March 12, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)
Safely on board the bus to the Macau-China border with our backpacks on our laps (they didn’t have the luggage compartment open under the bus at the bus loading stop), and on our first leg (hopefully a short leg, as the backpacks were heavy and uncomfortable on our laps) of travel into mainland China, we quickly found out we had left Hong Kong and Macau far behind in more ways than one. No English was spoken and none in sight that we could read. Kristin and I sat a little closer as we sat through congested traffic and watched people going about their day outside our bus window. No sooner had we started our bus ride when the bus stopped and we were directed to exit the bus and proceed to the border crossing/baggage and passport check area. We followed the crowd to the passport check lines, following the “Foreigner” signs. It was only when we got to the front of the line that we found out we needed immigration forms. Loaded down with our backpacks and in a congested passport check line we were kindly escorted to an area where we could fill out the paperwork without causing a backlog in processing. Once done we passed through passport and customs check rather quickly, using our spiffy multiple-entry China visas for the first time.
During the whole process at this border crossing I had the odd feeling that, for all involved, it was like the US/Mexico border but in reverse. It seemed very common for locals to do this trip, as they were all loaded down with products and goods from Macau and Hong Kong. And the Chinese border agents were doing their best to check all these items. We, being very obvious western tourists with backpacks, were just waved through.
Following the crowd and some limited English signs, we stepped outside into China, avoiding the feeding frenzy of taxi drivers, and into a large mall of various boutique shops. Trying to follow the hand drawn map that the kind ticket lady had drawn for us at the ticket office in Macau, we quickly lost our direction in this mall of confusion. Seeing what looked like an information desk, we desperately made our way to it to ask for some help. We walked up to a young gentleman at the desk who noticed our desperation and large backpacks, and then pointed to a lady at the other side of the desk. Luck was with us as her limited but good understanding of English quickly ascertained our situation and told us where to go. We followed her instructions and made our way to the correct bus area. Despite all our shenanigans, we were a good half hour early for our scheduled departure time. Showing them our tickets, they nodded and motioned us to load on. We walked through a doorway and were confronted with a parking garage full of buses. Okay? We moved to the bus we thought was ours, and as we started to load I asked “Guangzhou”? No, no. They shook their heads, and then pointed to the bus in back of the one we were loading onto. Okay! Making it onto the right bus we took our seats, and placed our large backpacks on the open seats behind the bus driver. The bus was not full. Phew, were the looks Kristin and I exchanged as we settled into our next leg of travel. Ready or not, we were into it now.
We sat back on the bus and watched passing buildings, roads, and endless large construction projects. The streets were clean with noticeably less traffic, making our journey smooth. But the number of large high-rise housing projects that were being built was a bit astounding. We sat back and watched what seemed like city after city, with large harbors and ports, and the occasional small open countryside in between them all. After a few hours we arrived in a very large metropolitan city with all the traffic congestion that goes with it. We had arrived in Guangzhou.
We knew that we were going to have to get from the bus stop to the Guangzhou East railway station for the last leg of our adventurous first day’s travel in China — but we didn’t know exactly where the bus was going to stop. Our confusion set in a little when the bus started to make several stops in Guangzhou. Our worries started to get to us when another passenger (she seemed to be a young student) stepped up to the bus driver to ask him about a stop. She then asked a young businessman in the seat in front of us the same question. He asked if she spoke English. She did! She then sat in the seat across from us and I asked her if she knew where our stop was. She answered that she didn’t and she was trying only to get to the university where she was going to study. She told us to ask the young man in the seat ahead of us, so we did. He asked to see our railway station name, then asked the bus driver about it. At that point the bus driver’s reaction was not good. Stopping at the university to let the young student out, the bus driver looked confused and dumfounded about our situation. Great! You’re not doing much to boost our confidence mister bus driver. We knew we had 3 to 4 hours to catch our train once off the bus in Guangzhou, but how were we going to get to the railway station? Not to mention everything is in Chinese now. Plus we might not even know we have reached our destination once we get there if we go by signs, because it’s all in Chinese. Although we did notice that the major street and boulevard signs had their names in smaller English print. But a bus schedule on the street? We didn’t think so. Maybe the subway station might be a better bet or were we going to have to communicate with a taxi driver. We were not looking forward to a repeat of the Macau taxi car ejection.
At this point the young gentleman sitting in front of us turned around and said, that it would be best for us to catch the subway to Guangzhou’s railway station. Yes, yes that’s what we want! And since he was getting off at the same stop we were getting off (thank god he knew where we were getting off), we should follow him to the subway station where he could direct us to the subway. Hallelujah! Hallelujah, hallelujah! Lead on kind sir, lead on! At the final stop (oddly enough, the loading dock behind a Marriott Hotel) the three of us stepped off the bus (I’m sure the bus driver was shaking his head at two crazy lost Americans) and walked about one good city block to the subway station. We bought our subway tokens and this angel of a kind Chinese man, showed us which subway line, direction, and which stop to exit for the railway station. We thanked him profusely as he wished us fun and good luck on our travels in China. Well, if we keep running into people like him, that just might happen.
