We land in Guangzhou after a long thirteen hour flight from Amsterdam. It’s 6:30am and we don’t depart until 9:30pm tonight. Fortunately, as Australian passport holders we are among the nationals of some fifty countries who can enter Guangzhou visa-free for up to 72 hours if he hold a boarding pass or ticket for an onward flight. Our baggage has been checked through so all we need to do is walk to the customs counter, handover our passports and boarding passes, and obtain the necessary entry stamp into China.
I thought I would feel discombobulated at the sharp transition from Western Europe to China. Perhaps it’s a sign of the way I’ve adapted over the past few years of travel because I feel immediately at home. We easily navigate the metro into the city and find our way around without any hassles. It does help that Guangzhou is a tourist-friendly hub where signs are often written in both Chinese and English. But still, I would have anticipated some sense of momentary discomfort being in China. That said, we have now spent a lot of time in Asia and many things that we see, hear, smell and taste are consistent across Asia.
We take the Metro to Yuexiu Park and turn right out of the station to walk to Liuhuahu Park with its massive lakes. It’s Saturday morning. The perfect time to watch local Guangzhou residents socialising and practicing their hobbies. Tai chi seems to be a favourite. It brings back memories of my previous visit to China in 2009 when I would sit and watch the locals practice tai chi in Shanghai.
It’s not just tai chi that’s getting a run here though. Badminton and table tennis are also incredibly popular. Just as we have basketball courts, football fields and cricket pitches in Australia, Guangzhou has table tennis tables and badminton courts in the park. The matches look serious. Shuttlecocks and ping pong balls zoom through the air at barely perceptible speeds. No wonder the Chinese perform well in these sports at the Olympic Games given that this is just amateur hour on a Saturday morning.
There’s plenty of ballroom dancers in the park too. They cha cha, rumba and waltz to music blaring from boom boxes of all shapes and styles. I feel happy just watching them. It’s like going to a dance concert for free in the park. And the dancers all look happy.
The most captivating group, though, is the choir. It looks almost impromptu but obviously the group comes together here regularly. The choir mistress guides the singers through a long playlist written on large sheets of paper that she turns over as each song ends. Each time we pass the choir (for we do go back a few times), it grows in size and volume. One man near the back (off camera) is always the loudest. He has the biggest smile despite not having the most tuneful voice (to my ears).
The park isn’t just for organised recreation. It’s also a place of relaxation and beauty. People walk, play with their children and sleep in the park’s different “rooms”. There’s open areas, bonsai gardens, tall tree lined paths and pagodas. You just need to chose what you feel like experiencing or walk through the whole lot.
Half the park is closed during our visit in preparation of the Lunar New Year celebrations later in the month but still there’s enough here to keep us occupied for about four hours.
We retrace our steps to the Metro and travel into the heart of Guangzhou, changing lines to travel to Beijing Road Station. Beijing Road is the main shopping and pedestrian street in Guangzhou. It’s busy but calm. And it’s where life takes place. Tourist buses mingle with motorcyclists carrying heavy loads. Shoppers mingle with tourists. Traditional eateries meet Starbucks.
We start with lunch at a small restaurant packed with Chinese people. It is just one of a small row of restaurants in a lane way of Beijing Road. We chose it because there’s not a seat nor white tourist in the house. That’s always a good sign. There’s a large menu but a small selection of items are described in English on a wall in the back of the shop. A table leaves as we order. The food is delicious. And at $3-4 a serve it’s also easy on the wallet. We eat and watch the goings on around us.
Beijing Road turns out to be a good choice. We walk around just watching people, taking in the lanterns and posing for pictures with the statues. The Astro Boy is in front of a whole shop dedicated to the cartoon series. Children laugh and play in the mall. Parents talk together. Elderly men and women sit watching. There’s a few touts trying to sell tourists fake Rolex but for the most part we are left alone to wander.
The Big Buddha Temple is a stark contrast to the city around it. It’s old (900CE from memory) and peaceful. We have arrived for a prayer festival but still can walk around to experience the grandeur. It’s different from the Buddhist temples in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s less gaudy in decoration being mostly wood and stone, rather than bright gold and mosaics. That said, there’s still incense sticks (you may not light them in the temple though – they have to be burned in a specific area off to one side). We love temples so this is a good find.
By the time we get to Gongyuanqian Station we are quite tired. We only manage a short foray into the People’s Park with it’s pretty flowers, tai chi, badminton, music and dancers. We decide to catch the Metro straight back to the airport.
Poor Paul is so tired he sleeps standing up despite the crowds of people entering and exiting the carriage. Guangzhou’s Metro is the sixth most used Metro network in the world. Fortunately, today is Saturday so it’s probably relatively quiet compared with the weekday rush.
Our day in Guangzhou has made me hungry to explore more of China. I went there for five weeks in 2009 but I was younger and less experienced at travel back then. I still took group tours so would love to come back as an independent traveler.