Tuesday, November 29, 2011

3. Seeing Guangzhou

Today I was to take a 6 am bus to the airport on the way to visit Tibet. But alas, the tour operator didn't tell me they needed my chinese visa three weeks in advance in order to get the special permit required to go there. They said they needed it, but not that there was this strict deadline, and naturally I procrastinated in getting everything done, and didn't have my visa anything near like 3 weeks in advance. So TIbet is off. Instead, I've arranged to visit the Zhangjiajie national forest area, and we don't leave until 5. I may relate the hell of getting this arranged later, but for now let's look around Guangzhou.

My map cites the 6-Banyan Pagoda as a sight to see right in the middle of the old town. Let's go for it! This time I pay attention to the signs for exiting the metro, which tells you what places of note are nearest each exit. But you know how I get turned around. There are so many turns involved, this way and that, that there's no way to know which way you're facing once you get out into daylight. And there are no more signs once you're outside, nor is even the sun an indication because it hasn't yet burned through the thick haze.

I took my chances and went one way. Then turned right at a promisingly green area down the block, which turned out not to be the Pagoda, but People's Park. This being Saturday, all the People not manning shops are out in the park. And that's a lot of them. They're playing cards or mahjong or some other game at the stone tables. They're bouncing things off their feet. They're having picnics. They're practicing tai-chi to loud pop music, or reading the newspapers posted on long bulletin boards. At the bottom of the park is Guangzhou Point Zero. Happily marked with a large compass showing me that I should take a hard left to get to the 6-Banyan Pagoda. Thank you!

It still takes me another half hour to find it, though, because it isn't actually called that. I wander around the tiny lanes off the main road, full of handpulled carts and miniscule shops and Chinese people everywhere, thinking this pagoda might be some small ruin of interest to tourists. You never know. The Chigang was pretty well ignored, in spite of its nice park. After coming more than once to streets I know are too far, I notice a brown sign directing traffic to the Liurong Pagoda, off somewhere to my right. So I go that way, thinking one pagoda or another is just fine. The beggars get denser as I get close, and it turns out that the temple is a major attraction, for visitors and locals alike.

I have a pocketful of 1 yuan bills and coins, change from getting metro tickets, and I hand these out to the men with amputated feet, paralyzed arms, or other disfigurements that prevent them from working. There's no social security in China, only your family and what you can get. The yuan is 8 to a euro and this makes me realize that I am really rich compared to these people. Not many are yet profiting from the swank hotels and tourist restaurants. In a decade, perhaps. The alleyways I just perused in my search for this pagoda are crammed with people just squeaking by, selling mangos or hoses from shops just 10 yards square. In the temple, offerings will be to the Buddha. I'd rather make my offerings here on the street.

The Liurong Temple is an important center of Buddhism. Hundreds of people have come to the complex today, which covers an acre or more and includes a dozen buildings and shrines. Scattered around the grounds are six ancient banyan trees, revered by the original monks here and most of which have been replaced by descendant trees. So it is the 6-Banyan Pagoda, in a way.

There are only a few tourists. Most everybody has come to pay their respects to the giant bronze Bodhisattvas, pray for luck, and enjoy a peaceful day out. And it is peaceful. There are a lot of people, but they're calm. There's no shouting, no pop music or worse, no hurrying.

I feel strange with my camera, and I know I should put it away but there are not actually signs requesting no photography and nobody appears to mind a few shots.

Fresh food is piled high in front of the statues. Pyramids of apples (taped together to keep them from falling), six-packs of bottled water, oranges, and mangos are the most popular. The bodhisattvas are not the only ones enjoying lunchtime: the multitudes enjoying lunch from white styrofoam containers remind me that the map of the site did indicate a cafeteria. Ah yes, there it is. You make an offering and then step up to the window, where the monks dish out a good portion of rice and a ladleful of mild potato & vegetable curry. Just the simple food to go with the calm.

Not many monks are visible. There's one in grey holding a laughing court next to the world peace fountain. I have no idea what he's saying, but the crowd is smiling and joking with him. Across the path, another monk in saffron watches the first with amused respect.
After the Temple, I make my way through the throng toward the most-touted of the city's parks: (whose name I forget!). Even more than People's Park, Guangzhou has come out to enjoy their Saturday. They are gathered around the famous Five-Goats statue. The story is that millenia ago, five celestial goats came from heaven and showed the people how to cultivate rice. The Five Goats are still revered, though ordinary goats are still dinner.

Down the hill from the Goat statue is supposed to be a flower garden, though I don't see many flowers. Not the right season, apparently. Instead, I notice that the wooded hill is crisscrossed with little trails, often leading to a tiny clearing with a couiple of stumps for seats. Many people have brought hammocks that they string between two obliging trees for a post-prandial siesta. Elsewhere in the park are two ponds with paddle-boats, a theater, an amusement park, a sports complex, a museum, and various monuments. Most of that I'm happy to skip. What I'd like to find is a good place for some panoramic shots of the city, or even just a look at the city (which is huge, but without an aerial view you really don't get the idea of more than the immediate neighborhood). We're on a large hill, after all. There should be a view somewhere, but the abundant trees obscure everything. Which may be just what the Chinese like - to pretend for a moment that they're out in the wilderness.

I hadn't planned to go in the Guangzhou Museum, but it appears to offer from its upper balconies the best opportunity for a view. At 10 yuan (less than a dollar), even if the museum is a wash, what the heck. And it's a nice enough little museum.

It's only midafternoon, but at this point I figure I should get back to the hotel and check my email before my guide picks me up for my tour of Zhangjiajie.

I was supposed to go to TIbet. I should even now be on the second of the two flights required to get there. But the paperwork didn't get through in time, and they suggested this other tour, which I stupidly said Sure! to before enquiring about the cost. Since it was my fault the Tibet tour was cancelled, they're not refunding a single cent of the pre-paid bill. The way the agency presented this other tour, I thought it was instead of the other (and the difference in price vs the higher-priced Tibet tour would just be lost, ok). But nooooo! Without even mentioning the price anywhere, they were charging me full price for the new tour too! Hey, waitaminute! So I had been trying to negotiate something better, seeing as my flight home wasn't for another 4 days, and could not be changed. I needed to do something with that time, and hang around this smoggy city of millions for that long would drive me nuts. We settled on my not paying for any hotels and on getting a free one-day tour of the city for my last day in China (this new tour being one day shorter). I got screwed, big time. Perhaps I could wriggle out of this new tour, which was apparently uncancellable the instant I said Sure. But it would take a lot of effort, the help of real negotiators, and anyway I really wanted to get out of town.

That's BIT, guys. Don't ever go with BIT: they rip you off.


Titus said...

Brilliant series of posts! Thank you.

GingerV said...

I enjoyed this day with you. I like to walk and drift as I go. The experience of seeing the natives interact with their Saturday is alwasys interesting. guess the lesson of 'if a chinaman is bowing and smiling does not mean he is being nice.' that is a bad paraphrase of a quote from long ago - but I imagin the basic idea has not changed.

I love it - word verif - socka - ask in socka to you....