Guangzhou is located in the southern part of China, just a quick train ride up from Hong Kong, and is the third largest city in terms of scale of economy (I think. Correct me if I was wrong here :p). More than a decade ago I remember hearing about how quickly China is changing as it shifts its structure from the socialist to the one of a free market. Couple of years ago I had an opportunity to take a short business trip to Shanghai and walked for a day around the city. It was a mix of very modern city and an old community still existing next to each other. I heard that Beijing, which I have never visited, had gone through a massive reconstruction (meaning, the big picture took priority over some people’s lives…). When I heard my good friend and his family moved to Guangzhou I did not know what kind of lifestyle I should imagine. People used to tell me Beijing and Shanghai are way above the rest in China. So what would the third one after that be like? Is it a picturesque town that looks like an old KungFu film, with a red fenced gazebo over-looking a lake in hazy blue? Or is it an industrial town (which was the term my friend used ‘industrial’), with lots of old, taste-less factories lined the street and mass-produced 70s trucks blowing dust to your face as they pass you by on the highway? Well, what can you say – you just have to see it with your own eyes right? That’s the spirit of us travelers – we are walking just to find out what’s beyond the next corner, and the corner after that, through that private gate and into stranger’s house… :p
My baby brother had been pretty busy while I was in Osaka and we didn’t get much time for heart-to-heart. To make up for that he offered to drive me to the airport on that Wednesday morning. We left home just after 6am, to avoid the morning traffic and arrive on the land-fill island airport in time for my 9:30am flight. The online check-in was done the day before, boarding pass printed out, so I was not so stressed about it, but it is better to leave early and avoid that horrible congestion. My father was still in bed so we did not really say good-bye’s but nowadays we are only a skype-call away. No drama. Mum saw us off as my brother drove his red Mustang GT out of the garage. We drove around Kishiwada looking for a place for breakfast, but in the end did not really find any and we chose to park the car at the airport and grab the meal there. After dropping my suitcase at the express check-in counter, we went down two levels to the domestic departure level of Kansai Airport and settled in a corner of a small Starbucks there. We talked about things we talked about before, his career, his struggle with uninspired colleagues, and our health… what else is there to talk about between brothers? We shook our hands and said our ‘see you’s, and I took the escalator back up to the departure gate while he walked straight out to his car.
Flight on Cathay Pacific was all right. It is not Singapore Airlines, but it is all right. It is funny looking at the business class seats which are built in their individual ‘cocoons’. I would suffocate in that space. I mean, how would you meet any new people during the long flight?
After arriving in Hong Kong, I went through that long queue of immigration. I must say I am impressed with the efficiency of Japanese airports – when did I last wait that long on arriving in Japan from overseas? But then again, Kansai has lost most of international carriers who used to fly there when the airport initially opened; its landing fee is either the highest or the second highest in the world, or something like that, and many international carriers opted to fly through other hub airports in the region. Hong Kong being one of those popular hubs, I am sure there are many carriers, but I feel a bit frustrated knowing that I’d be in the territory for less than half a day. I felt slightly nervous submitting an entry form which does not have an intended address in it but ‘on transit’. But the guy behind the polished futuristic immigration booth flipped through my passport without much expression on his face, stamped a temp stay on it and returned to me. I thanked him and moved on.
Picking up the suitcase from the belt and out of the gate, I went straight to the convenience store in the terminal. There are a couple of options for traveling from airport to the Kowloon station, where the express train for mainland China departs. The quickest and easiest would be the Airport Express. Single journey is HK$100, return $180 (check the latest info on the website). Its boarding platform is right in front of the arrival hall of the airport. Nice and easy. Last time I came to Hong Kong, I used the tourist Octopus card which included a single journey on the express. But this time, I was not staying in Hong Kong, plus I was saving wherever I could, so the choice was to use the direct local bus service from the airport to Kowloon station. The route ‘A21‘ travels direct to Hung Hom Station (actual name of the train station in Kowloon), and it costs HK$33. It travels pretty quickly through the freeway, but it travels on Nathan Road once it is in the centre, where it gets slowed down badly. I almost made it to an earlier train had it not been for the last bit of congestion. Oh well…
Buses take only the exact change when paying cash, so have it ready or buy an octopus card. If you are staying in Hong Kong, it may be more efficient to have the card, as you could use it for payment for other stuff like eating at some food court. If cash, make sure you check the exact amount in advance, go buy small stuff like a bottle of water at the shop, and have the change ready.
All seats on the direct express to Guangzhou are allocated. Plus they close the gate 15 minutes before departure to allow adequate time to clear security check and immigration, so get there early, buy your ticket at the counter (in the left part of this photo). There are some cheap eat places about in the terminal, so wait around until the gate is opened for your train’s boarding.
The train I took is one that uses old cars. The seats are fixed. Half the cars are seated towards one door, the other to the other end, so half of the passengers are forced to travel backwards. Some people may find this difficult. My seat was in the middle of the car where two seats are facing each other, and I sat with three pretty chatty people. I could understand some of the things they were saying (I studied Mandarin for a year in university, and those people were speaking in Mandarin.) but I couldn’t jump into the conversation without the help of the young man who was sitting across from me who spoke pretty good English. The train is not uncomfortable – the seats are all right, clean, they give you a bottle of water and a pack of nuts, unless you order some food from them. There is a space at the end of car for suitcases, but they seem to be filled all the time, so many were pulled towards the step towards the door or pushed into a conductor’s cabin. I was initially unsure about not being able to see my bag during the journey, but my case was way too big to be left in the aisle. I went to have a look at where the conductor brought it to, and I decided not to worry about it. After all, it was a non-stop express, so there is no way somebody could take it with them before we arrived at the destination.
Arriving in Guangzhou East, I decided to take the steps up with the boy who was sitting next to me. It was a pretty long way up and for a moment I hesitated. But there were already quite a few people at the lift, and I wanted to make my way through this crowd. It was not as ‘chaotic’ as immigration I’d seen in some countries like Malaysia when I entered the country by land, but the immigration took a very long time. Non-residents were checked for a long time, and I somehow ended up in the slowest queue. It might have been close to 20 minutes or so by the time I finally went out to the arrival hall and found my friend anxiously waiting for me. I did not activate the roaming of my mobile so it was an old school stuff, except the kind young man on train let me send an SMS to confirm my train, but he had gone through the immigration much more quickly as he was a local.
Guangzhou East looked like a pretty large station, but before I could take it in, my friend walked me to the waiting car downstairs and we were on the road to his condo. Out of the window I saw modern city at night. It was like nothing I had imagined. It was more modern, more extensive, and everything was pointing higher to the sky with flashing lights on top of everything.