Saturday, August 15, 2009

Guangzhou: Day 2

(We take the cars; the locals more typically use this kind of taxi.)

I set off today for the fabled watch market, in search of a cheap Breitling or Tag Heuer. Every time I've broached the topic of walking around town people seem surprised at the notion. It is hot, after all, but I don't know that the distances are that great, especially from our centrally-located hotel to the various shopping centers. A couple miles at most, I'd think. I verified my orientation on the map this morning with the hotel concierge (which was good, as my initial plan was to walk in the wrong direction!), and when I told him I was going to walk to the watch market you'd have thought I said I was jumping to the moon. "Oh, no!" he said incredulously. "It velly fah." "How far?" I asked. "Take you at least one hour." "Oh, that's fine," I said. He was doubly flummoxed. It seems especially odd when so much of the city's population either walks or rides a bicycle to get around; surely my walk to the watch market cannot seem so daunting. Or maybe I just don't look like a walker.

Anyway, I set out, and managed to navigate well enough with my map, arriving at the place on the map where the watch market was indicated (in ink, by the concierge) in about 50 minutes. I was none the worse for wear, though it quickly becomes dreadfully hot, and my poor forearms, still reeling from their sunburn on my Honolulu motorcycle adventure, sprouted an impressive crop of heat blisters.

I had hoped that walking would allow me to see a bit more of the city; and you do and you don't. Certainly, there is more time to take things in. But the main thoroughfares are all separated from the rest of the city by walls, so that the roadways are like channels running through the city with shops on either side and, often, a second roadway level elevated above. And here's the odd thing: the natives come and go from these main thoroughfares through narrow little openings in the side walls, often curving up or down, that lead into the residential sections. I couldn't see very far into these little openings, but it looked like an entirely different world from the Guangzhou of the main thoroughfares. I kept wanting to step off the main road and get some photos of these residential areas, but there was a uniformed guard at virtually every one of these entrances, posted, I presume, to keep tourists out. I don't know if it's a security thing or if China wants to have more control over a visitor's experience. But I only managed a couple photos, in passing. (It didn't help that there were always a bunch of people coming and going through these entrances, and I did not want to seem disrespectful, as though I was photographing their private world as some kind of freak-show exposé.) But from these glimpses the high-rise residential world here appears to be even more foreign than what I'd already seen.

I was walking from around 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., which seemed to be the rush hour (though the traffic is heavy all the time, at least during the day). I was walking along Huanshi Donglu / Huanshi Zhonglu, which is the main drag that runs East / West in front of our hotel, and on this route anyway there was a veritable armada of buses, electric and diesel, which were packed. There are a fair number of taxis as well, both the fruity-colored official ones and little three-wheeled motorcycles that the natives seem to use. There are plenty of personal cars as well, though the proportions of these conveyances are all askance from, say, Minneapolis (which is a few buses, almost no taxis, and a buzillion personal cars; and nary a bicycle to be seen except maybe around the U). And there were just a lot of people on foot. The sidewalks are not very consistent, being wide and narrow, smooth and rough, paved and cobbled, so that walking requires a little concentration. But everything is largely picked up: a small army of full-suited workers in ancient-style straw hats is always at work sweeping the walkways with hand-made straw brooms. (I remember being amused at the street sweepers who emerge after sundown in Paris, in their bright green suits and modern plastic brooms that look patterned after something from a kids' storybook on flying witches; but these in Guangzhou are even cooler / stranger.)

The big intersections have four-way pedestrian bridges over them, with ramps for bikes and carts and shallow stairs (to facilitate the bikes / carts, though the shallow pitch makes the stairs surprisingly awkward to use), or in some cases underground passages. The non-grid aspect of the roadways, the double-decker highways with arching entrances and exits, the tendency of traffic to utterly ignore lane markings, and the up-and-down nature of pedestrian intersections--all this plus the stifling heat and humidity--all conspire to make walking a bit of a chore. One doesn't just head out and make one's way, even when, as I was, one is headed in a single direction. Even the skinny locals seemed oppressed by the heat, often fanning themselves with those iconic folding fans (they seemed to get very hot without sweating much, though, in contrast to myself).

(Stairs with bike / cart ramps.)

