So, I’ve been travelling back and forth a lot of late between Canada and Papua New Guinea. My preferred airline for this route is Cathay Pacific, but the downside of flying through Hong Kong is that Hong Kong sux balls (in my humble opinion, as my regular readers will already know).
Travelling this route on my most recent trip meant that I had about 9 hours spare in Hong Kong. So what do people do when they have 9 hours spare in Hong Kong? They have a look around this smelly, cramped and disorganised city and then go and catch their flight.
But that’s not what I did.
Instead, I decided that I’d attempt an incredibly ambitious trip into mainland China. I had an objective in mind – to climb Canton Tower – the 5th tallest building in the world. It involved travelling 348 kilometres and two border crossings. I had 9 hours to do it and a flight to catch at the other end.
The first step was to make my way up to the border between Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland. I took the metro and found that it was fairly easy to navigate thanks to these panels that light up one’s location.
Whilst on the metro I noticed these monks (Buddhist presumably) sitting a little further down the carriage. It sounds like it would make a good film: “Monks on a Train”.
I took the metro to the end of the line and then switched to the regular train network to get the rest of the way to the border.
On the platform, I noticed this marking, “Quiet Car”. I think this is a brilliant idea. No screaming children or loudspeakers to interrupt my tranquil train journey. I made sure that I found a seat in that car. People were very pushy getting on to the train. I guess they all wanted to be in the quiet car.
As I travelled towards the border I was struck by the sheet number and size of the apartment blocks that I passed.
If you’ve ever wondered how a country fits 1.376 billion people into its land mass, the answer is right here.
China has a huge land area (around 9.5 million square kilometres if you exclude the bits that other people don’t agree are China), and yet the density of housing is phenomenally high. And having just cancelled their one-child policy, things will be so much worse in a decade or two.
And there is plenty of construction underway – to provide the infrastructure to support the hoards of new people about to contribute to overpopulating the earth and pillaging the natural resources therein.
Once I hit the border, I had to race around various offices trying to get my visa to cross into China. It’s possible to do it at the border, but it takes a lot of patience. It took nearly an hour. I finally managed it and then went and checked on the Chinese high-speed inter-city train timetable. I booked a ticket to Guangzhou (pronounced Goo-ung-jo) and joined the throng pressing towards the platform, excited that I was going into mainland China for the first time ever. This is me, excited.
Inside the train station, I found a store advertising “Food & Beverage”.
I found the “Beverage” – it was Coca-Cola – but not as we know it.
The “Food” part was much more of a problem. I searched this store top to bottom and didn’t find any food anywhere.
I figured that I would rather live without the “food” on offer. So I made do with liquid refreshments alone.
I did, however, find a bin for my items that are “Recyclanble”.
The spell-checker must have been on sick leave the day they printed these labels. I can just see the guy in charge saying, “Well I can’t remember exactly how to spell ‘Recyclable’ but I know it has a ‘D’ in it”.
In the end, I just made do with some “Press Water”.
Not completely sure where to go, I followed the congregation and it lead me to the right platform. I think.
The high-speed trains are quite modern and comfortable. A bit like a French-TGV but not as fast nor as classy.
I boarded the train and began to soak in the experience. The countryside whizzing by intrigued me and I strained to take in as much of it as I could.
Little acts of kindness from strangers surprised me a few times while I was in China. Like when I was trying to see out the window, the woman next to me offered to change seats (in sign language) so that I could have a better view. She seemed like a regular commuter so the view may have been of little interest to her, so she gave up her seat for the crazy tourist who seemed glued to every detail. It was very kind of her.
I had to visit the little tourist’s room on the train. Imagine my surprise when I saw this metal thing at floor level. It’s a while since I’ve traveled in Asia and I’d forgotten that they haven’t invented toilets here yet. Seriously Asia. Embrace the porcelain bowl. You will LOVE it.
Or at least install the occasional “foreign” bathroom, for culturally-insensitive jerks like me.
The train was pretty cool. It hurtled along at up to 179 kilometres per hour – much slower than the European express trains, but still respectable. Every minute of travel took me deeper into China and brought me closer to my ambitious objective.
They offer a drink and light meal service on the train (for a fee). I do think that train travel is the most civilised way to see the world.
I also liked the concept of the train having an “Emergency Hammer”. I can think of a few meetings I’ve been in where I could have used an emergency hammer.
The passing countryside was extremely diverse. There were farms like this one, with villagers working the fields…
…less outrageously-dense developments like this one…
…and even a little urban decay here and there. Life in China is not all roses, it would seem.
And of course none of this development would be possible without communications towers like this one.
I took the opportunity to check out the currency as we belted along those gleaming rails. This is the 20 yuan note.
The train stopped a couple of times to let more passengers on. I watched them board. When I grow up, I want to be the portly woman with the megaphone, pointing and yelling at people.
We set off again and soon began to see the outskirts of Guangzhou. As we approached the city, I began to see some serious building congestion.
Finally, I made it to the end of the line and alighted. I was rather hungry by the time I arrived in Guangzhou and so I immediately went in search of food. Sadly, there was none to be had here either.
