The express train
We are now doing 236 kph. In a tunnel so it could be any speed. It doesn’t feel fast. It’s rising to 244
Guangzhou sprawls with a horizon of layer upon layer of the crenellations of groups of towers. A vast scrapyard full of motorbikes. Vast waterways with container ships. The sprawling suburbs give way to the grids of fish farms divided by low green dykes. Elevated roads on stilts that stretch above the city as far as the eye sees. Concrete. Concrete that eventually gives way to the mountains north west, hence the tunnel. It’s become countryside at last. The other side of the mountains is less planned, less urban, picturesque!
Guangzhou south station was like an air terminal. 26 platforms for ultra fast trains with thousands of passengers waiting, some playing chess on the floor. Numerous departure boards, lacking in consistency and clarity. Another screaming 5 year old, wrestling with his mother in the queue at the ticket gate.
The train takes us over a fertile plain full of paddies and small low rise towns with people gardening. Kids play on the ruined pillars of a former road bridge on a river. As we approach he zhou the surrounding landscape becomes an awesome dusky series of majestic pointed limestone peaks, like a drawing from a fairy tale book, the pale oranges streaks of sunset fading now. Like halong bay on land.
The following hour is played out by soaring music like “there there” by radiohead and “transeurope express” by kraftwerk in my headphones, as we plunge through dark tunnels emerging onto more water and paddies and now the bright orange disc of the sun cutting shards of gold over the lakes and rivers. What an amazing rail trip.
I think I’m doing well when I get straight on the recommended bus in Guilin but panic a bit and lose my bearings, getting off too soon and have to walk 40 minutes down Zhongshan road, partially accompanied by a local who calls me his teacher. The hostel is, as the name riverside hostel would suggest, right at the rivers edge. There is a peaceful terrace that steps you out into a walkway lot by coloured lights. The city is certainly a tourist Mecca. A street market selling jade, calligraphy, paintings, lucky stones, durian. It’s quite low intensity and very different from Guangzhou.
Sunday morning liu rong Buddhist temple.
Chinese toddlers are quite rowdy and sometimes badly behaved. There’s always one screaming somewhere, in a temple, on a subway, in a restaurant. Mothers are not very soothing, fathers look mildly indifferent. They play with scissors in shops, and crawl along the parapet to the lake. Parents exasperation is the closest there is to prevention or chastising. Bottles of baby milk are favoured. Push chairs aren’t common, with babies often carried lolloping, over a parental shoulder or dangling sleeping out of their arms.
In general kids seem to be cute-sy and it’s definitely a distinct identity that they have. They wear cartoon character- like clothes, run around shouting and are needy of their parents. British kids from an early age are styled like young adults with groomed hair, piercings and sexualised clothing.
As I make these observations my mood softens. Maybe it’s the herbal infusion in the temple garden, the wafting recording of a chant, the refreshing breeze and the rustling trees, or the general civilised calm of visitors incense burning, bowing and wandering from hall to hall.
It seems to be ritual day. Flocks at the temple and church. I don’t know about the mosque, but I passed it anyway. Burning of whole sacks of fake money in braziers. Behind a double barred gate young children are marching and drumming and enacting a flag raising ceremony.
Outside McDonald’s are queues of blind buskers. An old lady has emaciated kittens on sale outside the metro in a cage and shoes away from my camera. Anxious people sit in front of an illuminated board with people’s lottery numbers. At the counter of a shop a shopkeeper holds her 8 year struggling daughter firm as she attempts to cut her fringe. I our corner cookies lie in their carts, seemingly given up on being hired. One even has a little girl and wife with him. Feels like visitors day at the prison. The wizened little men with their buckets and trowels and tools of their manual trade sit impassive on the kerbs.
The li wan hu park. I’m feeling existential.
Little girl peeing in the bushes. Lily pond pavilion closed almost derelict. Man takes off shirt paces up the gangplank swinging and clapping his hands. He does this warm up several times then proceeds to place his stretched leg on the 1.5m high rail and then bend from the waist so god head meets his foot. Impressive. Flanked by tower blocks but neighboured by pitiful almost slums. Chicken cages and suspicious locals sitting on their steps. Leading up to the park I’ve encountered much more friendly locals who wave as I take their pics. Clusters of men playing cards, smoking, laughter and noisy banter, seated on sheets of newspaper. Old men reading, yes reading. A small boy on a skateboard that had single wheels. Some kind of youth volunteer group cheering and doing a photo call. Cantonese music coming from somewhere. The drone of the traffic. Sulphurous smelling lake. Banyan trees with dangling roots. Some kind of colourful diarama floating in the middle of the lake. A man in a conical hat on a canoe frisking out weed with a net on a pole. A jogger bare chested, green shorts, bouncing rather than running. An dropped black and white baseball cap with roxy in blue and red letters. A father kicks it, his 3 year old son stamps on it. Passers by regard it, walk deliberately step over it but avoid picking it up, as if it is a dead pigeon or something one cannot engage with. Touching it means having to decide what to do with it. It’s someone else’s property. Maybe picking it up is the beginning of theft. Kids on bikes with stabilisers. Middle aged women with Chinese style permed hair. Bright patterned smock like blouses which neither flatter nor provoke. Couples who do not hold hands. Dusk and the twittering of hidden birds. Finally a 2 year old picks up the cap, but when admonished by his 14 year old brother tosses it high over his head and runs after him. This cap fascinates me. Scores of people have passed it by. I have decided to at least give the cap dignity by setting it on the bin. Perhaps the owner will find it again. Red traditional lanterns are lit up on the brown wooden restaurant pavilions by the water. Some kind of squelchy squwak from the bushes. A duck? Fish and lily light sculptures on the water. Tiny yellow leaves are falling on my head. Airliners, car horns, sounds of a train perhaps. The smell of the water, or is it the air is noxious.
A sign reads “love flowers, do not pull down”.
Two rather sad robotic claw machines branded with Mickey Mouse but the toys imprisoned in the glass box are minions rip ifs and Paddington bear type things. The music is quite haunting. The 3 toy story machines next door ate battered, empty of toys, and just contain pieces of polystyrene. The lights are off. Maybe these once gave children joy. A woman on a baseball hat branded with the word black sits nearby reading her phone. She has been here for a while. She must dream this music. There is a whiff of melancholy here. The gangplank to the sedentary pleasure boats with their plastic flower covered roofs is made of old finger signs to locations around the park.
Three girls and 2 boys are attracted to the machines and jiggle the joysticks. The one in the stripes feeds in a coin but drops it under the machine. He goes off to get his mums handbag and rummages for some coins in vain. He asks me for some change, but I can’t help. They are excitable and friendly. He playfully kicks the machine. The mothers come along and chorus hello then bye bye. They don’t manage to work the machine and drift off.
In a pleasant square in the fading light under some shady trees groups of young adults play badminton and hacky sack. Men with small dogs sit in the approaching gloom.