When in Guangzhou …

Well, guess what? Cantonese fried rice is not all they eat in Guangzhou, ha ! My trip to the third biggest city in China was savory, inspiring, stimulating and much too short. Guangzhou, or Canton, struck me as an intense painting of grey skyscrapers, flashy neon signs and colorful blurs everywhere, from the boats on the Pearl River to the Canton Tower overlooking the city, undisturbed.

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View of the Pearl River by night

In retrospect, I feel like I really only grazed the surface and didn’t do justice to such a massive and intriguing city. I should’ve planned more time to spend there, researched the must see’s and must do’s properly and organized my battle plan better. As it is often the case when traveling and Couchsurfing, I relied on the unexpected turns of events that usually come with staying with locals to make me discover unusual places. So in a way, I missed out much of the touristy spots recommended in your average travel guide, but I got to spend quality time with my hosts in their favorite spots, or in places where they like to hang out.

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I left Hong Kong behind, and one bullet train ride later, I was in the center of Guangzhou. I met Murphy at a sushi restaurant in a mall, and we took the subway back to her parents’ apartment. She had managed to convince her parents’ to let me stay with them, which was very new to them as they had never hosted any Couchsurfer before – and for this, I am immensely grateful. What an extraordinary change it must have been for them, a tranquil Chinese family living in the heart of a bubbling city of 11 million people, with their habits and beliefs, to welcome a complete stranger into their home. It hit me when I found myself sitting in their living room, having tea and trying to keep my belonging together – and any backpacker knows that trying to keep everything organized and neat inside a backpack is quite the challenge. They knew nothing of me, my country, or my habits and were probably just as unfamiliar with European manners as I was with Chinese etiquette. It was certainly the first time a Belgian girl was drinking tea in their living room and storing chocolate in their fridge, and yet they trusted their daughter and welcomed me wholeheartedly, no questions asked. The chocolate was for them, of course, and had travelled with me from Belgium through Mongolia to thank these kind people.

They didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Cantonese, so Murphy translated for all of us. That afternoon, Murphy taught me how to make homemade dumplings. I am now a bit less ignorant when it comes to making dumplings, but not a professional dumpling master either.

We then visited the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, a monastery smack in the center of Guangzhou. Brick carvings, colorful pottery on the ridge, gate decorations, paper lanterns, stone drums and Chinese writings everywhere, this monastery has it all. Even the zen garden looking courtyard with mini trees that looked like bonzais. Just outside the temple we ran into a old lady carrying mangosteens. That’s where I tried that sweet and delicious fruit for the first time.

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Chen Clan Ancestral Hall

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In the evening, Murphy and I went to the Canton Tower for a creative photography night session. Gorillapod at the ready, long exposure set, timer set, angle carefully chosen and … now we wait. Smoothie in hand, Murphy and I sat for a while on the side of the road while taking long exposure pictures together, chatting, joking, asking each other questions about our very different lives and this remains, months later, one of my best memories of Guangzhou. Stroll on the promenade by the Pearl river, more long exposure pictures of us taking a pause while everyone passed us by, more strolls around the docks and not a care in the world that everyone was staring. So what?

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Night stroll by the docks
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Pearl River

That night I slept in Murphy’s bedroom on an improvised mattress prepared with folded blankets. The next day my new friend made me a very typical Cantonese breakfast and I think I must have thought “Mmh. From now on, I think I’m gonna have to get used to cooked vegetables for breakfast”. Surprisingly, cooked okra, eggs, bred and dragon fruit make for a great breakfast and I was ready to start the day. Another mall, the city center again, cold jasmine tea with lunch and an unsuccessful laundry attempt later, I met Michael, my next host and we went for a very spicy barbecue dinner. Thanks for the ride, Guangzhou, I’ll be back.

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