The Two Gallivants

A random few days in Guangzhou

Getting out of Hong Kong and into China was a fairly easy affair – and thank feck for that after the trouble obtaining Chinese visas in Vietnam!

We made our way to Hung Hom station, in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong, and bought tickets to Guangzhou East. Tickets cost around USD 15/HKD 190. The woman selling the tickets spoke good English and so the process was straightforward. The train journey itself was uneventful, although the greyness of the weather was a little foreboding, and getting into the mainland was easy – the Chinese officials took a quick look at the visa, stamped it and waved us through. No drama.

But, as with everything that is plain sailing, there’s always the threat of a big gust of Murphy’s Law to blow you off course, for better or for worse! And sure enough, the randomness of Guangzhou soon had us scratching our heads…

After swiftly passing through immigration at Guangzhou East station, we queued up to get a taxi to Guangzhou Backpacker Hostel armed with directions in Chinese, kindly written by our Hong Kong hotel staff. The taxi guy had a look and said in broken English “I know, I know”, so we clambered in, relieved. Thirty minutes later it was clear he didn’t know where he was going after lots of aimless driving about and confused faces all round. Then he surprisingly pulled up outside some swanky office block announcing our arrival. Hmm, really?

After our questioning he remained adamant it was the place and so we got out and paid the money, somewhat reluctantly. Was it our hostel? Of course not! Thankfully the bemused receptionist in the swanky building spoke a tiny bit of English. She was able to figure out that we were close to our hostel and pointed us in the right direction – well, after first consulting with 5 colleagues and the internet for about an hour! This trouble with directions and Chinese people seeming not to know the whereabouts of anything in their own neighbourhoods was an issue throughout our whole stay.

I would like to tell you that the rest of the day went our way, but that would be a lie. We found the address of the hostel easily enough but it was a huge 1970s style residential apartment block, 40 stories high and somehow still standing. It didn’t look like a backpacker hangout whatsoever! There was no mention of the hostel’s name at the entrance or even a buzzer to get in the building. I managed to get into the entrance when some people came out and I slipped in behind them. There were no clues to the hostel’s existence inside either and I wasn’t about to check all 40 floors, so we figured we must have the wrong place. We searched all round the neighbourhood to no avail and even tried to ask a few locals – those that didn’t run away looked at the address in Chinese and just shook their heads angrily at us – very random. 

We were starting to think we had made a mistake coming to China when…brainwave! We decided to get on the internet and find a number for the hostel and a pay phone to call them. We went to a few restaurants but to log on to their Wifi (as with most cafes, bars etc in China) you need to have a Chinese phone number to register. We didn’t, and we were very annoyed indeed. Luckily though, we found a bar that had instant access Wifi and we logged on through our VPN tunnel (vyprvpn) –  because of the Great Firewall of China (a very unnecessary annoyance), Facebook, Google and lots of other sites are blocked and you need a VPN to get around it.

The two young bar tenders serving us were friendly and very helpful. After we had a quick coffee, they called the hostel and arranged for us to be collected at the nearby Tiyu Xilu subway station. They even waited with us until we were picked up and likely saved us from marching straight back out of the country that day!

The woman from the hostel was also friendly and spoke decent English, although when I suggested their directions should be more clear, she said I should have phoned ahead. Not very helpful when you are catering to backpackers who are unlikely to have a Chinese sim card (especially on their first day in the country!).

I would have argued back but we reached our hostel – and I could only laugh in the way a defeated man can….we were back where we started, at the crumbling tower block! She led us to the 28th floor and into a dingy apartment, still no sign this was a hostel and the grinding noise of regret was rattling in my ears. Worse then as they showed us our very cramped 6 bed dorm, the kind of thing from a “Holidays from Hell” program or something.

Our Chinese roommates were out in the adjoining and cluttered kitchen smoking like troopers. They were a friendly bunch and offered us a smoke in very limited English. We obliged and put out our ash in a makeshift ashtray – a bowl with some water. Our new friends considered that a bin, which was brimming with paper, was a much better place for hot ash. Hmmmmmm….

