We arrive at our hotel, the Garden Hotel, at about 2:30a.m. Another time zone, two hours East of Sydney, two hours further afield from Central time. I've now diverged 11 time zones, to literally the other side of the world. The flight up from Sydney is straightforward, though yet another routing I've not seen, from a city and country I've spent one day of my life in to a place I'd never even heard of before coming to this fleet. We fly over or talk to Brisbane, Indonesia, Manila, Macau, Hong Kong. We fly from native English-speaking controllers (albeit with a thick Aussie accent) to places with no English except what they learned in ATC school. Understanding is very touch-and-go, communication in this case being not negotiation but an exchange of official ICAO terms; and the role and authority of ATC fluctuates a bit from country to country. My captain is seasoned and experienced and helpful. I feel like a left-footed fool, but it's easier than the first time I was in this region. I hope to feel competent in my job again before the decade is out.
Guangzhou is eerily quiet at two in the morning. The airport is deserted, with only a few workers shuffling around the immense, dark building cleaning floors and emptying trash. As in Shanghai, the airport here is new and under construction and the finished areas are immaculate; but the architecture of the main hall feels like it's built to a giant scale. It seems adapted for human use rather than designed for it. Getting thru customs is a cumbersome process; not arduous, but plodding and time-consuming. From touchdown until we make it to the hotel is about two hours. In the US this would take us an hour tops. But everybody is courteous and people do their jobs without urgency but professionally. Our ride to the hotel is a Buick minivan, what we are told is THE status car in China. No, really. We rode both directions in a Buick minivan in Shanghai too, and there is a sense that they've brought their best for us. Also like Shanghai, the airport is a long way out of the proper downtown (though without Shanghai's maglev train to shorten the distance) and quite a few buildings we pass on the way in show not a single light. Factories, I guess. Some of them are residential places that must be uninhabited--the numerous balconies give them away. The highways are empty but well-lit and in great repair. (I wonder: what proportion of the Chinese drive? It would seem to be a huge and expensive hassle to own a car here, so do kids not even learn to drive? Our hotel drivers always seem overly careful and a bit stiff and unnatural, though the airport workers who shuttle us around inside the secure perimeter drive more normally to my thinking.) There are several manned checkpoints along the way, despite there being few exits. We pass through an automated lane with a sentry arm that raises as we creep through the gate, like an American tollway. If there's nightlife here we see not the tiniest speck of it. The world is universally asleep, except for the guy shuttling us to our hotel and one or two other vehicles on the 20 mile stretch of freeway.
I thought the Sydney hotel was the nicest I'd ever stayed in, but the story gets better and better. I begin to see why I've heard international guys for years saying they'd bid international for the hotels alone (I'm told the crew hotel in Dubai defies belief). This place--Guangzhou's Garden Hotel--is posh enough for royalty. I joked that my Sydney hotel room was the Brangelina Suite, but this place looks like the Charles & Camilla Special (Charmilla? Charmzilla?) (or at least their servants; Charles could command more than a single room). I get out of my monkey suit and figure out their internet connection, take a melatonin tablet and plunk down on a bed that feels like a sheet of plywood wrapped in a thin cotton blanket and laid on soft springs, but which turns out to be surprisingly comfortable. It's 3:20 a.m. (5:20 a.m. SYD time, 9:20 a.m. HNL time, 2:20 p.m. ATW time).
And, as Sam Elliott said, "Darkness warshed over the Dude..."
I roll over at 9:30, look at my iPhone for messages & texts, and the hotel phone rings. The IRO is headed to the Purse & Leather Market; do I want to come? I'm tasked with finding a particular knock-off purse for Susan, so I'm there. We take a taxi over, maybe three or four miles. It's hotter than hell outside, near 90°, and especially close. The humidity is very high here, and there's not much breeze today. The whole town has a certain odor; not a stench, really, but it's an organic smell that clearly comes from masses of densely-packed people. Folks are clean here, and the town does not seem dirty, though the air seems much dirtier than at home; but it's a close, crowded place. Guangzhou, like its airport, reminds me very much of Shanghai (it helps, of course, that I've only seen these two towns in China). It feels similarly dense and large, though Wikipedia says that Shanghai--China's largest city--is about twice the size and density: 19 million people @ 2,680 per square kilometer in Shanghai, versus about 10 million in Guangzhou @ 1,600 square km. The big highways running through town are ambitious, with big spaghetti junctions and long elevated stretches of multiple lanes running above other lanes. And the place oozes entrepreneurial spirit from every nook and cranny. Everybody is working their niche, especially the young folks. The teens are on their cell phones and texting like mad.
The Purse & Leather market turns out to be one of several in the same area, all within sight of each other. These places are not primarily geared toward single-item sales to wandering tourists, so the salespeople are less carnivorous than in Shanghai. And the selection boggles. the. mind. It's unbelievable. This particular market is the size of a Macy's department store, with three or four floors, each densely-packed with stalls, maybe 3-400 vendors per floor. Some of them are just bare walls with hooks or shelves filled with purses and bags, while others have been artfully decorated to emit the proper vibe for the target merchandise. We spent about 90 minutes in this place and a couple similar-sized ones across the street, but were unable to find Susan's purse. I'm guessing it's still too new.
By lunchtime, the character of the smells changes, from generic crowding to Steamed Mystery Meat. The little restaurants and food kiosks on the street feature all manner of UFOs (Unidentifiable Food Objects), most of it looking positively horrifying. The IRO has been coming here for years, including twice to adopt children, and he knows a good restaurant on Shamian Island, a little sand island near the U.S. Consulate with an interesting history and an old European feel. Another cab ride (though cabs are everywhere and quite cheap). We find the restaurant and eat inside in the air conditioning while outside a group of five or six spends their lunch hour keeping what looks like a badminton shuttlecock in the air with their feet--hackey-sack-style (inevitably this is less odd than I imagined, as I see now there is a whole collection of games based on the hackey-sack, including something called "circle kicking," which looks very like what we watched except for the object being kept aloft).
After lunch we walk around a bit and take some pictures, and then take another cab over to what appears to be a whole section of the city devoted to technology shops. I practically wet myself at the absurdity of choice. We begin in a two-floor mall of similar size and disposition to the purse & leather market from earlier in the day. All cameras, phones, mp3 players, electronic games, batteries and accessories. This selection continues next door and next to that and next to that, for a couple streets in all directions. This section alone could keep me busy for a week. High-end stereo equipment, every imaginable brand and size of television, electric razors (a current fetish of mine), and place after place selling cameras and camera equipment and cell phones--hundreds of these vendors. My traveling mate had a new Sony camera for which he forgot to bring a cord from home to sync his photos with his computer. No problem. He was looking for a portable Sony Playstation. A dozen places selling these, new and used.
I'm kind of on the lookout for another watch. I'm looking for another Bell & Ross for my neighbor (who has taken a shine to mine), and I'd like to find a Breitling aviation watch. I saw quite a few vendors here in Technology Town with watches, including a very reasonably-priced Breitling; but given that there's supposed to be one of these mega-markets devoted entirely to watches, it seemed imprudent to buy without a bit more shopping. Perhaps tomorrow.
I'll doubtless end up with more pictures tomorrow, but I don't expect I'll have time to blog & post them, as we depart the hotel here at 4:pm or so, and head off to Seoul and, after a couple hours on the ground, continue on up to Anchorage. I may have time to post from there, but here's yet another place I've never laid eyes on.