Sixteen Hours in Guangzhou, China

Guangzhou, China
Canton Tower, Haizhu District

A bargain price is never without its catch; inexpensive flights are no exception. When I read over the details of the bargain flight I found for a round trip from Vancouver to Melbourne, I realized the catch was a sixteen hour layover in Guangzhou, China.

Guangzhou is a city two hours northwest of Hong Kong. It is currently China’s third largest city behind Beijing and Shanghai, and it is generally considered an important node in the global economic system. This I learned from a Wikipedia search. The specifics of international geography are not my strong suit. I decided that a layover in Guangzhou agreed with me and all other details I could work out later.

Pearl River, Zhujiang River, Haizhu District
A group of men play cards along the Pearl River

The flight landed at six at night, two in the morning PST. What I thought was cloud cover as the plane made its descent turned out to be smog. I had no trouble getting a visa for a half day’s stay in China; I had a great deal of trouble locating my hotel even though it was practically attached to the airport. When I finally made it to the hotel my Raptors jersey and duffle bag were met with some side eyes but I had no issues checking in. Within an hour, I was back on the street and determined to take the subway to the Haizhu District. Two hundred metres out of the hotel lobby, I realized I couldn’t tell driveway from roadway.

I took an hour long taxi ride through the residential districts of Guangzhou. We drove past hundreds of apartment buildings, some clean white, many with stained facades. Windows glowed pale with fluorescent lights, casting eerie shadows in stairwells and against the clothes hung from lines across hundreds of small grated balconies. As we came closer to the Haizhu District more buildings were topped with gigantic neon signs, flashing coloured light onto the adjacent buildings. I wondered what it would be like to hang your shirts in the glow of red neon.

The taxi let me off along the Pearl River, near Canton Tower. The river walk was packed with pedestrians taking photos of the tower, of the river, of themselves, and of the coloured lights that seemed to beam from every bridge and building. I realized after the fact that I was in the district on a Friday during the opening night of the Guangzhou International Light Festival.

Liede Bridge during the Guangzhou International Light Festival

The lights and the crowd thrilled me at first but as I walked around, I began to feel lonely. I obliged the first pair of women who asked for a photo – surely they realized I was an average looking white person and not a Gigi Hadid in their midst – but declined anyone who asked after. The gaze of by passers made me feel alien. Never before had I been a visible minority. Huacheng Square was closed to pedestrians by the time I reached it, leaving me at a dead end a few kilometres from where I started on the riverbank opposite from where I intended to be. For the first time I was stuck by the realization that I could become lost in Guangzhou and if that happened, I wouldn’t be able to ask for help. In the middle of a crowd of thousands I was completely alone.

I hailed a return taxi at close to eleven. I showed the driver my hotel name in Cantonese on my phone. He raised his hand and made an engine sound. Yes, I was staying at the airport hotel. As he drove the winding highway past the neon lights and stained facades I struggled to stay awake, drifting and waking fitfully in the glare of five storey flashing signs.

In front of the hotel lobby I paid the driver in yuan, grateful to have enough small bills to pay the fare exactly. When I opened the door to exit the taxi, he began to protest loudly. He waved the money at me. I looked from the metre to the money, certain I had given him the right fare. I moved for the door again but he started to yell. I got out anyway. He motioned for the bellhop, with whom he conversed. The bellhop told me I owed an additional five yuan. “That’s not what the metre showed.” They spoke again. “Yes, five yuan.” I was prepared to argue it but the language barrier stacked the odds against me. I paid the five yuan. The equivalent of $1.05 Canadian wasn’t worth arguing about. I made my way back to my room, washed the city from my hair, and closed the curtains on the moonless sky.

Song of the Day: Jeopardy by Run The Jewels

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