Europe and back again

My first post of 2007 will be spent talking about the last month of 2006. I realise that it’s been a shockingly long time since I wrote anything here (five months, to be exact), and also that I’ve been incredibly bad at keeping up with emails and comments (my apologies to anyone who has contacted me – I will get back to you).

I spent the whole of December in Europe. Two weeks of this was in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the rest with family for Christmas in England. After a year in Asia it was great to go back home and be able to go about my business without being a cause for curiosity. It would be very trite of me to say that nothing had changed. It would also be quite untrue. A lot of things have changed, and none more so than UK airports, which can now be summed up very succinctly: a royal nuisance. Long queues and over-zealous security made every journey an extreme test of patience. Even leaving the train at the airport’s train station was not simple, and security were unhappy that I’d thrown my ticket away between leaving the train and exiting the station.

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Best Of Guangzhou

One major frustration I find living in China is that the internet is not nearly as useful as in the West. What little information is available is hard to find, hidden deep in forums, or is covered in annoying animated pictures (a predilection of Chinese web-sites, unfortunately*).

Anyway, with this in mind I’ve been busy helping to put together a ‘Best Of’ website for Guangzhou, the city in which I currently live. It’s not complete yet, and there are big holes in the information, but it tries to give some real information (or at the very least, information that I would find useful).

Consider this a plug for the aforementioned site. If you’re interested then you can visit it at Even better, if you’ve been to Guangzhou or live there now, please do send an opinion or review!

Note to any Chinese web developers – you do not have to fill every square centimetre of screen space with writing or moving images. My computer should not run at 100% just to visit your website.

Summer in Guangzhou

So far I can describe my summer in Guangzhou with one word: wet.

It may just be the tail-end of typhoon Chanchu which, after having devastated the Phillipines, messed up much of South-East China and came very close to Hong Kong. Or this may be perfectly normal.

Friends tell me that I should expect the summer to get hotter and stickier. All very therapeutic I’m sure, but now I understand exactly why there is always so much washing hung out from Chinese windows.

When it’s not being hot and sticky, it’s being hot and rainy. In the space of one day the weather can change from this:

Rainfall in Guangzhou

To this:

Now that’s what I call variable!

All that Jazz

Let me start this by stating that Jazz is not my thing. Not at all. It instantly brings to mind Starbucks-esque nondescript croonings that send me to sleep faster than just about anything.

With that in mind the rest of this post is about Jazz. Twice.

It was with some trepidation that I found myself paying a visit to the Backstreet Jazz Bar, situated in the lovely environs of Guangzhou’s Ersha Island. Around the corner is the Xinghai Concert Hall, and at the end of the street is the Pearl River. You can’t be any better situated.

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99th Canton Fair

Guangzhou is all a-buzz at the moment with the semi-annual Canton Fair. This is South-East Asia’s biggest trade exhibition. We’re talking serious big here, and the numbers speak for themselves: last years show had a turnover of US$29,430 million, with 150,000 different products, and 210 trading countries. Not something to be ignored.

As you’d expect, the effect on the local economy is very pronounced. Hotels are all booked-up, and charge wildly exaggerated rates. Restaurants are trying their hardest to catch potential customers, with lots of bright English advertisements and special offers. The whole place feels alive.

From a personal perspective, just walking about the streets, it feels much more like a multi-cultural Hong Kong. Even the supermarkets seem different, and for a few moments yesterday I had a distinct feeling of confusion: am I walking around Chinatown, or am I in China?

Still, there are some differences. The influx of visitors has brought with it an increase in street traders, beggars, and all manner of methods to relieve foreigners of their money. It’s not uncommon to see young mother’s sitting on the street with one or two children, all wrapped up in many layers of clothes (despite the humid temperatures of 30 degrees). Upon seeing a foreigner the mother quickly directs the child to run alongside and chatter in a cheerful manner.

A more seedy effect of all this was experienced when taking a taxi to a restaurant that happened to be close to a popular luxury hotel. As the taxi neared the destination it went through an area crowded with people. Suddenly, there was a rush of noise, and 5 or 6 boys (maybe around 8-10 years old) came forward, pushing cards through a tiny slit in the car window next to me. It felt both disconcerting, and a little threatening. The cards were, of course, for call girls.

The thing I find interesting are the street traders. The fair seems to be very famous nationally, and it attracts a lot of people from the more rural parts of China, hoping to sell their products. In particular, there is one group of people wearing distinctively different clothes that have formed a semi-permanent encampment outside a nearby hotel. They are obviously some ethnic Chinese minority, although I’m not sure where from. They sit on a blanket on the street, all day and night, with their entire family (including Grandma!) and sell everything from jewelry to giant machetes and dried animal genitalia. The latter, I’m told, is because some Chinese believe that eating the genitalia of an animal is akin to an aphrodisiac/natural Viagra. Whatever the reason, it does make you look twice.


So it’s been a very long time since I posted anything here, and it is not from apathy. Since returning from Norway I decided that I wanted to go to Asia, and so after a lot of hard work renewing passports and obtaining visas, I am now living in Guangzhou, the third largest city in China.

I was very much hoping that China would be relatively free of the whole Christmas mania that blights everywhere in the West, but it seems not. In fact, the Christmas experience is heightened with the high pitched warbles of some child screeching Christmas songs out in every shop that are loud enough to do permanent damage to ears. Everyone seems oblivious to it apart from me. My ‘favourite’ was the adaptation of Jingle Bells:

Jingle Bells
Jingle Bells
Good every day

So why Guangzhou? Well, it’s certainly not for the clean and pollution free environment, but it is a big city with many advantages, the biggest being its vicinity to Hong Kong. Apparently Guangzhou is over 2000 years old, and is famed for it’s food (another name for the city is Canton, home of the Cantonese language and cuisine). The name itself apparently means ‘Goat Town’. Nice.

The weather averages a pleasant 20 degrees in winter, but it sure does feel cold at night with no heating.

And life in China? Very, very, strange. It’s a whole different world. I am constantly amazed by the amount of money that flows through the city. Restaurants and shops are always full to bursting, car dealers are selling 500 new cars a day, construction sites appear daily, and the whole place is alive. The eating experience is something that requires more details. Back home I’m used to restaurants and cafes being fairly small places, maybe serving 20 or 30 people. Restaurants here serve 1000’s at a time, over several floors, full of noise, chaos, and confusion (for me anyway). Need a table for two? No problem, the table folds down. Need a table for 20? Staff appear from nowhere rolling a giant table-top that fits over the smaller table.

It’s going to take a long time to fit everything inside my head.

(and I will get round to replying to all questions eventually).