The closest I came to food was KFC.
A 24-hour KFC no less. But still no food that wasn’t made in a factory and 11 herbs and spices weren’t going to cut it. The search continued.
Hungry, but undefeated I pressed on toward my objective – Canton Tower.
First stop was a tourist information place at Kwanzo East Train Station where they ripped me off by charging 3 times what I should have paid for a taxi. I was pressed for time and I don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese so I had to let them take advantage of me. But I didn’t go down without a fight. I negotiated the price down from 6 times what I should have paid to just 3 times the regular price. I felt good about that.
I asked the thieves at the travel place to write the name of both the tower and the train station on a piece of paper. That way, I could show it to a taxi driver and make my own way back if need be.
The taxis are all South Korean, and a mildly repulsive shade of green.
I jumped in the taxi and set off towards the tower.
As the taxi moved through the streets, I found I was following Porsches and other luxury cars surprisingly frequently. It seems that China has discovered Capitalism after all. In the background of this shot one can see the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees.
We wended our way through the downtown area.
Passing skyscrapers and construction sites galore.
Then suddenly it appeared! My objective was in sight. The one thing that I had to see on my whistle-stop tour of China – the Canton Tower.
But to get there I had to traverse the Pearl River by crossing the 4.3 kilometre Liede Bridge….
…and pass this impressive hotel (another fine display of Capitalism at work).
Finally I stood at the base of this monstrous construction, towering 600 metres above the earth.
At the shops below the tower, I saw this advertisement for fresh fruit salad. At last!! Real food!! So I went in and ordered some. They were out of stock. I left, dismayed.
I was so desperate for something to eat that I decided to go to McDonald’s. At least they know how to spell “Recyclable” here.
I even queued up to speak to the ladies in their ridiculous “Minions” outfits. I scanned the menu. But I couldn’t do it. Nothing tempted me. I left empty-handed.
Then, as I walked past a cafe on my way to the ticket booth, I saw it – was it a mirage? Or was that the promise of fresh fruit? I inquired and sure enough, this time they had it in stock. I ordered the waffle, just for the pile of fruit alongside it.
The wait was agonising. The conscientious chap mixed up the waffle and cooked it, then assiduously trimmed the edges with scissors. I wanted to jump the counter and help him finish the trimming.
But my patience was rewarded – a waffle with fresh berries and a big-ass pile of whipped cream. Hell yeah. That’s what I’m talking about!
Having addressed my most pressing primal need, I went into the lobby of the tower.
To get into the ticket area, one has to pass through security. One thing that surprised me in China is that there are loads of female security guards and they have no qualms at all about doing a pat down on a member of the opposite sex. I swear one of them grabbed my ass at one point.
The ticket options are complex but for me there was only one choice – the most expensive package – because it is the only one that allows one into to the observation level 488 metres up.
One has to wait for the elevators to take one to the top. There are models and displays like this one to help pass the time.
The first stop is the 450 deck – four hundred and fifty metres up.
There is a “Bubble Tram” at the 450 deck.
Not just any bubble tram. The highest bubble tram in the world, if you can believe that.
That’s a bit like when I climbed the tallest mountain in Australia (Mt Kosciuszko) and my friend Harold held up his Mars Bar and said “This is the highest Mars Bar in Australia!” It’s certainly true, but it’s not really much of an achievement.
On the handrails of the observation deck there are signs saying “No tossing at high altitude”. I’m sorry, but I am far too immature not to laugh at that.
One enters the bubble tram here….
…ignores the complete lack of punctuation in the safety notice…
…and settles back to enjoy the 360 degree view of smoggy Guangzhou.
The scenery below is pretty sweet, I must admit.
It’s important to pose for a photo afterwards to prove that one really has ridden the world’s highest bubble tram.
If that’s not enough excitement for you, next up is the World’s highest thrill ride.
It’s just like the ride at the PNE in Vancouver, except that this one is attached to a taller pole. It really is a lot of fun. It IS possible that when the ride dropped suddenly, I dropped an F-bomb suddenly as well. I may have caused a minor international incident with that slip.
There is a section of the tour that goes inside the building and shows what keeps it standing.
According to the placard, “Canton Tower is the crystallisation of human ingenuity and wisdom”. I don’t really know what that means but it sounds impressive.
Part of what keeps the tower standing in high winds is “Bi-Directional Sliding Bearings” (as they are labelled). In case you don’t already know, those are bearings that go BOTH ways.
But the main attraction for me was the 488 Observation Deck. To get there one has to show one’s ticket to the man in the orange t-shirt, who hides the key just above the door. I walked through the secret portal and then into the little elevator and rode it to the very top.
There I was – standing at the top of the second tallest tower in the world. Just as I’d hoped I would when I set out that morning.
It’s important to enjoy one’s little victories in life.
These university students came up to speak to me as they wanted to practice their English. They were kind enough to take my victory photo for me.
Here is the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees seen from above. It is a Buddhist temple that was originally built in 537.
There is a sign up at the top explaining that this is the highest observation deck in the world.
