Friday night out in the deluxe hotel, the free wine and the 600 colleagues… Oh and I forgot to mention the mayor and the state official for education. TTFN.

Posted by Nomadlife 13:15 Archived in China Tagged school teaching guangzhou south_china Comments (0)

Age-old conformity

The changing face of China's collective personality


Individuality, so often associated with one or two people in a crowd who have an ability to draw attention to themselves for their difference to the rest, is not often an adjective used in relation to China. Portrayed as a country of the collective and the introverted, individuality seems the antithesis of the country of one and a half billion people.

Despite the best efforts of my preconceptions before I came, I have found it impossible to escape the observation that individuality and expression is to be found in every aspect of Chinese life and culture that I have thus far encountered. Let me explain what I mean…

Life in China revolves around one thing and, rather happily for me, I am rather fond of it too: food! Everything, from meetings to introductions and social occasions, centre around when and where and, most importantly, what you eat! Given the importance of food to the culture in China, it is fortunate that variety is most definitely considered the spice of life! I could easily fill the remainder of the blog with food-related stories ranging from the weird to the wonderful, so I will limit myself to one of each.


Firstly, the wonderful… When you think of Buddhism and food, the last thing you think of in relation to these staunch veggies is meat. However, many must have been carnivores in a previous life, as to eat in one of the many restaurants run by Buddhists in Beijing is, quite simply, a meat eater's delight! When I opened the menu for the first time, I was convinced that I had the wrong place; the sign outside clearly stated a meat free menu but, to my shock, the first page included dishes such as eel, duck (see above for both) and donkey! Struggling to accept what I was seeing, I turned to Anna - my highly-vegetarian girlfriend - and searched her face for a hint amusement. Much to my surprise, I found plenty. Unbeknown to me, Buddhists have spent over 1000 years perfecting the art of imitation meat; that is, they take other ingredients to reproduce the tastes and texture of the best meat dishes around! Still slightly sceptical (by this time the how-can-veg-taste-anywhere-near-as-good-as-meat voice had re-entered my thoughts), I waited for the food. It was worth the wait; plate after plate of ‘meat’ was brought out and, to my amazement, it tasted and looked like meat. The ‘Peaking duck’ with the tender moist middle and crispy outside was indistinguishable from the real deal the night before, and the eel, made from mushrooms, was equally impressive! Best of all, though, was the fish. If I hadn’t known where I was, I would have believed it was real. Minus the bones (not a bad thing), the ‘fish’ was in every other way a fish, down to the smell, flaky texture and taste! If I were you, I would currently sack off the rest of the blog and get hunting for your local Buddhist temple.


Now for the ugly! Right, where to start? Having gone for a meal with 10 people from the ELA training centre, the usual was expected: order a few communal dishes that go on a revolving table in the middle and pick off your favourite food to go with your rice. Things appeared different from the moment we were ushered past the rest of the diners into a very plush back room, with blood-red drapes and thick plush chairs to match. Following the usual confrontation and confusion that comes with any totally Chinese menu, we ordered what we thought was a variety of meats and vegetables. So far, so good. Then appeared the highly-anticipated meat platters that had been asked for. It was no wonder the waiter had been highly amused when he confirmed our order; instead of the succulent meat the pictures had so convincingly advertised, there appeared what can only be described as a massacre. Out of each section of the platter stared a different obscenity, including: the head of an undeterminable animal split into half slices; diced throat or spine (still wondering); and the clincher: chicken feet, complete with nails and hair. Well, not wanting to ‘lose face’ amongst our newly acquired band of suckers, we all dutifully tucked in, with drop outs occurring at different stages. I lasted until the eye went pop then, after restraining the gag reflex quietly, enquired for the bill, ironically enough the most expensive meal of Beijing. Lesson learnt: Mandarin, not hand signals, should always be used when trying to get the food you desire!


To describe the choice of food encountered in my first two weeks as varied is an understatement at its most brutal. Down any street, you will find yourself in a grill with the widest variety of meats, greens and seasonings on a stick that you are ever likely to come across. Food at first seems a poor analogy for individualism, yet it also strikes at the core principles of what I believe individuality to be; not being different for the sake of it, but embracing that in difference comes untold experiences waiting to be discovered.


