广州，肇庆，东莞： fun, food, and festivities!
Sun 11 Feb 2007 - Wed 21 Feb 2007 20 °C
My trip to Guangdong province (previously, Canton, to all those playing in the 20th century) started out with a bit of a fizz. The train trip down to Guangzhou (the capital city) was already 26 hours long, but somehow upon arriving in the city, it was delayed by eight hours. I'm not sure if the majority of the time was lost during the night, but we definitely stopped for nearly 40 minutes at a station we couldn't even get out at more than once before we got into Guangzhou station. I didn't mind terribly (not until they made my bed two hours before we got in so I couldn't even sleep the time away), but my friend Garth was waiting for me the entire time at Guangzhou train station, standing up because the stool he bought broke quickly. And, of course, they only told us of delays every two hours so he couldn't really go and wander around or sit in a coffee shop because we had no idea how long it was going to take in the morning. The trip was only made worse for me by an annoying and spoiled child who obviously thought he owned the world. In addition to feeling that hitting and scratching was an acceptable form of communication, when someone had a little fun with him by hiding his hat, he got so upset at being tricked that he spat on the woman. His mother did absolutely nothing to stop it. At least, I suppose, it was something to watch, but it wasn't exactly fun.
Garth lives in a city just a couple of hours from Guangzhou by bus, a gorgeous tourist city called 肇庆 Zhaoqing. The weather was warm and very refreshing after being in Xi'an for so long, though it was a little sticky. That's about the only thing bad I can say about the city and the weather itself. The city was absolutely lit up for New Years, with big lanterns everywhere and big lit up floats on the side of the main street - scenes from New Years featuring lots of pigs, moons and lanterns and everything. There are lots of trees everywhere and the air is nice and fresh, there's a big lake with trees surrounding it that are lit up green and purple every night, and there's mountains in the surrounds. In short, the perfect city for fengshui - when they built a bridge across one of the rivers, they built a temple in one of the mountains that nobody really goes to but was just to keep the fengshui happy. It was a gorgeous city and I can see why Garth keeps going back every year, as he has done for four years or so now.
For the first couple of days, we didn't spend it in Zhaoqing, but another city three hours away called 东莞 Dongguan, to visit an Australian friend of Garth's called Matt. Dongguan was, as Matt pointed out, more of a frontier town. They didn't have a consolidated taxi service, just cars that go around asking if you want rides (some of which are dangerous for tourists - as in, they'll take you to the middle of nowhere and rob you), and you could see the development happening before your eyes. It wasn't a town that had been around before, and you could tell that just from looking. There might have been farms there before, but most things were new, and the place Matt lived in was a residential complex that was still being built, empty shells of buildings and those with scaffolding still on them; it was an incredible sight.
We went to Dongguan with three lovely Chinese women who taught English, so our days were spend speaking an (often amusing) hybrid of Chinese and English, and it was really lots of fun. I learned a lot about the condition of 热气, where your qi (that inner force you've probably heard of before) gets hot and makes you uncomfortable, gives you pimples or a headache or any number of things, and can be brought on by eating food spicier than a hotdog, eating too many cherries, or washing your hair too often. We taught them the concept of sarcasm, though none of them really mastered it by the time we were done there.
In Dongguan we spent most of the time eating and drinking at various different restaurants (Hunan, Guangdong, Western, seafood, Dongbei), always with beer (always cold). On the first day we also went bowling for an exorbitant price and I did nowhere near as well as I did at Andreas' farewell (I fear my legendary 127 will never be beaten), and spent most of the evening inside, drinking too much vodka and playing card games. On the second day (which was Valentine's day), we went to get our hair washed, which is actually more interesting than it sounds. They wash your hair, but they also give you a massage, head neck and shoulders, and then they blow dry your hair. It was nice, but also my first encounter with the fact that I cannot understand Guangdong people at all - not only do they speak predominantly Cantonese, but their accent is ridiculous: they drop end consonants and change consonants around ('r' becomes 'y' - see how confusing that is)! We also went out to a club after watching Jackass (I laughed too much to admit to), where we played a dice game that seems to be the centre of club culture in Guangdong, but which I am also unfortunately crap at. It was all right amongst people who weren't so good at it either, but when I was playing with Garth and the woman that took care of our table, it just wasn't even worth playing I was so bad.