And there is a guy who polishes the handrails of the highest observation deck in the world.
The view is absolutely breathtaking. Or maybe it was the smog that was breathtaking. But still, it was seriously cool.
This is where 13 million of the 1.376 billion people in China live.
One of my favourite attractions in the tower was the “Spider Walk” – taking the longest spiral staircase in the world (naturally).
One starts at the 147 metre mark and then ascends about 200 metres up to 355 metres.
It’s a pretty decent workout. Just as well as I had waffles and cream for lunch. But I had no problem overtaking all of the teenage kids who were doing the climb at the same time as me. That will teach them to drink so much Coca-Cola.
The views of the city out through the structure of the tower were quite impressive.
The frame is covered in these lights so that they can light up the whole tower at night with multi-coloured lights.
This is the Guangzhou Bridge. Guangzhou was originally named Panyu and the city was founded in 214 BC.
As the walk up the endless flights of stairs continues one passes this marker for the narrowest point of the tower.
There are encouraging little notices like this one posted along the way, highlighting the remaining distance.
My favourite part was the glass-floored sections. It’s a very long way down. I first encountered these in the CN Tower (553 metres tall) in Toronto many years ago. One can’t help but feel nervous about stepping on the glass. Every fibre of one’s being screams “Don’t do it! You’ll die!!”
But I didn’t die, as you can see. Apparently the “crystallisation” or whatever, saved me.
Eventually, one reaches the top of the longest spiral staircase in the world and is congratulated by Spiderman. Having done everything there is to do in the tower, I made my way back down to earth.
At the bottom of the building, there is a display on the history of Guangzhou (also known as Canton). Here is a map of Canton in 1665.
There is also a souvenir shop. I was forced to buy a fridge magnet.
But I chose not to buy a model of the aircraft carrier that the Chinese Government said they were going to make into a floating casino when they bought it. It seems to have a lot of guns for a casino.
In the building below the tower, there is this great display, where one could really learn a lot about the history of the Canton Tower…
…if they hadn’t put a fire extinguisher in front of it.
I finished my towering adventure and made my way back to the train station, hoping that I could now reverse all of the travel that I did that morning in order to make it to my flight out of Hong Kong.
Whilst outside the train station, I came across the only actual fruit for sale that I saw the whole time that I was in China. A wrinkled old man who looked to be about a thousand years old was selling nectarines. I attempted to order four but he didn’t speak any English so I was struggling. He asked what I wanted in Cantonese. The people standing by looked on, amused but not offering to help. I asked if any of them spoke English. They just shrugged. I turned back to the old man and held up 4 fingers. “I’d like 4 please” I said in my clearest voice (as if somehow clear enunciation would magically equate to three years of English as a Second Language classes). He looked at me blankly. Personally, I thought four fingers was pretty clear. I wasn’t sure what else it could mean except “Give me four of your damn nectarines”. But he continued with the blank stare. In the end, I pulled out a 20 yuan note (about 5 dollars).
Money he understood. He produced a plastic bag and started loading nectarines into it. When he got to 4, I figured that I was going to get my money’s worth so I was happy. But he kept packing them in the bag. More and more nectarines – until the bag was full. Apparently, 20 yuan buys you a shitload of nectarines. Once he stopped filling the bag, he produced a balancing scale from thin air and proceeded to weigh the bag. Making minute adjustments, he confirmed that “a shitload” was exactly the right number of nectarines for 20 yuan. He handed them over. I thanked him (in English) and walked away shaking my head and thinking “What the fuck am I going to do with all of these nectarines?”
The first step was to wash them. I spotted a Starbucks and thought I’d try my luck there.
I liked the decor because it included this wicked map on the wall that showed where I was. Not just any old Starbucks. I was at Starbucks in Guangzhou, China!
The staff were super-friendly and, unlike the nectarine vendor, they spoke perfect English. This lady agreed to wash a whole bag full of nectarines for me. I tipped her well.
Then it was back to being at the mercy of the Chinese rail network. What a crowd there was in the waiting room. I was bored, but I had plenty of nectarines to eat at least.
And they gave away free bottles of water. Right there in the train station. Free water. One doesn’t see that everywhere.
I boarded the high-speed train and soon was blasting my way across the Chinese countryside once again. I arrived at the border and crossed through passport control and then had a look around at the shops at the station.
This may be the coolest name ever for a fast-food restaurant. I can just see Chinese families having conversations like this:
Kids: “Mum, where are we going for dinner?”
Mum: “We’re going to Kungfu.”
Kids: “Fuck yeah! We love Kungfu! Thanks Mum! You kick ass!”
Mum: “Hey! Don’t forget to thank your father too”.
I didn’t eat at Kungfu though. I was too full of nectarines.
Once back in Hong Kong, it was just a train ride to the metro and from there I went to the airport. I have to admit that I had a fantastic time in China. By and large, people were really friendly and helpful. I genuinely liked the place, apart from the horrific smog. But everything else was pretty cool.
Back on the metro with all of the bored commuters. I’ll bet my day was more interesting than theirs!
Until next postcard…