Entertainment also features as an essential part of Chinese culture, and nothing seems to explore individual brilliance quite like the acrobatic and kung fu shows that are to be found in central Beijing. Attempting to describe the lunacy of the acrobatic show is to accept the challenge of describing the impossible and the unbelievable in a coherent manner. The finale moved beyond the spectacular and entered the realms of madness. A large, steel, spherical cage was brought onto the stage along with an intrepid motorcyclist, who then proceeded to enter the ball of death and do loop-the-loops, weaving patterns inside of the ball at a dizzying speed! This, in itself, would have been spectacular, but 10 minutes later, with the smells of petrol stinging the eyes and throats of most of the amazed audience, the 5th - yes, 5th - guy entered the cage. The lights were dimmed and the neon glow of the globe disappeared, whilst only the headlamps of the bikes remained to enlighten the patterns and shapes the riders produced as they whizzed around each other at full speed, missing each other by inches. Despite being less death-defying, the Kung-fu show was equally impressive, with the body control and skill of the performers of a quality that could grace any stage in the world!


Beyond the less obvious, the Chinese display a stunning ability of being able to display individuality through their everyday clothing. Thirty years ago, Mao suits were all the rage; today, the latest knock-off designer labels and increasingly outrageous high heels more than match even Liverpool in their ability to move beyond ‘the norm’. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the famous silk market. The walk up the stairs from the metro stop below gives away nothing of the chaos above. Set out over 5 floors, with each floor packed with 10 foot by 10 foot stalls, you can buy any item of clothing on the planet. With whole areas dedicated to knock-off watches and ‘designer’ bags, it’s a haggler's paradise, whilst still offering every possible accessory and item desirable to the ‘trendy’. You just have to excuse the spelling mistakes that carelessly seemed to have appeared on the name of every designer’s product. Tut tut, Georgio Armani would turn in his grave if only he could see how badly people have spelt his name. After two hours of being mauled, insulted, grabbed and flattered, it was time to leave and, thanks to good old Georgio’s leniency with his name, I managed to acquire several of his shirts for less than a fiver!


Individuality is as alive and thriving in Beijing as it is in any other major world city you care to name and, with this only set to expand and deepen into the culture as China accepts more and more influences from around the world, the view of blue Mao suits and enforced conformity portrayed by many in the western media will increasingly become as outdated as the suits themselves.

Next stop is my host city for the next year…role on Guangzhou.

Posted by Nomadlife 23:04 Archived in China Comments (0)

'Old Meets New'

First impressions of China through the eyes of Beijing


One phrase, old meets new, seems to be the acceptable one-liner to serve as a description for most cities or cultures around the world today, with 'globalisation' and a 'shrinking world' cited as the key reasons behind the clash of tradition and modernity. Well, clichés are clichés for a reason and, in Beijing, I may just have uncovered the definitive example of this phenomenon.

Coming into land in Beijing was the first clue that there was a disparity within the city's 'timeline'. Industrial units with their distinctive, vivid blue roofs at first gave the appearance of swimming pools, before the illusion gave way to great chimneys and warehouses as the plane descended. Surrounding these huge complexes, however, lay row after row of dilapidated shacks with their corrugated roofs glinting in the sun, offering a stark insight into China's recent past, and also serving as a powerful reminder of the poverty and underdevelopment that a significant proportion of the Chinese population still exists under today. Had the view allowed it, this scene would have been repeated until the plane touched down on the outskirts of the city; however, another symbol synonymous with the advent of modernity, and Beijing itself, was the violet haze that clad the city in an impenetrable shawl. Having shot to fame in 2008, just prior to the Olympics, the smog moves from an enchanting array of violets and purples higher in the sky, through the spectrum to a thick grey by the time you are at street level. Even on a 'clear day', (which, incidentally, the Chinese man sat in the seat next to me tried to assure me, at great length, that today was just that), buildings that would dominate any other city in the world appear nothing more than blurred and tentative sketches on the city's skyline.

Smokey Beijing

Smokey Beijing

Beijing Street Life

Beijing Street Life

I managed to negotiate my way to the hotel that was to be my base for the next 2 weeks, which was no mean feat given the combination of rush-hour traffic, driving that would make the Italians pale with fear, and the severe anger I encountered from the driver for having the audacity to try to put on my seatbelt (apparently Chinese taxi drivers see the seatbelt as an affront to their driving skills rather than the safety device you and I know it to be).


