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China - Guangzhou

 

I did indeed last visit Guangzhou in the 1980's.   I remember it as the city of pushbikes. I described it as an endless start at the Tour de France on steroids (prescient?). Bikes clogged the roads twenty abreast in what seemed to be an endless river. This time I saw very few and those were in local streets or chained up and rusting.  You'd be suicidal to cycle on the main roads any more.

The whole of Guangdong province has changed unrecognisably. In pollution hazy Guangzhou there are still parks and green spaces but wide roads cross the landscape, that is steadily filling with a forest of high-rise towers.  Tallest among these is the Canton Tower, briefly the tallest structure in the world.  That title is now held by the Burj Khalifa (Dubai), until someone builds a bigger one.

Despite the wide highways, the side roads are clogged with cars and trucks, like an aging smoker with peripheral cardiovascular disease. 

This congestion, combined with a concierge making a bit on the side, made our getting a pre-booked car to the airport on time very problematic.  Fortunately below, under the city, now runs one of the world's most modern and efficient Metros.  We jumped from the car with our bags and headed for the Metro. I even had time to run back to the hotel and grab my money from the shyster. Thanks to the metro, and despite connection to the airport line, we still made it in time to have time to spare at the airport.

We'd had a similar experience in Shenzhen a year earlier, jumping from a snarl-bound cab to take the Metro. As in Korea the Chinese Metros are easy to use. Station announcements and signage are duplicated in English although in Guangdong the announcements are in Cantonese; Mandarin and English.  

The Guangzhou Metro is dwarfed by those in Shanghai and Beijing but with nine lines and 167 stations it is already up there in the top twenty.  The first line only opened in 1997 and it's still growing, with plans to almost double it already under construction.  It's already longer than the Paris metro. It currently has fewer stations yet carries 60% more passengers than either Paris or London; all in air-conditioned comfort. 

What's air-conditioning London commuters ask?  Londoners would also drool at the cost.  Compared to a sweaty, crowded, low head space, Tube and London's many claustrophobic stations and tunnels, the cost of this relativity luxurious journey varies from CNY 2 to a maximum of  CNY 14 per complete journey. One Yuan (CNY) is presently about 20 Cents (Australian) or 12 P (British).  As in most systems worldwide, regular commuters have rf-proximity cards to enter and leave, that can be topped up, similar to the London Oyster or Sydney Opal card.  They can also elect to pay a flat monthly fee. Casual users pay for each trip at a  machine that dispenses a reusable round plastic token, also using rf-technology, that is put in a slot at the gate and is captured at the journey end.  Senior citizens (Chinese Nationals) travel free.

China's trains draw on technology from around the world (I met a guy on the Mosman ferry who was working on the software systems) and they are generally up with the world's best.  Shanghai for example had the first commercial maglev train in the world with a normal operation speed of 431 km/h. But at 30 km in length it's a demonstration service only (but still three times the length of later, technically improved, rivals in Japan and Korea). 

The Metro in Guangzhou is very similar to the Shenzhen Metro (see our return from our Taiwan visit last year), to which it's connected by high speed 'Bullet Trains'.  These go every 15 minutes and manage the 139 km in 1 h 19 min.  At a cost of A$16 this regular service enabled Wendy to go to Shenzhen and back, for a half day's shopping at her favourite bag shop.   

The four Chinese Metros we have used are similar to the earlier Seoul system and metro-style rail part of the Hong Kong MTR; that is an integrated mass transit system with surface light rail, similar to Seoul and Berlin.  The MTR opened in 1979, and goes to the Chinese Mainland border, from which you can walk to the Shenzhen Metro, after passing through the immigration controls. No doubt, one day, they will connect. 

Contrary to popular opinion, much of rural China is quite sparsely populated.  The overall density is just over half that of the UK, so if you've visited rural England or Scotland you get the picture.  But the cities are huge and getting bigger as rural China depopulates.  Guangzhou (once Canton) has already merged with Forshan and together with nearby Shenzhen and Hong Kong they form one of the largest conurbations in the world, with around 50 million people. It's over 1,500 km to the next mega-conurbation, that around Shanghai, and a further 1,330 km to Beijing, although there is a handful of smaller regional cities of around 10 million scattered about, that are also developing quickly. 

Several pictures in the album relate to the monument commemorating the struggles with the British.  Historically Canton's proximity to Hong Kong brought tensions with the British and produced some Chinese patriots skilled at fighting.  As a result Canton was a good place to ferment a revolution.  And so it was here that Sun Yat-sen, a local Guangdong boy of middle class means, who had been educated in Hawaii and Hong Kong as a doctor, like so many revolutionaries, set up to overthrow several thousand years of Empire. From an office on the site, now marked by the small obelisk you can see in the album, he plotted with others the overthrow of the Qing dynasty.  The throne had fallen into the hands of the Empress Dowager Cixi, a former courtesan who was ruling by virtue of her ward, the child Emperor Puyi.

In Sun's view, in addition to being corrupt, the Empire was holding China back by resisting change and new technology. He and his friends planned the creation of a new Chinese Republic.

Several initial attempts failed and Sun was exiled.  But he used the time to raise funds and support in the UK, the US, Japan and Europe for his cause. In 1911 he returned to coordinate increasing unrest and uprisings in China and was chosen by the revolutionaries as the Provisional President of the Republic of China. Among these revolutionaries were Communists enthused by the Russian Revolution and Nationalists, the Kuomintang.  Sun was a unifying force in the struggle against the old Empire but in 1925 he died.  Within two years the Communists and the Kuomintang split, like waring brothers, each claiming true decent from Sun Yat-sen, the 'father of the nation'.  Soon Sun was raised to cult status so that some even prayed to him. In August 1927 civil war broke out, interrupted when Japan invaded and the brothers joined forces to fight the common enemy. After the defeat of Japan in 1945 their civil war recommenced and in 1950 the Communists under Mao Zedong defeated the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek, who fled with troops and supporters and the national treasure, to Formosa (Taiwan).  Thus both sides still honour and revere Sun Yat-sen (see our Taiwan visit).   In the album there are images of the memorial hall and museum and also of the monument on top of the nearby hill in Yuexiu Park, about 350 steps above the afore mentioned obelisk.  It was a very sweat-inducing climb on a hot muggy day. I was soaked by the time I climbed up more steps inside the monument.

The park itself is huge and features part of the old city wall and fortifications.  As I made my soggy way back down to an entrance near to one of the Metro stations I encountered a milling throng holding up cameras and mobile phones around the apparently famous 'five rams' statue. Near the bottom of the sometimes slippery stone path, a large boating lake had also attracted a lot of people.  My map told me that off in the other direction, to the North, are more lakes and formal gardens.

As you can see at the end of the album not everything in Guangzhou is a modern tower or well tended park.  There are still some shabby old style apartments with external air-conditioners and hanging clothes.  But when in China the newly built is so commonplace that the lens seeks out the old and once familiar. 

 

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