Guangzhou, known to the west as Canton, sits at the mouth of Pearl River delta in Southern China. It houses anywhere from 8 to 14 million people, depending on how you delimit the city, and whether or not you include migrant workers. Guangzhou is a vital import/export ventricle for the industrial heartland in which it lies. The orange haze that hangs above the buildings makes edges murky and leaves a gritty sweet taste on the back of your tongue. Neon lights get caught in it at night. In Winter, the eastern half of China is covered by an even gray smog-blanket that blots out the sun. For lack of a more potent phrase, it’s polluted as fuck. Of the world’s 30 most polluted as fuck cities, China responsible for 20 of them. But I read that even for China, Guangzhou was exceptional. It certainly tasted that way. Weeks later, a Spaniard named “Bictor” would tell me that it was common for foreigners to start losing clumps of hair after several days in the city. Chris and I only stayed for two. We unknowingly selected a hostel in a swanky neighborhood where the hostel staff was strict and robotic. We checked in around 9am.
An hour later, this:
The maid enters the dorm and I smile at her politely from up in my bunk. She spots the towel I’d snatched from the linen closet draped over the railing of my bed. She runs from the room. She returns with an unamused man in a suit and glasses. They yell at each other in Cantonese, fitfully glancing at me while I pretend to read. The man walks over and inspects my bunk. I had hidden the towel, suspecting it may have been the reason the maid had scampered off, though I really had no idea. The man looks at the bed frame, the two yell some more, and he leaves. What the hell was that. After Chris finishes his shower, the man returns and approaches us.
“You take my tour,” he says.
“You take my tour today,” he insists.
“We didn’t sign up for any tour.”
“You take my tour. 9:30. Half past 3.” He is getting frustrated.
“No, we’re leaving the city today. We can’t do that.” We are trying to be courteous, but the last thing I wanted to do that day was wait around for a compulsory tour of this creepy hostel.
“You take my tower!” he shouts.
“take…your tower?” I am thoroughly and genuinely confused.
“TOUR! T-O-W-E-R!” His face is red.
“YES!!” He’s fuming. “MY TOWER!!”
“What?!” I had no idea what he is talking about and he was just getting louder. He started to rouse the other guests still asleep in bunks around the room. There is no way I could have taken his tower. He had clearly mistaken me for somebody else who could pull off such a feat, like David Copperfield, or David Blaine, or David Schwimmer. Amidst the yelling, I started to wonder, could this be a historical grievance? I began thinking that perhaps he wasn’t berating me merely as suit-man to travel-boy, but as China to America. I started scanning the shallow recesses of my knowledge of Chinese history, searching for what atrocious event he could be referring to, involving America, China, and a tower of some significance that was… taken… ??
i spent the month of January traveling through China. China. CHINA. And dipped briefly into Vietnam. It was very surreal and very super. I’d like to post some excerpts from my leather-bound travel journal, accompanied by photographs of the wildest, strangest, most frightfully hilarious place I have ever been.
January 6th, 2011.
The bus ride from Nanning, China to the Vietnamese border was five hours. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice starring Nicholas Cage played continuously. I talked to a soft-spoken, kind-eyed Vietnamese teenager named “Nam” in his broken English for the entire ride. I don’t think he knew his name was how vets abbreviated his country. He was from Hanoi but studied in China. He had been hopping from bus to bus for five days to make it back to his family for the New Year. He said his overgrown cocaine pinky nail was for scratching. Later, he finished the rest of his blow before his father picked him up at the border. He told me that once Vietnamese girls find a boyfriend, they stop speaking with other men. I asked him if his girlfriend talked to other guys. He quietly responded, “yes, becuss i let her.” I asked him if his girlfriend and his female best-friend get along. He paused to search for words. “They play wis each ozzer while i am away.” Nicholas Cage shot magic from his wand. Nam smiled at the bus TV. “Oh. I…lub…Nicholas…Cage.”
Vietnam is a completely different animal. We left China through Friendship Pass. How optimistic. The border is a haphazard mob waving passports at three military-clad agents behind glass. Halfway down the list of forbidden items on a hanging placard reads “NO ANIMAL CARESSES”. It may have been worth risking my camera being smashed on the tile floor by a Chinese police officer for a picture. We drove through hills of burnt red mud, past terraces of dry rice paddy stubble. Straw, conical farmer’s hats spotted the fields. Arbitrary trash fires, haze, and people just shivering. Not shivering while doing something else but shivering as if it were its own complete activity. Closer to the capital city, old men gather and chitchat on exit ramps. Old women sell fruit to bikers on the side of the highway under bright red Party billboards.