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Sunday, July 28, 2002, CST

Day 4, Guangzhou, a city in transition



It took less than an hour to drive from Xi Qiao to Guangzhou, all of it on 4 lane highways, and some toll roads. I came to realize that while the roads are very good concrete, and free of potholes, they are not perfectly flat, and undulate. This is the limiting factor in going very fast, so the highest speed I saw was 100Kpm, or about 66 Mph. The transition into the city is very gradual, as the road to Guangzhou is very suburban, kind of like driving along Highway 101 in Hollister or Petaluma. It isnít long before the number of fields, and villages decrease and you are in the city.


We went straight to Perfect Images Lab, Grandpaís photo lab. Surrounding the lab are small flea market style businesses selling foods and goods out of garage sized stalls. It was much hotter in the city with all of the concrete and buildings. The kids got a kick out of the elevator to the fourth floor, as it was a freight elevator that opened one set of doors into a solid brick wall.The lab itself could just as easily been in the states. We took a quick tour, including the digital department, as the lab is now 50% digital. We ended in the board room, where Barnaby assumed the chairmanís position until he was voted out of office. I was particularly interested in the Chinese version of Windows, and the ADSL connection.


From the lab, we drove across town to the Merchant Hotel, and along this route is where the city became very urban, and we saw our first KFC and McDonalds.This could have been any large city in the world, had it been empty, but the mix of cargo-carrying bicycles, BMWs, Mercedes, and people riding 4 to a motorcycle, could only be China. I had been to Guangzhou on our first trip 17 years ago, but it looked nothing like this. That city was 19th century, not like this 21st century metropolis. I had assumed that this was a new part of town, but more about that later. Our hotel was a 4 star hotel, and very elegant and used to western amenities such as tipping, and wake-up calls. Contrast this with Xi Qiao, where the maids came chasing after us, because they thought their tip was lost money. We only had a few minutes to inspect our rooms, before it was time to gather for lunch.


Lunch was in a park, at a patio restaurant specializing in jook. They promised every kind of jook imaginable, and we were not surprised to be served frog and snake jook. (both tastes like chicken). In the center of the patio was a fountain, where our lunch was swimming around waiting to be caught for fish jook. The squab was better than anything we have ever had in the US. Shortly after being seated, the sunny bright skies turned dark, and a monsoon opened up. At least an inch of rain fell in 30 minutes, before clearing again.


After lunch, the kids went shopping, the elders went to visit Auntie Roseís sister in the hospital, and I went to the lab to use that ADSL connection. It was along this drive that I came to realize that this was the same Guangzhou that I had been to 17 years ago. It had changed that much! As we drove around town, I saw pockets of ancient houses, just like in the villages, and what I was used to from the previous visit.It was as Orville Schnell described, when he talked about looking down upon houses with dirt floors, from his modern high-rise hotel. The majority of buildings were more modern than San Franciscoís financial district, and more like Sunnyvale, or other Silicon Valley enclaves. The streets were wide, and mostly 4 lane, divided thoroughfares, but some of the side streets were the original alleys and one lane roads. I was sad to see these ancient buildings being demolished, but glad that the people could afford to live in the 21st century. I hope that they preserve at least a few blocks of the original buildings as an old town, and tourist attraction, rather than someplace where people have to live. Guangzhou had definitely skipped from the 19th century to the 21st, without passing through the 20th at all. I am sure that all remnants of these ancient dwellings will soon be a fading memory, as you can see blocks of rubble, where the ancient structures are being demonlished. This realization was really hammered home, as if it needed any more reinforcement, when we took a river cruise, and passed the White Swan Hotel. This is where we stayed 18 years ago, surrounded by these 19th century buildings, and where I took a ferry across the Pearl River, into this 3rd world city. Today, the hotel is just one of many high rises, on both sides of the river, and the waterfront is completely developed, with RMB$10 million condominiums, glass and steel. It actually looks much more modern than even Hong Kong.


Tomorrow we take a plane to Guilin, and a cruise up the Li River. I understand the cormorant fishermen are just for tourists now. If this countryside has changed as dramatically as Guangzhou, Iíll be shocked.


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