We made it to the railway station, no problem, but this is a huge, multi-floor, newer railway station. Did I fail to mention that Guangzhou is a GARGANTUOUS city? From our perspective, in the little time we were there, it was Los Angeles’ size. And this railway station is like no railway station I’ve ever seen in the USA. We made our way to the second floor of the massive railway station and plopped our backpacks down in a large semi-covered outside courtyard mall. From there we could see the marquees of major hotels, banks, companies, department stores and Ikea!
And it was there that we started to get looks and stares from people. Was it because of our large backpacks or clothing? No, we were foreigners in their land where, as far as we could tell now, it was all Chinese. No, I mean 100% Chinese. We don’t think about it much in America, where one goes out and sees a great mixture of people and cultures everyday. But not here, at least not in Guangzhou. How do I put it? It’s like the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, where all the changed humans are shocked to see a real human walking around. It was more than that though, it was the way some of them would look at us. As Kristin put it, it was a look of disdain. We tried not to pay to much attention to it. We smiled, and if they smiled back, good, if not we would just move on.
It was here, Guangzhou East railway station, that we really got thrown into a culture shock. We had known that they smoke a lot in China, but this was ridiculous. At least for the men, it was unusual NOT to see one smoking, and they smoke EVERYWHERE! Kristin and I were dying. Oh, and as if that’s not enough, they all spit. Of course they spit, because they all smoke! But it’s not just the spitting, it’s the throat clearing cough up of mucus before the spit that makes you want to gag. Okay, we know we’re not making any Chinese friends here but were only stating what we experienced. But the worst part is that they spit everywhere. No, I mean everywhere. We’re sitting in the large smoke-filled interior waiting room of the railway station waiting where, yes, you guessed it, throat clearing cough up of mucus and spitting onto the floor. Right there in the waiting room! And this happened a lot. Okay, note to self for now on. Watch where you step and where you set your bags down. After a while (and getting over our gag reflex) we just started joking about it while keeping our eyes wide open for any suspicious stains. Then again it only makes sense if you smoke that much, you’ve got to get all that stuff out of your lungs somehow. Enough said, got the picture, let’s move on.Surviving the waiting room scene (and stares), it came time to load the train. Oh baby! Organized line up or called by sections? HA! It’s every man for himself. The crush is at the very beginning where you need to show your ticket to get through the narrow turnstile. And you thought that we were loaded down with our double backpacks, HA, HA! People with large bags, boxes, suitcases on wheels — we even saw one person with (and this is classic) the stick across his shoulders and bundles hanging off each end. I wish I could have taken a picture of all this but I was just trying not to get separated from Kristin in this sea of madness. Oh, and the best part was, while being carried away down this human current towards the train, this one guy (he must have been hard of hearing) was on his cell phone having a shouting conversation with the other person on the other end, and the cell phone was in speaker mode on the loudest setting. But the best part about that whole conversation was that no one seemed to mind. Down the hall, like a herd of cattle funneled down a chute, we went onto the train platform. And now the race really started, people scrambling in all directions to get on the train. We had bought a pair of soft sleeper tickets (like first class!), which assigned us to a train car with a 4-bed enclosed compartment. With that in mind we still walked quickly (at least we didn’t do the mad scramble), boarded the train where we were greeted by a wall of smoke, despite the “No Smoking” signs everywhere. Yep, this train ride might be the death of us.
We arrived at our compartment to meet our fellow travelers, a grandmother, mother, and her young child. We all tried our best to communicate but I’m sure we were a curiosity as they were kind but did their share of staring. We did find out from the mother that they were from an area we planned to visit and one of the main reasons we had chosen Xiamen as our first destination on mainland China.
It was late and we made up our bunk beds; I took the top bunk, and went to sleep. Keeping the door closed helped to keep most of the smoke out but we were still struggling to breath in smoke-free air. Sometime during the night the mother, her child and grandmother left the train at one of the several stops it made. I woke up several times during the night to peer out the window and could make out strange buildings, towns and what I thought were some kind of factory building. Little did I know these were actually some of the unusual old, now UNESCO Heritage site, tulous. Many times I could tell that the train was traveling through extremely long tunnels in some mountainous region. Too bad it was in the middle of the night, and I was too tired to look out and concentrate on what the countryside was truly like. Kristin slept through the whole thing.
Waking in the morning I went to look for the bathroom. Kristin had gone the night before and mentioned to me that it was just flushing out a hole in the bottom of train car. I didn’t believe her. Well, as always, she was right. Doing my business quickly I flushed and swore never to walk along railroad tracks in China. Okay, okay, I know I’ve been a little blunt in my unaccustomed way of trying to mix in, but it was all new to me. Overall the train ride was an event for us. We were able to get some rest and sleep and a hot thermos of water was always available for us, but we were looking forward to getting out of the smoke-filled train to clear our heads.
We finally arrived in Xiamen, our first mainland China destination, and we were anxious to start our new adventure.
(We apologize for not including more pictures but the subject matter didn’t lend itself to many beauty shots)