Guangzhou doesn't figure large in the usual list of desirable destinations in China. In fact, at the time that I was planning our trip I had never heard of this city. It wasn't until I had actually booked the flights that I started to do a little research and discovered that this is in fact the local and preferred name of the city we westerners formerly referred to as Canton. Much of the chinese culture we are familiar with in Australia is Cantonese. So the little place we stopped at for lunch in Shamian Island came as a pleasant surprise. It was literally the very first 'cafe' we stumbled on. I was attracted by the name, Susan's Place and its boast of 'Art & Craft Gallery Cafe with Wi-Fi and Very Cold Beer'. That and the welcome blast of air conditioning as we entered the small shop front to be greeted by 'Dom' who invited us to sit and sample his freshly brewed tea.
Shamian Island, Guangzhou
Shamian Island is the place we chose to visit on this incredibly hot day during our very short stopover en route to Rome. We had decided to take advantage of the cheaper airfares and break our journey with a stopover in China. We weren't totally unprepared for the heat we were about to endure. In fact I had done a quick search on my weather app a few days previously and knew that we were in for a 34˚C day. A little bit more searching brought up a weather site which described today's conditions as 'feels like 47˚C'! Ok. It's going to be hot. And humid I'm guessing. Accept it. We decided that the best way to make the most of this day was to book in to a hotel and base ourselves there. We would check in, freshen up, spend a few hours in the city then come back and catch a few hours sleep before our onward flight at midnight.
Ordering A Coffee in China
Our first challenge was to find a room. There is an enormous hotel right next door to the airport. We didn't even waste our time going over there and checking out their rates. We just knew by looking at it that it was out of our price range. So we found a place to sit and have a coffee while we decided what to do. Coffee. As soon as we had decided on it I knew it was a bad idea. The chinese aren't known for their coffee. I've never had a good coffee in any chinese establishment back home. Why would I think it would be any different here? Actually, that was the problem. We didn't think. We just went ahead and ordered. All I can say is that we paid an exorbitant amount for an awful excuse for something remotely resembling coffee. The main problem was the UHT milk. Between pulling faces and searching for mints in my backpack, we decided to head for an enquiry counter and hope they could point us in the right direction for a hotel room.
Finding a Room in Guangzhou
The woman at the counter at first denied that she could help us with booking a hotel room. Until I pointed to the sign above her head which, in addition to promoting other services, clearly said 'hotel'. Eventually, we got there. She found us a hotel at a great price with a free airport shuttle service. Part of the problem is the broken English. Both this woman and the waitress in the cafe who brought us first an espresso instead of the latte we ordered, have very limited English which we found rather surprising in a major airport in a city roughly the same size as Sydney. Until we looked around us. On a busy Saturday morning, as we looked at the faces of the people moving around in the terminal, there were very few non-Asians. I'm guessing the majority of the people in the airport were locals. If that's the case, there's not a lot of need for English.
Getting Around In Guanzhou
As we ventured out to head into the city, we asked at the hotel reception for directions to a train station and once again hit the language barrier. Eventually, we managed to get hold of a map and walking directions which involved a 20 minute trek in an uncertain direction in stifling heat. We headed back to the hotel and flagged down a cab to take us back to the airport where we knew with certainty that there is a metro station. I wish I could describe the views from the train as we made our way into the city. What we encountered was an incredibly clean, efficient underground system. Underground. For the entire length of our journey into the city, a trip of around 20 or more stops. That's like travelling from Penrith to Sydney entirely underground and possibly almost as far. What I can tell you is that the trains are incredible. The announcements and electronic signage make negotiating the system in a foreign language with unrecognisable characters really easy. And it was really nice to come across polite fellow passengers who offered up their seats for me, although that may have been because on the return trip I must have looked like an over-ripe tomato about to explode, my face was so red from the heat. What was that Noel Coward quote about depraved canines and natives of Britain?
An Authentic Chinese Meal and Shopping
We exited the Metro at Huang Shu and after a few false starts found our way to Shamian Island. This was once the digs of the colonial French and British who weren't permitted to enter Imperial China. The remnants of the 19th century grand homes and wide tree-lined plazas were very pleasant to stroll through even in the heat. But we were relieved to stumble on Susan's. After our tea-tasting we explored the 'gallery' (read shop) and admired all the pretty things made of jade, cloisonné and more while our order was being cooked. We had a fantastic noodle soup, sticky rice parcels steamed in banana leaves and meatballs, while the girls enjoyed their pork dumplings and steamed spring rolls.
This was such a good decision to break up the long journey to Italy with a stopover in China.
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