China, renowned for its vast population and booming economy, is as rich today with tradition and culture as it is with gold and locally produced international commodities. Cities of the south within easy reach from Southeast Asia may be an entire continent away from Beijing in terms of how Europe measures distance, though they boast durable facets common to all Chinese. Travel to the urban areas of Guangzhou, Chenzhou and Zhuzhou in southern Hunan province comes complete with unique cultures, centuries old traditions and modern marvels.
This ancient Asian nation, once the centre of global innovation and culture, retains a sturdy Chinese pride. Beyond the primary tourist spots of Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, locals tend to speak only Chinese. While there are exceptions in terms of airport and hotels, most other services in Guangzhou and the rest of Hunan province promote their services almost exclusively in Chinese, both spoken and written. Some challenges for the intrepid explorer may include ordering local cuisine, purchasing tickets to attractions or journeys and visiting a doctor. Without resident contacts, a phrase book or flash cards will probably be needed even for basic communication, so theatrical performances – such as my doing a chicken impersonation in a restaurant – can be avoided, entertaining as they may be for all involved! It can be frustrating, for sure, but travellers always need to remember that, as in every other travel destination, the onus is on them to make arrangements for communication in the local language not the other way around. Acquiring a few phrases of Chinese is a delightful experience anyway; so many of the words resemble the ups and downs of short melodies it’s easy to forget that it’s a spoken language, rather than the verses of song.
Fortunately for those visiting Guangzhou, the vast subway network in the city is perhaps one glaring exception to the rule. From the basement floor of the cities Baiyun International Airport the metropolitan spread is over 60 km. Stations and announcements are in Chinese and English.
Idyllic scenes present themselves all over the city. Citizens strut the pavements here in the latest designer fashion thanks to the plethora of shoe and clothing shops, selling their wares at hugely discounted prices. Clean streets and depleted traffic levels match the opulent commercial buildings, low pollution and gigantic high rise public housing. Slums are not evident, though one can assume they are there somewhere. Community parks abound where tourists and locals alike gather. It really is a great place for travellers to enjoy a journey in a genuine Chinese city.
Taking in the pleasures of the Pearl River are a must for the curious wanderer. From Haizhu square various neon signed boats navigate passengers past the China gold company to the spectacular glowing Canton Tower. As a symbol of progress and power, this area must rank among some of the most impressive on the globe. Bentleys and Aston Martins park up at riverside restaurants and Canton Tower rests just a few yards from a ship launching site. The entire district along this stretch of river is lit up with monuments to wealth flashing their adjusting lights for the world to see. It is nothing short of spectacular and not at all common throughout the country, to be sure.
Guangzhou East railway station is home to a collection of fine bullet trains. Each carriage manufactured in China at two locations for domestic use and export. These engines are powered on electric lines and are a becoming a vital lifeline for economic development in rural areas. The locomotives, though capable of speeds of around 350km per hour are limited to just over three hundred for safety reasons. Speed of this kind is more than enough to tour vast tracts of land in comfort. Ample seating space, luxury and efficiency are the hallmarks of this service. Complimentary drinks, meals and rotating seats are available for first class at very little extra cost. Scenery dashes past at lightning speed. Within minutes the plains of Guangzhou yield to rural alpine communities. Sub-tropical foliage begins to fade away replaced by mountain pine trees, scattered villages and rapid infrastructure building on every corner.
Oddly enough, this locomotive service is not regularly frequented by non-Chinese. Nevertheless occasional foreign visitors and business people stray north from Guangzhou’s notorious Canton import and export fair. Such nomads are rewarded with a glimpse into rural Chinese life that would otherwise be missed. Keep in mind, though, that if the language barrier can be a struggle in the city, it can be downright frustrating in these areas. Be patient, though; the value of the experience will well outweigh the trials and tribulations of rural travel.
Upon my arrival at Chenzhou station, I got my first glimpses of family in two years. My brother had arranged a fleet of cars to meet us and other guests arriving for his wedding, and from the station we enjoyed a two-hour drive to the ceremony location, passing several small villages and rural mountain farmlands along the way. A brand new road network was more than adequate for the voyage. Most of the traffic consisted of gigantic construction trucks containing ton upon ton of building raw materials and the entire landscape was dotted with labouring machines driving the Chinese economy and society into the twenty first century at breakneck speed. In two years’ time the panorama here will be unrecognizable.
For the meantime almost each building in these rural communities is characteristic drab Stalinist design. Bars on all the windows often dirty and always uniform in style are the hallmarks. This contrasts with the strides in public infrastructure development. In the town we stayed a sewer and drainage system was being installed on a massive scale. Municipal service construction regenerates the region at reckless pace which compensates for the relatively poor condition of some inhabitants.
A welcome to Hunan was second to none with earsplitting fire crackers announcing our arrival at local houses, hotels and restaurants. Vibrations from these toys of celebrations set off car and motor cycle alarms along entire street blocks. Smoke from these drifted across the otherwise immaculately clean and cool air.
A further visit to one of Chinas immense train terminals beckons the sightseer ever northward. This time to Zhuzhu, the final stop in Hunan province. A tour through the district capital revealed a picture of developed modern extravagance. The local Olympic stadium is a fine structure, unique and elegant yet strong. Monuments of the five Olympic rings continue to stand proud from the two thousand and eight games until this very day.
Wide uncluttered streets and quiet pavements disguise the fact this is the most populated nation on earth. Vast oceans of colossal public accommodation dominate the skyline even from the highest vantage points. These structures though clean, beautiful and well serviced are in extraordinary close proximity to one another. Communal housing in this place dominates the commercial district where commerce and home-grown cooperatives thrive almost as an afterthought. Local hotels and corporations do not lack opulence, the city as a whole seems rather magnificent.
Despite the challenges that can come with travelling in a highly crowded country where English isn’t widely spoken outside of major centres, travellers can really enjoy China. Just remember that if you embrace it and its people, it will embrace you back. It truly is a marvelous destination.
About the Author With a background in sociology, education and social justice, Stephen Lee Mowat has strength in visual arts and is currently teaching English. He enjoys sports, the outdoors, experiencing life in other cultures and traveling in Asia & Europe.
About the Author
With a background in sociology, education and social justice, Stephen Lee Mowat has strength in visual arts and is currently teaching English. He enjoys sports, the outdoors, experiencing life in other cultures and traveling in Asia & Europe.