I didn’t know anything about Guangzhou before it popped up as a layover while booking our winter vacation tickets to Indonesia. It costs a few hundred dollars for Americans to obtain a month-long tourist visa to explore the gigantic land that is China, but it is free to those stopping through for up to 72 hours. We took advantage of this opportunity to get a small taste of China. Through my small amount of research, I discovered that Guangzhou is the third largest city in China after Beijing and Shanghai. Located in the southeast near Hong Kong and Macao, the temperatures are unbearably hot in summer and enjoyably mild in winter. Time and time again, trying the foods was the highest recommended activity in this city of eight million. Our first impression of China from the airport was of chaos and confusion. There were no clear signs on how to apply for the 72-hour visa. After waiting in what seemed to be the correct line, we were directed to another line. When it was our turn there, we were told to proceed to yet another line. This process repeated for a total of six line-waiting sessions until we finally got in the correct one. Luckily, our CouchSurfing host, Jason (Chinese name: Yangdong) and his girlfriend, Anne, were patiently waiting for us at the arrivals. They warmly welcomed us with hugs and smiles, speaking nearly perfect English. It was a refreshing change from shy Korean English-speakers. We enjoyed conversation on our hour-long subway and bus-ride to Huadu, a suburb north of Guangzhou. Jason and Anne are both in university studying art and English, respectively. They were as equally excited to meet us as we were to meet them. I could tell they had good hearts from the genuine vibe they gave off and also from the fact that they traveled an hour just to pick us up from the airport. My impression from the bus ride of the city so far was chaos: lights, crowds, insane driving. “This is just the suburb; it’s not as crowded as the city center,” Jason assured. Welcome to China, land of a billion. Eventually, we stepped off the bus to in a relatively quiet area near the university. Jason directed us to a small local restaurant where we enjoyed a hot pot of chicken soup. The dishes and utensils all came wrapped in plastic. After opening it, you pour hot tea in the soup bowl and clean the plates before dumping the remaining tea and plastic in a central waste bowl. I enjoyed the broth of the soup with the noodles, but the meat part was questionable. I’m already squeamish and avoid eating meat if possible, but when traveling, I make it a point to try the local food. Let’s just say that they don’t waste a single part of the animal. Feet, brains skull, neck, there’s no discrimination. I suppose it’s good that they don’t waste anything… After dinner, Jason took us to his art studio that Adam and I used as accommodation that night. The humble studio was equipped with several sketchbooks displaying Jason’s incredibly detailed and realistic portraits. I want to get in his brain and be able to visualize and sketch with such talent! When Jason and Anne returned to their dorm, Adam and I walked around the lonely neighborhood to purchase some water and explore a bit. It was nice to be wearing a light jacket as opposed to layers upon layers just to maintain body temperature in Korea. We slept well. The next morning, Jason brought us to the Yuanxuan Taoist temple just around the corner. If it weren’t for him, I would have never imagined such a magnificent place existed in the industrial neighborhood. The colors and architecture were detailed and exactly symmetrical. The entire atmosphere was calming with soothing music and the faint smell of burning incense. Beside some buildings was a lake with an artificial – but aesthetically pleasing – waterfall, gazebos to view the gigantic koi fish, and weeping willows oscillating with the wind. We could have easily gotten lost in a trance there all day in the grassy green fields, swinging benches, and staring at the intricate relief walls, but we had to meet Anne and her friend, Lynn, for lunch.
Lunch was simple but fantastic – everything I love in a meal. The outdoor joint in the neighborhood is a cheap eats place frequented by students. As a Korean person, I didn’t stand out as a foreigner, but Adam got some stares and giggles. To order your food, you can choose from an array of noodles, vegetables, meats, tofu, and eggs to make a customized soup dish. I opted to try different kinds of greens, soft tofu, noodles, and an egg. Within minutes, our meals were cooked up to our liking. The large steaming bowl of nutrition only came out to a dollar per person.
The energetic students acted like tour guides as they walked us through their quiet university. We enjoyed the art gallery showcasing some talented pieces as well as studios with unfinished art scattered throughout the classrooms. We ended the tour with some friendly games of table tennis.
