I leave R’s apartment at 6:45 a.m. for the airport. The first cabbie that I hail, in a burgundy Citroën (no bigger than an Indian Maruti Esteem) flings a stream of Chinese at me, gesticulating wildly at the trunk. Apparently it’s too small for my luggage. A larger Hyundai follows, and I ask, “Feiji chang?” He nods and flings another stream of putonghua at me. Hmm. Maybe he there’s two airports? “Beijing de feiji chang?” I respond, and put my arms out to simulate a plane. More streams of rapid-fire putonghua. “Ting bu dong!” “I don’t understand.” He then reaches in his wallet and flashes a 100 yuan bill. “Aha! He wants a hundred yuan for a fifty yuan ride!” I nod, give him the thumbs up, and we’re off! Traffic is light on the Airport Expressway, but things slow to a crawl as we get close to the airport. As I anticipated, the cabbie takes me to International departures. “Wo yao qu Guangzhou” – luckily, he understands. “Ah! Guangzhou!” and we crawl on towards domestic departures.
Inside, it’s a zoo. Beijing airport is quite busy at this hour. I stand in a long check-in line for Hainan Airlines flight HU7803. Another long line at security. I’m at my gate within 30 minutes, however, and the flight boards at 830 am precisely. We’re all crammed into a bus and whisked off to the apron where the 767-300 is waiting. A 767! I was expecting something smaller. There’s some interesting planes on the tarmac – apart from numerous Air China Boeings and Airbuses, a French registered Airbus A310 with “Sibir’” (Siberia) in Cyrillic on the tail. A green and white prop that is some kind of Soviet-era Antonov (an An-24 maybe?) HU7803 fills up fast. The interior is clean, calm, and at 9:05 am we’re hurtling down runway 36L. The view of the mountains north of Beijing is spectacular as we bank to the southwest, for the 1300+ mile, 2h50m flight down to Guangzhou (one is reminded that China is the third largest country in the world by landmass).
Guangzhou’s (Canton) new Baiyun airport is huge: slick, professional, could easily be anywhere in the West. Apparently, it’s the busiest airport in China. I’ve collected my bag by 12:15 pm, and give Kem a big hug outside. The airport is about 30km north of downtown. The city itself is huge, however, spread out over 40km. We’re soon on a comfortable bus to the suburb of Pinyou (incidentally, an older name for Guangzhou). A few sugarcane and paddy fields, lots of palm trees, rounded tree-covered hills in the distance. It’s much warmer (60F), a relief after Beijing. Soon, however, the concrete jungle takes over. The metropolitan area is huge. Apartment buildings, ritzy shopping malls and bazaars hurtle by. A huge bridge spans the Pearl River, with the new convention center on the other side. An hour later we’re in downtown Pinyou, where Kem’s wife is waiting with the company van. We drive a few blocks for a nice lunch, and then onto Kem’s office, a jewelry design plant on the edge of town. He gives me a tour of the facility (their firm does design work and supplies such well known names as Zales and … well, Wal-Mart!).
At 4:00 pm the van drops us off to their apartment, in the huge gated community of Clifford Estates in the neighboring town of Sichou. We drop off my bags, have a cup of chai and take another bus to downtown Guangzhou, another hour away (at least these long bus rides give us time to catch up!). The traffic and hustle bustle is unbelievable! It could almost be rush hour at Bombay (except that the traffic is actually moving!). As twilight settles in, we reach leafy Shamian Island, a reclaimed sandbar in the Pearl River, an oasis of quiet from the rest of the city. Large bungalows with colonial architecture line shady boulevards. The area is home to many expats (including those waiting to adopt Chinese babies. The US consulate is on the island as well). We walk up to the beautiful Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel (built by the French in 1892) just as the caretaker is closing it for the day. She lets us step in for a few minutes of prayer, and I manage to get a few shots of the exterior before it’s too dark. A newly-wed couple is getting their photographs taken outside the church (a very common practice here, especially, it seems, among non-Christians!).
We wander around the promenade on the Pearl River for a while. Everything around is lit up for Christmas, and a tall skyscraper in the distance has a large Santa on the side, with “Merry Christmas” glittering above. (Hey, didn’t they get the memo? Happy Holidays is the in-thing this year! Merry Christmas is exclusionary and offensive! Oh, but this is an atheist state, what do they know, eh?). Though, at one level, this is an even more secular celebration of Christmas than is sometimes lamented to be in the US. The majority of folks have no connection whatsoever with the religious significance of the holiday – it’s another excuse to party.
Another cab ride later, we’re in the heart of Guangzhou’s shopping district, the pedestrian thoroughfare of Beijing Lu. Glitzy shops galore, neon lights all around, tons of red lanterns with the fashion label “Giordano” emblazoned on them in English and Chinese, vast crowds surging about, China’s new confident middle class, a sign of the thriving, vibrant economy about to post another year of 9% GDP growth. I’ve obviously got “tourist” stamped on my forehead (Backpack. Camera. Yep.) A few beggars come up (the classless Communist state exists only in name), and at every turn, “Hello! Almani shu! This way! Lolex watch!” It’s amusing at first, and soon becomes intensely irritating.
In the middle of this temple to Mammon, there’s a glass pavement that exposes archeological digs below. In 2002, they discovered some ruins from the 9th century – old roads, gates, from the original city of Pinyou. A large plaque gives details in Chinese and English. It’s a surreal contrast, and the crowds swirl past, oblivious.
Guangzhou, of course, has thrived on trade forever, and had a pivotal part in the Opium Wars (British greed triumphed, and led to the birth of nearby commercial marvel, Hong Kong). So, in a sense, the city is just continuing in that tradition. There is a sense of a frontier town about it though – nouveau riche, brash, gaudy, shallow, artificial (Where else would you see apartment complexes with Roman columns and a Roman triumphal arch in front?) There is a materialist spirit (if that’s not an oxymoron) in the air, as intense as it is disquieting.
We have an exquisitely delicious Thai dinner (tom yum, red curry) nearby, and walk back to the bus stand. A street vendor in a white skull cap selling hot kebabs eyes me for a second and proffers “Asalaam aleikum!” “The peace of the Lord be with you!” “Waleikum asalaam” I return, a little surprised to hear Arabic here. He’s most likely an Uighur from the western province of Xinjiang. Unfortunately, I don’t trust the hygiene of his wares, so we walk on.
It is the last day of Advent here as I type this. May the peace of the Lord be upon all of y’all indeed.