There is one thing that I always find quite stressful when travelling in China.... my next meal. 'Your next meal?' I hear you cry, 'but Chinese food is super-tasty!'
Now let me tell you that real Chinese food is far removed from the anglicised (and for want of a better word), sanitised version that you pick-up at your local takeaway. Let me elucidate; there is a Chinese folk saying that states they can eat everything that has four legs, except tables; everything that flies, except for airplanes; and everything that is found on water, except boats! And horrifyingly, it is bloody true. If that wasn't bad enough, when you factor in the fact that no one speaks English and all the menus are written in Chinese Han characters, eating out becomes a real lottery... a lottery where the prize is usually pants.
Past exploits in restaurants have seen me being served (amongst other things); snake, duck soup (complete with whole dead duck floating in it), a skewer full of whole grilled baby chicks, deep friend insects and roasted chicken claws. So as you can imagine, it was with a heavy heart that I stepped out of my Guangzhou hotel in search of an eaterie.
It was hot and humid in the street, and a fug hung over the busy six lane highway. As I strolled up the street, I could only liken the experience to being illiterate. Brighly lit signs were hung everywhere, but because I couldn't read them, I didn't know what they were offering. I was stopped a couple of times by people who wanted their photographs taken with me (it happens all the time in China if you are a Westerner), and then suddenly, I saw it. At first, I thought it was a mirage (like seeing an oasis after weeks of being trapped in the desert), but as I approached I realised that it was real........
I was saved from having to eat stuff with heads and feet on! Yeh, yeh, I know I sound like a bit of a heathen, nay a non-culture vulture ... but seriously, eating something with a beak is grim. So it was without hesitation that I entered the air conditioned restaurant. It was heavenly. After being shown to a table, I was handed a menu that had pictures of the dishes on it (so that I knew what I was ordering woo hoo!), and I sat back with a diet coke and observed the other diners in the restaurant.
Shortly after my arrival, a group of six students entered the restaurant and were seated at the table next to me. The waitress approached them to take their order, and from what I could work out, they had only ordered one salad bowl between them. The way the salad bowl works is that you take your empty bowl to the salad counter and as a one-off deal fill it with your choice of salad.
What I saw next astounded me. The students took the single bowl to the salad bar and then painstakingly built up what I could only call a 'salad mega structure'. Man alive, they managed to get enough salad into the bowl to easily feed all six of them. I laughed at them uncontrollably as I watched them carefully carrying their creation back to the table.
I jumped up and asked them if I could take a photograph. Actually, that's not strictly true; in reality I pointed at my camera nodding....... and managed to capture their salad on film as the students laughed and clapped with me. That's the thing about China, sometimes you get lulled into thinking that the place isn't really that crazy, but then something barking happens to remind you that it is.
The salad sums up the Chinese work ethic. They are devastatingly efficient, apply themselves to everything they do and aren't vaguely phased by the scale of projects, be it building a skyscraper or constructing a salad.
Oh, by the way, I thought you might appreciate this picture of a chap riding his bike. I captured it from the window of the Pizza Hut restaurant. What I always find amusing about China is that it is commonplace to have bikes laden like this (and other dubious forms of transport) all weaving in and out of one another on the highways. It's bloody mayhem on the roads, second only to the roads I encountered in India.
In total, I spent five days in Guangzhou, and after visiting an international furniture exhibition (a bit disappointing), and eating at Pizza Hut ten times, I finally set off for the airport where I was scheduled to catch a flight to Beijing.
I checked in my baggage and made myself comfortable with a coffee and a book whilst I waited for my flight. After glancing at my watch, I reckoned that I had an hour and a quarter to kill before embarking. I decided to double check this on the illuminated Departures Board that shows the status of outbound flights.
Imagine my horror when I saw my flight number with the words 'FINAL CALL' flashing next to it. Crap! How did this happen? And then it dawned on me - in the last couple of weeks, I adjusted my watch several times as I passed through various time zones, and I had accidentally set my watch one hour fast when I arrived in Guangzhou. SHIT!
I gathered up my belongings, abandoned my coffee and sprinted through the departures lounge to my gate, much to the amusement of the travellers I dodged. Panting, I arrived at Gate 15 at 4.17pm, just as they were closing the flight doors.
I felt hopeful, and ran up to the desk begging to be admitted onto the flight. The attendant looked at me blankly and pointed to a sign written in both Han characters and English; 'Please note that this gate closes at 4.17pm. No admittance after that time'.
"Please can you just let me sneak on?" I pleaded. The attendant shook her head again and said; "you can cowwect bag from main hall."
Ok, I was a bit peed off that I had missed my flight, but I had to yet again admire the Chinese efficiency: In the time it took me to walk from Gate 15 back to the main hall, they had located my bags in the hold of the aircraft, removed them, and transported them to the main hall .... where indeed they were waiting for me. How do they do that? And could they please teach someone in Heathrow how to do it too, because I have often waited more than an hour for my bags to hit the collection carousels.
Amazement aside, I was faced with a bit of a problem. I needed to get to Beijing, and enquiries at the airline ticket desks revealed that all Beijing flights were booked up for the next three days. Ah shit. Houston we have a problem.
Then I came up with a bravewave. I would get a train to Beijing! I dragged all my luggage outside the airport and was instantly faced with a
The driver peered at me through the window.
"Train-station?" I asked. The driver shrugged.
"Train?" I repeated and the driver shook his head blankly.
I resorted to doing an impression of Thomas the Tank Engine, complete with my arms moving like pistons and an accompanying Choo! Choo! sound. I looked a total prat.
Once my bags were loaded in the taxi, it took off at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of cars, bikes, tuck tucks and other bizarre forms of transport, until eventually it ground to a halt next to a large emply plaza.
Ok, my woes weren't completely over - it took me a little over an hour to buy a ticket due to language malfunctions, but within three hours I was safely ensconced on a train to Beijing. I was due to spend one night in Beijing, and then the final leg of my journey would commence. It was going to be very different affair compared with my time in Guangzhou. I was going to be picked up from the train station and whisked to the Ji'an in the mountainous border regions of China...... more to follow.......
She's Just Saying