Today I am going to take you on a sea journey of discovery from the fabulously wealthy former British colony of Hong Kong to The Peoples Republic of China.

The year was 1991, just two years since the Tiananmen Square massacre had grabbed the world’s headlines and six years before Britain was to hand its Asian jewel back to Communist China.

The contrast was as stark as that between a puritan during lent and an Irishman on St Patrick’s Day. Ten hours earlier, I had left behind the illuminated skyscrapers, the westernised ideology, the vast shopping malls, and the 7-11s that make up the Kowloon peninsular.

My slow boat had docked in China. A standard-class ticket had cost around $10, securing me a berth on board a monster of a vessel. The ship, or rusting hulk, as I preferred to call it, was basic in the extreme.

There were certainly no modern conveniences to talk of. None of the plush bars, cafes, atriums or easily identifiable muster stations that one takes for granted on cross-channel ferries nowadays.

This did not auger well for my sleeping accommodation. My apprehension as to the condition I would find it in was indeed well founded.

The steward showed me to my bed – this just happened to be in a 100 capacity dormitory. There already seemed to be about 200 Chinese in residence, noisily chatting away whilst they ate their pungent meals, played back-gammon, groomed each other and participated in chain smoking competitions.

The smell and the noise were terrible – when one gentleman decided to clear his throat and empty the contents onto the bare floor right next to me, the decision was hurriedly made – there was no way that this Englishman was staying here tonight.

After some tough negotiating with the chief purser, $20 secured me an upgrade to the last free cabin – or so I understood.

When I eventually found my new bedroom, already in situ and snoring very loudly was an Oriental gentleman who occupied the lower bunk of the bed, which virtually filled the whole cabin.

In addition, what little floor space that had been available was now taken up with assorted packages and bags – possibly the incumbent’s entire worldly possessions.

Compared to the dorm, this was a palace, so I decided that this would probably be the best place on offer for the night.

My backpack securely placed in the only remaining space – on the hand basin, I clambered into the top bunk.

I stared at my backpack for a while, half expecting the sink to buckle under its weight, before I eventually slipped into a restless sleep.

Awaking at 6 a.m. in readiness for disembarkation, I found that my cabin mate and the assortment of packages had already disappeared. Not so much as a nod had been exchanged – so much for Anglo-Chinese relations.

I soon realised why my guidebook described Guangzhou as an ugly industrial city on the Pearl River – the city has significant economic importance for China, as the Pearl River Delta is ideal for both heavy industry and agriculture, meaning that the place is nearly always surrounded by black smog.

Tiredness, irritability and sheer bloody-mindedness meant that the multitudes of offers of a taxi were shunned.

“Where you from?” – Greenland

“Where you want go” – Home

“ I take you, 10 dollar” – No!

You get the picture – one very grumpy Englishman and fifty taxi drivers with $ signs in their eyes, hoping to prey on said grumpy Englishman – not the recipe for a harmonious relationship and a bad start to my Chinese adventure. I soon wished however that I had spent that $10.

It was now 8 a.m. and already the signs were there that it would be a hot November day. The sky was pristine blue and cloudless and the air was fresh due to the overnight rain, which had left puddles galore in the dusty, pot-holed tracks that passed as roads in the port area.

And what a hive of activity the area was. The usual loading and unloading of cargo on and off a huge variety of vessels, which were docked nearby the ship from whence I had just come – all the tea in China seemed to be changing hands.

There were row upon row of makeshift shacks, which served as mini industrial units. Here hundreds of people were already hard at work, making, mending, dismantling, re-assembling, studying and re-modelling no end of merchandise, from mangles to washing machines and from sundials to alarm clocks.

I stood and watched one elderly gentleman for twenty minutes.

He was at least seventy, short and wizened, very wiry, but strong as an ox. I wondered about his long life in Communist China – he must have countless stories about the Peoples Revolution, Chairman Mao, persecution, hunger and suffering.

He had lived through it all and now here he was, dressed in grotty blue shorts and greying string vest, his hands covered in grease – I doubted they were ever clean!

Today he was taking a rusty bicycle to pieces. I imagined he had found it dumped somewhere and had wheeled it to his humble workshop in this shanty industrial estate.

What he intended to do with this dilapidated, corroded and buckled bike, I can only guess, but going by the pile of junk that littered the place, I assumed he wanted more spare parts on the off chance that somebody needed some of them to fix their motor car perhaps.

Maybe a wheel or chain or saddle would come in useful one day and make him a few Yuan. Maybe not. Nothing seemed to dampen his enthusiasm however – I was almost tempted to make him an offer for a huge spring that had its place amongst the rubbish – perhaps I could pogo into town!


I walked on through the maze of huts and dirt tracks, vaguely in the direction of the centre, or so I hoped. None of the streets had names so my map was totally useless. Wandering aimlessly for over an hour, my heavy rucksack was becoming an ever-increasing burden and my thirst for knowledge was outweighed by my thirst for water.

At last some street names – impossible to decipher Chinese symbols only though sadly – I spent an age trying to match them up with the scribbles on my map, but no chance unfortunately, so I carried on buckling under the weight of my luggage, desperate for liquid refreshment.

I was by now walking along an eight lane highway, the traffic fumes belching out of the array of wrecks that transported everyone and everything and mixing with the industrial smog to form a choking molasses of grime.

I turned the corner, and there it was………….SALVATION, in the form of …………………………………….. MacDonalds!

As I munched my Big Macs and drank my bucket of coke, I made two decisions:

  • I had been a complete idiot in not taking a taxi
  • I would return to Hong Kong on the relative luxury of the Canton-Kowloon railway

Why do I always seem to learn the hard way?



  1. We’re headed to China in April – hoping for no slow boats or endless wandering down back alleys. But sometimes – it’s the travel “fails” that leave the lasting memories and lessons. Thanks for sharing your ordeal with #FarawayFiles.

  2. Guangzhou in 1991? I think it is far better now. Sometimes you have to experience the poverty and conditions to get a handle what it’s really like.

    1. I think it was ‘96. I love the memories of my time there. Even the snake restaurant!

  3. […] I visited the city better known in Europe as Canton in 1991, arriving by rusty old ship from Hong Kong. You can read about my journey and arrival in one of my earliest posts A Slow Boat To China. […]

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