We got back to Zhaoqing the next day (Matt had gone home to Australia for the first time in 14 months - yikes!) and met up at another club with some of Garth's friends. The club was nice, better then Dongguan and much more comparable to Xi'an, the music was better, and it was funny to watch all the guys actually get up out of their seats to watch the dancers when they came onto the stage. I was subjected to yet more dice games which I lost terribly at, and speech that I could barely understand (it's a club, are you really supposed to be trying to converse?), but his friends were nice and the next night we went to someone's house for a nice hot pot dinner.
The dinner was much better than the night out at the club. I love hot pot, and it was the sort of style where you put the hotplate in the middle of the table and put the vegetables and things in and serve yourself. I still couldn't understand what was going on because they were all speaking Cantonese, but when they wanted to speak to Garth or me, they translated themselves into Mandarin, and Garth offered translations of the more interesting or funny parts of conversation. Most of it, though, he said was pretty boring conversation - they were talking about computer memory or something at one point. They were fun, and we drank some nice, cleansing 普洱茶 pu'er tea, which is actually quite vile if you smell it and it sort of tastes like dirt, but it was nice for my liver after a few days of drinking beer constantly. We took a walk home through the empty streets later on, and Garth pointed out the prostitutes to me on the way. It was interesting, because they all had a sort of uniform on - white shoes and denim jacket, blue shirt, and white skirt (or jeans for the boys).
One night, we also went out to a night food place, spicy Sichuan (previously, Szechuan, for those playing in the 20th century) food, and we had a cold noodle salad and a duck salad, which I thought tasted pretty 差不多 much the same, but apparently that was mean to the masters of food. The toilets there were described as "adventurous", which I suppose they were if you weren't warned that the part that wasn't raised was entirely flooded with water! Other than that they were standard, dirty squat toilets without doors. There were at least partitions? Another night we also went out to his local Muslim noodle shop, which was great. Just like the one across from the south gate here, the food was very familiar and so good. I can't actually remember which nights these happened on, so I'll just throw them in here.
The next night was a birthday party for the mother of one of Garth's Chinese friends. It also happened to fall on Chinese New Year's Eve, so it was loads of double celebrations. We spent the afternoon shopping for a nice potted plant for the birthday girl, since there were flowers and orange trees being sold at a big plaza for New Years, and we chose some gorgeous purple orchids for her. After leaving the gift at their house, we went out to a restaurant hidden away from the bright city lights, with all of the family, and celebrated with lots of good food and drinking. It was the first time I had to exercise anything close to Chinese customs and I fell on my face a couple of times but redeemed myself in other ways. Again, I didn't know what was going on for the most part, not in any sort of detail, because it was all in Cantonese, but they spoke Mandarin to Garth and I again (he understands Cantonese, but obviously it makes sense to remind themselves to switch), but it was a fun evening and I spoke to one of the cousins and the parents, despite not being able to understand anything on first listen still. Garth's friend was the easiest to understand, then her parents, and the young kids and old grandparents were impossible to understand.
Garth went out that night to get smashed with all of his friends, but I opted out because my liver wouldn't have liked me for it and it would all be Cantonese and dice games and people I don't know. I watched almost all of Desperate Housewives while he was out, though, haha.
The next night, for the first day of New Years, we went to the same family's house to see the fireworks, which was lots of fun. They have a seventh-floor penthouse apartment with a split-level roof area just near the lake, and it was the perfect vantage point to see the big fireworks display the city put on. We had dinner first, learned how to cook a chicken in soy sauce and 米酒, which I guess is rice wine vinegar? I'm not sure. Gorgeous, though, and dinner was lovely with a few New Years wishes and drinks. The mother also gave us some lucky money, which is given out to unmarried youths at New Years, which was terribly generous of her. The fireworks display was absolutely gorgeous, and the only thing I actually bothered to take photos of, though we were so close they were incredibly loud and they set off car alarms everywhere around. The kids played with little fireworks starters (no firecrackers, thank goodness) and the little whizzy things that spin like a top when you light them, which was loads of fun too but I couldn't help but think of the stories of Guy Fawkes Day dad used to tell us: how fireworks were fun to play with every now and then some kid would blow his fingers off.
