Everything changed from the moment when stepped onto Chinese mainland. The area around the Shenzhen railway station was a total mess, with huge crowds of people seemingly lacking any purpose of movement, with hordes of Chinese carrying heavy bags and moving towards the Hong Kong border, with annoying taxi drivers advertising their services.
Luckily the station is right next to the border, so in a couple of minutes we were already buying train tickets to Guangzhou – the next stop on our trip. It turned out that we couldn`t use the automatic ticket machine as to purchase train tickets one has to produce an ID in order for the Chinese government to be able to track you down, and the ticket machine is only familiar with Chinese ID cards and not with European passports. Curiously enough the passport check is not required in all railway stations across China – over the next ten days we sometimes had to show our passports, and other times – no one asked us to.
The train to Guangzhou was nothing special – obviously it was way ahead ones one would encounter in Latvia, but overall the Chinese railway impressed me just by the vastness of its network, but not with its quality which is nothing outstanding by European standards. One thing was a surprise though – we were not aware that the seats on this train were numbered and initially we sat down in the wrong place and were soon asked to relocate to the seats of our own. In my experience in Europe on relative short-distance trains you can sit anywhere, as long you`re in the right class, but here it was different. Also we observed that for some reason there were nearly no women on the train. I could speculate here on the reasons for this, but I won`t, as there isn`t too much of a point for that.
As soon as we had reached Guangzhou, we headed for our hotel. According to its location that I had obtained from Google Maps, we were approximately 2 km from it. On the way there we encountered many salesmen of unidentified edible objects (UEO), hordes of policemen (there was one on approximately every 50 meters), absolutely mad traffic with motorcycle drivers, cyclists and pedestrians ignoring all possible traffic rules and with car drivers ignoring most of them. Guangzhou didn`t instantly strike us as a city of an immense beauty, although maybe we just didn`t go the right places.
When we arrived at the supposed coordinates of the hotel, we didn`t see any signs of a hotel there, a fact which certainly disappointed us. We asked a passerby, showing the hotel name and address in Chinese (which we luckily had printed out) and were pointed to go back the same street. After two minutes we asked for directions the next time, then – another time. There didn`t seem to be a pattern in the directions we were given – several times we were sent in the opposite direction from the one we had taken before. Asking several policemen didn`t help either. Plus most locals didn`t speak any English, so from their replies we got no indication of how far our hotel could actually be. Finally we decided to take a taxi. On the question on how much it would cost, the driver replied: “Five”. A price of 5 Yuan seemed very appropriate – as the hotel had to be quite close to our location and as taxis in China are known to be cheap, we found it to be appropriate. A couple of minutes later we were already in front of the hotel, but when I wanted to pay the driver 5 Yuan, he became angry and said that we had agreed on “Five Ten” - or 50. Now that (6 EUR) was not an adequate price for a 2 minutes drive but we ended up paying it nevertheless.
Our hotel was of the “Chinese posh” kind – the type of hotel where you have an excessive staff with people waiting for you on each floor and with an interior that can make a regular backpacker cringe. After dropping our bags we went sightseeing. We took the metro and ended up in a hugely crowded but not very pleasant park, after a longer walk we visited one of the main sights of Guangzhou – the Sacred Heart Cathedral. Obviously one usually doesn`t visit Christian cathedrals in China, but Lonely Planet recommended it as one of the top sights in the city. As a matter of fact, Wikipedia also highlights it as one of the most important Catholic cathedrals in China, not that it would be considered impressive in Europe.
When we had decided that Guangzhou was not especially interesting for sightseeing, we started looking around for a place where to have dinner. We ended up in an unspectacular joint on the corner. Our previous trips to foreign countries had suggested that you can find the best food in places which don`t look fancy but where you see locals dining. This place was not fancy and there were some Chinese people in it, so we went it. Wrong choice! Apparently in China if a restaurant doesn`t look clean, you should stay away from it, as there is a high chance that the food will be poor as well. The waitress brought us the menu which was all in Chinese. At this stage we were still more or less ready to order anything – just to try it out, but the waitress wasn`t ok with that and we had to wait for her Engish speaking pregnant sister to come and take our order. As expected by “English speaking” one means that the waitress knew not less than 50 words of English and was totally unable to understand anything we said. By the way – we observed in China that most “English speaking” Chinese don`t understand English when spoken by a Westerner, probably they`d need you to have a Chinese accent for that.
Anyway, the waitress recommended that we took “white chicken” which she described as “delicious”, one of us got rice with it, the other one – noodles. This “white chicken” was probably the most disgusting thing we ate in our entire trip. The noodles option was especially nasty – a soup with the cook`s hair in it containing noodles that weren`t cooked and some hacked-up chicken bones with almost no trace of meat on them. We ended up eating some of the rice (which was badly cooked), some of the noodles (which tasted bad) and leaving on half-empty stomachs. “White chicken” remained a dark joke for us until the end of the trip, quite similarly as “egg cakes” had been in Portugal.