At this point we became very aware that we were on the 28th floor of a potential Towering Inferno style deathtrap. So we slinked out and asked if there were vacancies in a more upmarket hotel we noticed across the road. There were and so we booked straight away. We said to the lady at Guangzhou Backpackers that our plans had changed as we were now to stay with my friend who lived in Guangzhou and got our deposit back. Soon we were in our spacious, clean and safe room at the Kaiserdom Hotel (Kaixuan). After the day we had, we immediately collapsed in bed and slept soundly for a few hours before getting some familiar fast food that evening.

The next morning, the greyness of our first day in Guangzhou was overhauled by a pristine blue sky and with it a similar transformation of our mood. We had a walk around the area and marvelled at the amount of sparkling skyscrapers in every direction of this huge metropolis, one which is pretty much unknown in the rest of the world. These dare-devil window washers won’t be out of a job anytime soon that’s for sure…

Guangzhou 2There wasn’t much by way of culture in the area around our hotel as Guangzhou in general seemed to be mostly made up of shiny new buildings and shopping malls. But it is still an impressive city to photograph…

Guangzhou 3 Guangzhou 5 guangzhou 4When I had told the woman at Guangzhou Backpackers that my friend lived in town, I wasn’t  lying. I met my mate Toby at a music festival in Paris a few years back and we have stayed touch since – cue embarrassing photo…

rock en seine

oh dear

Ah, well, hmm…haha you’re only young once! Anyhow, Toby had been studying in Guangzhou for a year and he met us the next day to be our de facto tour guide. It was great to see him, especially in such a strange place, although getting us lost on the subway wasn’t a great start to his tour guide duties! 🙂

He made up for it though by taking us to Shamian Island, an old French and British colonial part of Guangzhou which was used for trade and administration back in the day. It is now a pretty place for tourists to roam about in and buy generic souvenirs…

GUangzhou 6 Guangzhou 8But even here we couldn’t escape the randomness, so we just joined in…

Guangzhou 7

it was June

guangzhou 11




We even stumbled upon a photo shoot, showing that China, like the countries in South East Asia, has a desire for white skin and Western faces in its media as well…

GUangzhou 9After acting the tourists at Shamian Island, Toby took us to The Brew (Zhu Jiang New Town) to act the ex pats. It is part of an American style pub chain in China and although it is expensive, it is a cool place and had a great quiz on that night. We got drunk and met lots of people, mostly ex pats and a couple of locals. One local from China, obviously, and not so obviously, one local from the same neighbourhood as me back home in Derry, Ireland! The guy below to my right is called Fergus, and his family home is only a few streets away from mine. He went to the same school as me (5 years my junior though) and he knew my younger brother! And here we were bumping into each other in a small bar in some far-flung corner of the world, strange indeed! A shout out has to go to Jack also, the Chinese guy far right below – it was a  pleasure to meet him that evening too…

The Brew GuangzhouThe last day in town we spent hungover and hid in the hotel room most of the day, although Guangzhou wasn’t finished just yet with its predictable randomness! Popping out to get some fast food/hangover cures, I bumped into this smiley chap who posed for a photo and then got off his bike to examine my camera and talk to me for half an hour…in Chinese. Lots of sign language later and more smiles, he was on his way down the motorway juxtaposed against the fat, modern vehicles and buildings swarming all around him.

GuangzhouThat night we sorted out onward transport to the more traveller friendly town of Yangshou (we’ll explain how to get there in a later post), got an early night and sunk into relatively normal dreams.


3 thoughts on “A random few days in Guangzhou

  1.'pauline melillo

    great stuff Declan……Derry people ARE everywhere!…the architecture there is similar to what I saw in Abu Dhabi…all tall and shiny…..amazing the contacts you’ve made along the way!

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