The next afternoon we had lunch with one of the other teachers at the school Garth works at, which was fun. The friend was an older, gay American man, who had brought his Chinese boyfriend (they had rings and are moving in together in Guangzhou) and another friend, a woman visiting from Maine. We had hotpot again, and it was nice to be able to understand and contribute significantly to the conversation again, which was fun. We talked about lots of things, but it was especially interesting to hear the woman from Maine's perspective on the things she'd seen over New Years - like families going kite flying in the parks and everyone looking so happy. It gets to a point, I suppose after six months, where you stop noticing things like that, and things aren't new all over again, so it's interesting to hear a newcomer's perspective. We talked about other things too, of course, but I can't remember any of them. We went back to the school to help clean out (read: scavenge from) the American man's old dorm room, spent a while trying to figure out how to add money to my phone, and then I took a nap while Garth went to do laundry at the hotel.
That night and for breakfast the next morning, we went to a little restaurant down in the village (Sanmao, but I don't know how to write it, I can only guess it's 三毛), one of the few that were still open over New Years, which was really delicious. A lot of familiar food to me, though I didn't see any 木耳炒蛋 wood-ear fungus and eggs, which is my favorite dish here in Xi'an, and I ate until I was so full on the day that I left that I didn't need to eat for the rest of the day!
The train ride home was uneventful, though I really have to say that the middle bunk is the best of all on the hard sleepers. The bottom one, you have people sitting on your bed and you can't go to sleep because they'll all be up talking into the night (if Murphy's law means anything), and the top bunk is so cramped I could sit up but only if my head was stuck between my knees. I didn't sleep as well, though, so I think I'll blame to top bunk factor on that point, too. The middle bunk (which I had on the ride in) wasn't that much better, it was an annoying height that meant I couldn't quite sit up with my head down, but it was definitely easier to maneuver around than the top bunk. You can also see out of the windows from the middle bunk, and reach your things when you're standing on the floor. Thankfully, though, on the ride home I had a good playlist on my iPod and a good book that Garth had lent me, so I spent most of my 26 hours lying in my bunk reading.
Back in Xi'an and it was cold, there were ten times as many fireworks going off in the city, but I had a very strange sense of familiarity as I drove through the city and chatted to the taxi driver, and as I walked through the dark campus to my dormitory. Now I only have ten days before I'm home in Sydney, and six until I leave for Shanghai, and so many things to do in that time that my mind is definitely working overtime - last night I couldn't sleep for thinking about how to pack my things! The trip to Gaungdong was definitely worth it, though; a nice rest from the Xi'an weather, and it was great to see another section of China. I have definitely been to more places in China than most Chinese people have ever been after this trip.
One list before I go, though!
INTERESTING THINGS I ATE IN 广东 GUANGDONG:
1. Chicken's feet: first night, Garth and I had pizza at a Western restaurant, but had chicken feet for appetizers. Mostly I just didn't know how to eat chicken's feet, so I'd never done it before, but they were all right. A little rubbery and hard to get the meat off of, but they were all right otherwise.
2. Frog: at the birthday dinner. I'd never eaten frog before, and it was chopped up and rather tasty. I saw and ate one of the little feet, but I didn't actually know what it was until I asked Garth - I thought it might have been turtle. The skin wasn't so good though.
3. Duck's head: at the night food plaza. The duck salad was, I found out, duck's head salad, though I had the suspicion as I picked up a piece of bones that had something that looked like a beak on it. Also tasty, but the little bones were annoying.
4. Jellyfish: at one of the lunches in Dongguan. I've probably eaten it before, but this was the first time it was named to me. Too rubbery to chew, really, and I had to swallow it all whole.
5. Goose intestines: at another of the lunches in Dongguan. They were all right; I'd eaten some other form of intestines at Ms. Gorman's host family last time I was in Xi'an, but these were different. Smaller, and they were tasty but rubbery (this is not a catch-all reason for why I won't eat "interesting" things again - just rubbery is not a texture I'm a fan of), but the sauce was delicious so I just stole the sauce for the rest of it.