On Friday night I took an extremely nice train from Nanning to Guangzhou, where I shared a compartment with a couple of young quiet types who work for Texas Instruments in China. In Guangzhou I made my way to Shamian island. Shamian is beautiful, and looks exactly the same as when I lived there for three months last summer in the US consulate—except that now there’s a Starbucks to compete with my dear Blenz! They’re taking over the world.
In my Shamian hostel I met a traveler from Poland who had been in China for just a few days, and was ready to get the hell out. His plan was to go back to Hong Kong and catch a cheap flight to the Philippines. He’d seen enough of China. Hectic, crowded, and difficult were the impressions he conveyed. What he hadn’t realized is that traveling in China during the Spring Festival is about as easy as climbing Mount Everest with your teeth. He’d made his way to the railway station to buy a ticket to go further into the country (he had planned to travel here for about a month), took one look, and ran away with all possible speed. When I passed by the station later, I saw what he meant. The line was unbelievable. I couldn’t figure out where it ended. It didn’t resemble a “line” so much as a great seething mass of people. Where were newcomers supposed to stand? Luckily my friend and I were not about to venture into that outgrowth of Hell, but were on our way to the adjacent bus station, which for some reason was much less frenzied than the train station (though after that experience, my whole conceptualization of “frenzy” has undergone somewhat of a revolution, sending the calm and familiar image of big crowds to the guillotine and replacing it with a frothing, distorted version of its former self). And there we bought our tickets to Yangshan.
Yangshan is a smallish town about three hours northwest of Guangzhou that sees absolutely no foreigners. Walking down the street lets me know what it’s like to be a celebrity, or a monster, or a flock of sheep cycling by while playing violins, because people would probably stare at each with the same amount of shock. A typical scenario is the casual glance, the double take, and then the relentless, shameless staring. It’s difficult to get used to.
I have two friends from Yangshan, whose English names are Angel and Su. They both studied English in Guangzhou, and I met them there last summer. Angel’s parents kindly invited me stay in their home while I am in Yangshan, letting me see their life during the Spring Festival. It’s an extremely interesting and rewarding experience, and I’ll write more about it later.