Today’s city relates to a visit I made nearly thirty-years ago.
The focus of this post is the journey there from Hong Kong, a couple of pretty unusual hotel experiences and topically given the current horrid situation, a very unusual restaurant.
A Slow Boat to 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 of Hong Kong back to Communist China.
My 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.
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 Asian 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 mister?” – 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 …………………………………….. MacDonald’s!
As I munched my Big Macs and drank my bucket of coke, I had two realisations:
- 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?
The Cantonese Snake Restaurant, Guangzhou
I had seen Michael Palin eat at a snake restaurant there during his ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ series, and decided I had to see it for myself.
The journey from the hotel to the Snake King Completely & Restaurant was epic in the first place.
My taxi motorbike tried beat the traffic with me having palpitations in its sidecar.
The ride was hair-raising as we sped the wrong way up one way streets, mounted pavements, swerved to avoid potholes come craters and got perilously close to various forms of transport & unwitting pedestrians.
When I arrived I just stared into the restaurant window with a mix of shock & awe.
There were snakes galore, black ones, brown ones, striped ones, spotted ones. Tanks, baskets & cages full of writhing starters, main courses and who knew, even desserts.
Just for variety they also had a water vole, totally skinned, but with its long whiskers still intact. I nearly baulked at the sights and it was only bravado that saw me enter, somewhat reluctantly.
I was led upstairs into a very plain room with white walls, six or seven tables with stained white tablecloths and wooden chairs, the uncomfortable kind that we used to get at school.
As I sat, the adjacent table were brought their appetisers – a bowl full of crispy black beetles. Yuk!
I had already had a couple of beers for Dutch courage, ordered another large Tsing Tao to help obliterate the fumes I had just digested, and then bit the bullet by ordering my food, sweet & sour snake with lots (hopefully) of rice.
Some of the meals on offer were just incredible. Tortoise, Beaver, Toad, Silk Worm, Scorpion, Vole, a bird called a Francolin and Jellyfish were all on the menu!
As I waited for my snake, the table who munched on beetles as if they were potato crisps, were brought a live black snake and shown it as if they were being shown a bottle of claret to approve its vintage.
The squeamish may want to avoid this next line……………
The unfortunate snake was then shredded alive, before what seemed to be an organ that had been vital to the ex-snake, was presented to one of the diners, who gratefully gobbled it up. Yuk!!
Soon after, my eyes not believing what I had witnessed and my stomach starting to churn, my meal was plonked in front of me. At least the rice was delicious! The few pieces of snake that I tried were full of small bones and as tough as old rubber.
I probably had a couple of pieces , woofed down the rice, drained the beer and requested the bill. I had eaten and seen quite enough in this establishment!
I purloined a menu that has become a travel treasure. I have scanned the pages into my computer, with some of the most interesting pages shown below. Enjoy your breakfast!
The Friendship Hotel, Guangzhou
The hotel was very comfortable and friendly. Its not often that you have six attractive ladies in traditional costume bowing their heads and singing to you every time you entered or exited!
I avoided the temptation to come and go all day, but I do have two rather unusual experiences:
One – I decided to visit the hotel bar which unfortunately turned out to be the karaoke variety.
This one was different however with zero Madonna or Tom Jones on offer. Each number was a Chinese operetta lasting over twenty-five minutes a throw.
All performers were couples who had dressed up in their finery especially for the occasion. As they crooned and squealed on stage, they were accompanied by a backdrop of a large cinema screen portraying Mandarin folklore, clearly depicting the words that they were singing/murdering.
After two of these amazing performances of unknown interminable ballads, I was about ready to drain the rest of my beer and leave, when low and behold Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks drifted out from the speakers.
Well of course I had to stay and listen to the three-minute classic that had surely been played for my benefit, being the only Westerner present.
On paying my bill I queried why there were two amounts shown on it. I had only been charged for the privilege of hearing our Terry blast out his finest!
Two – there was a smaller bar in the hotel and I decided that I needed a peaceful nightcap before retiring for the night.
As I nursed my gin fizz sat on a bar stool, a very attractive lady dressed like a geisha sat next to me and started to converse in stilted English.
I politely went along with the conversation as clearly she wished to practice her English – what I did, where I was from, how long I was in the region etc. All very boring stuff and not what I particularly wanted at the moment, despite the obvious allure of the sweet smelling doll who sat next to me.
Call me naïve (I was 26 at the time and still living in sleepy Devon, so still a little slow on the uptake), but I cottoned on when it was suggested by the barman that I buy the lady a drink.
She was clearly an escort and the menu was supposed to be bar-cocktail-bedroom. I hurriedly declined, downed my gin and asked for the bill.
I was dismayed to discover that twenty-minutes conversation had cost five times the price of my drink!
It took the hotel manager to defuse the row, with me agreeing to pay double the price of the drink due to my stupidity.
You live and learn!
The city beginning with the letter G that I would most like to visit that I haven’t yet? Guadeloupe in Mexico.
How about you?
Look out for H on tomorrow.