The discussion over breakfast the next morning was testament to the embarrassment of riches Beijing has at its disposal; trying to whittle down the choice of where to spend the day took fully 2 hours of eating time and with sights such as The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace and The Temple of Heaven, it is no surprise! Having finally reached a consensus, Tiananmen Square was the chosen destination and so a small group of us set out to try to navigate our way there. This immediately led to the first of many encounters with Beijing's Metro. Ultra-modern, fully air conditioned, cheap (one-way the equivalent of 20p), and clean... London Underground this certainly wasn't! Despite its basic function as a transport system, the Metro serves as a great counterpoint to the other decidedly more traditional modes of transport within the city. Bikes and rickshaws (see picture) wait at every metro station offering you the complete door-to-door travel experience. These vehicles are usually manned by men with calves of iron and an even stronger sense of danger, who take great pride in racing anything and anyone around for no extra cost; there remains only minor heart failure to distract you whilst you are pulled one way then another by the g-forces produced as you weave in and out of other bikes, pedestrians, and cars when, instead of following any laws of the road, the rickshaw driver decides to go the wrong way up a 3 lane highway to save 2 minutes for you. For the adrenaline rush alone, the rickshaw has become a must whenever the opportunity arises!!

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour



Tiananmen Square encapsulates everything that is part of the collision within China's current history. Having stepped off the state-of-the-art subway, you are immediately confronted by the Gate of Heavenly Peace, famous for its iconic image of Mao. It is impossible to escape the weight of history within the world’s largest square, as Mao appears to be 'doing a Mona' and following your every move as you take in the sheer vastness of the square before you are inevitably drawn back to turn and take in the gate once again. It is only then that you realise that behind this image lays the Forbidden City, a structure that has stood in one form of another since the 1400s, providing yet another iconic image of Beijing and China.

Gate of Heavenly Peace'

Gate of Heavenly Peace'


The ancient architecture of the traditional temples and palace buildings is breath-taking, with the terracotta-orange roofs in the famous, slightly-curved prism shape catching the sun and reflecting back the infinite detail of the blue, green, gold and red paint that adorns every minute space on the buildings. The intricate patterns mean that, once you successfully get over your English reservations and disrespect the queue, using your elbows as weapons, your eyes are as strongly assaulted as your body will be by the intense and relentless sun. It is impossible to do justice to the scale and beauty of this place; it is quite simply mind blowing. Perhaps its greatest compliment is to say that when people think of Chinese buildings, they think of this place... It is unique in Beijing, China and the World. Stunning!


For those of you wondering just where my morality has gone, fear not... there is no such thing as a queue in China, elbows are expected to be used in any crowded situation as ferociously as possible and, as for giving up your seat, well, let’s just say it’s not very Chinese!

After the first few days of tuition at the hotel that coupled as a surrogate school for the 90 or so English Language Assistants frantically undertaking TEFL training, there was an organised tour set up to see a local ‘Hutong’. A Hutong consists of lots of tiny, narrow streets that intersect at will and are lined with one-storey, slate-grey, traditional Chinese housing. The houses themselves are covered in symbolism: the number of steps leading off the street indicates the status of the owner; the wooden posts above the door way depict the wealth and, often, the employment of the owner; whilst most houses have the famous dragon carved from stone, its snarl frozen as a symbol of protection for the household. Behind the grey facades lie communities of families, with up to as many as 50 people sharing one small house with single rooms collected round a communal courtyard and living space. The streets are enchanting and relaxing as you are taken away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding areas into a mini time warp.

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Despite their huge significance and desirability to the residents that inhabit these picturesque streets, the Beijing Government has undergone a development scheme in recent years, which, locals have estimated, has seen as much as 80% of the Hutongs in the city torn down to make way for modern housing. The mood seems mixed when talking to the local people, as many see the benefits of the upgraded housing, whilst others lament the loss of community and a significant point of culture in their city. Whatever the rights and wrongs, and I am certainly in no position to judge, the Hutongs offer one of the best travel experiences I have come across in Beijing, as you are escorted from the pollution and chaos of the present back to the slow and relaxing pace of the past.

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

Houhai Lake and Hutong Tour

'Traditional' China is colliding with 'Modern' China, and nowhere is this more visible than in Beijing. Whilst everything to see in the city guidebook screams tradition and the past, the moment you leave the tourist attractions, you see that Beijing has opened its doors to the future! Skyscrapers, 8-lane road networks and all the western shopping you could desire stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, and have come together to form one of the most exciting and vibrant cities I have ever visited. More importantly, China has allowed the phrase old meets new to move beyond cliché to become one of the most influential phrases within the global vocabulary.

Posted by Nomadlife 01:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

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