Jason kindly escorted us into the city of Guangzhou to meet our next CouchSurfing host, Wish. Transportation took surprisingly long, two hours, perhaps due to road congestion. Wish met us near his apartment located in the Southern China University of Technology. Since his father is a professor, the university provides free housing to his family. Wish grew up in the university atmosphere among friends whose parents are also academics. Not surprisingly, Wish is an intelligent person majoring in engineering with aspirations to attend graduate school in America. We climbed nine flights of stairs to his homely apartment. With the absence of elevators, I imagine Wish and his family have strong thighs just from throwing out the trash. Wish has an amiable personality and it shows; he brings people together. For dinner, we met up with a few of his friends and ordered several dishes for us to share and sample. At the moment, the kinds of food escapes me, but they were all delectable and nothing like the Chinese food you take out in the states. We washed it down with local beer, not unlike watery Korean beer, in strange crumbly plastic cups. The night followed with card and dice games of the drinking variety. Laughs were had.
Adam and I woke up in Wish’s spare bedroom the next morning and started the day off with dim sum at supposedly the best place in town, cleverly named Guangzhou Restaurant, a place I saw featured on Bizarre Foods. Since it was my first dim sum experience, I have nothing with which to compare, but it was a wonderful meal with Wish and his best friend/neighbor, Kyle. They did all of the ordering, ensuring us newbies sampled only the best. Included were porridges, mango coconut pudding, dumpling-like rice rolls, rolls with crunchy onions and other bite-sized dishes that I don’t even know how to begin to describe. The most bizarre dish was the chicken claw. Yikes. All of the food came slowly, one dish at a time, so we enjoyed a relaxing morning/afternoon of sampling foods and chatting. Tea was constantly being refilled using a structured method. The waitress uses only one hand to pour the hot water into the teapot full of tea leaves and then strains the tea into yet another pot to pour into the tiny individual cups. To signal that you want more tea, simply tap two fingers on the table. We treated them to the meal to show our appreciation for our new friendship and teaching us the ways of ordering dim sum. We would have not a clue how to order with the menu all in Chinese.
We met with one of Wish’s friends, Yolanda, a fashionable and pleasant girl, and rode the subway to Shangxiajiu Pedestrian Road. The busy shopping area is known for having traditional buildings and the best street foods. Wish was the leader, walking us to half a dozen restaurants. Along for the ride, we ate what was put in front of us and didn’t ask questions. Some of the interesting foods were fish skin, pig feet, pig blood, durian ice cream, candy fruit sticks, turtle gel, some kinds of sweet custards… taking little samples and bites of the culture through food while in good company was a great way to get acquainted with China. “This reminds me of my childhood,” Wish said while slurping on pig blood.
We then wandered to what I thought was France, but it was just Shaiman Island. The quiet neighborhood with European architecture and tree-lined roads serves as a reminder of the European colonization period. After meandering around the quaint area, we walked along the Pearl River, which strangely reminded me of the St. John’s River walkway in Jacksonville. We snacked on another rice roll before they took us to a great spot for a cityscape view. This place is not quite open to the public – we had to sneak past security guards to get to the 30th floor of an apartment building. The concrete jungle of buildings and lights surrounded us with the exception of smaller apartment buildings in the front. I believe the government wanted to build that area up as the business district, but the neighborhood adamantly rejected it. Yet another great spot was introduced to us.
When the wind was too much to bear, we headed back to Wish’s to meet even more of his friends and enjoyed another round of card games. I taught them kemps, which caused us to stay up until 4:00am trying to figure out each others’ secret signals (we all failed to catch on). We are forever grateful for our CouchSurfing hosts/new friends for showing us the ins and outs of the city as a local, not a tourist. Our time in China was brief, but each minute was not wasted. It was a good introduction to the place; perhaps I’ll find myself there again sometime in the future for a deeper bout of exploring the countryside and nature. We packed our bags, ate at a local dumpling stall, and said farewell to our new friends before heading off to the airport for our next destination: Indonesia.