The traffic obeys its own local rules. As I say, there is no attention paid to lane markings--ever--and people squeeze their conveyance into whatever space will accommodate it. The key is to get the nose of your car in front of the vehicle you wish to get in front of or whose lane you want, and then just keep pushing and pushing, crowding them over until they are forced to yield and the space is yours. And everyone does the same thing to you. Thus everyone drives with scant margins, the cars seemingly always close to touching. Pedestrians are yielded to with reluctance, and the walker just has to step into the traffic and demand your right-of-way. Kind of nerve-wracking. I saw numerous women with babies in strollers trying to get across busy streets, and no one would give way until she--literally--pushed her baby out into traffic and MADE them stop! Or pray like hell they would. In all this I fancy I see an underlying sense of people as expendable, a society where individuality is not really recognized.

And it's odd the police presence in the city. There are police at many intersections, but only some of them appear to be tasked with managing traffic--and then it's the foot and bicycle traffic; the traffic lights take care of the auto & bus traffic. There are plenty of uniformed police on the street and in the markets, not, apparently to monitor Chinese adherence to world copyright laws but to keep order and, well, just to keep an eye on things. (My captain, perhaps sagely, suggests that all sorts of jobs might be contrived to keep two billion people busy.) I noticed in a huge underground market a documentary-looking thing playing on the TVs throughout the huge, sprawling market, and all the early morning merchants had stopped or slowed their setting-up to keep an eye on the TVs. It seemed officially produced, and I could only assume it was some kind of government announcement. Later, during more purse shopping, the background music was interrupted market-wide for some kind of announcement. This time no one seemed to pay any attention, and a few people were supplying their own music to their booths and could not even hear the announcement. Maybe none of this was what I thought. ("Attention Watch-Mart Shoppers: there's a rickshaw out on Zhanquian Lu, license blah-blah-blah, with its lights on...")

(A lone policeman, sitting on a chair in the shade.)

I say I arrived at where I expected the watch market to be (and not "I arrived at the watch market") because it was not where it was indicated on the map. My mate and I yesterday began by getting shuttled over to the watch market, and couldn't find it then either. And when we took out our map and indicated the place, everyone gestured that, yes, this is the place. But, I now realize, they were confirming that we were at the X indicated on the map, and not confirming that the English chicken scratch "watches" next to the X was accurate. Well, it wasn't. So I wandered around for a while before asking a couple clothing merchants and a policeman about the watch market by wiggling my G-Shock in front of them and then making a sweeping gesture around me. This stab at charades seemed to work, and everyone pointed in the same direction. And I eventually found it.

This reminds me: when I started out with my crewmate yesterday morning, I was happy to let him steer the way, as he had been all these places before. He had the map, and he spoke a few words of the language. I was happy to tag along while he navigated. But a couple times I wandered off while he was looking at this or that, or he'd head to the bathroom while I waited in a common area; and what, I thought, would I do if we got separated? I had no map, did not speak a word of the language, did not have my passport on me, and I had no idea where anything was. I don't generally have any difficulty finding my way around a new place, but again I found myself in a strange place without having done any planning or taken any steps to orient myself or ensure I had a way back to my base. This morning I wandered off on my own, but I had my own map and a business card for the hotel, so I figured I could look after myself at least minimally.

And as for the watch market? It was not quite so grand as the other places I visited yesterday--the purse & leather markets, all the technology shops (though I noticed another similar place selling clocks & watches across the way). I got there before 10:a.m., and only a few booths were open. But they all seemed to have the same basic stuff. Oddly, I saw only a couple Bell & Ross watches, all low-end. One guy REALLY wanted to sell me a Breitling (once he learned that I was looking for one specifically), but I didn't particularly care for his stock, and I liked his insistent manner even less. Down the market a ways I found a dealer with several nice-looking Tag Heuers, so I got a knockoff Carrera for $40 (which I stupidly did not ask her to size for me before I took it and left), and my captain told me that was probably about $15 too much. You don't have to look too closely to see it's not the real thing, but I also didn't have to take out a second mortgage!

One certainty: the Chinese could never be described as lazy. Everybody seems to work all the time. Most of the kids running the stalls at the market supposedly have one day off a month. And with the commute they work 10 or 12 hours a day. So one gets a sense of how important the socializing at work becomes, as it's the primary contact many people have with others. Visiting a new place like this one, especially a big, complex place, kind of sends one's perspective askance. These are millions and millions of people--billions, actually; an incomprehensible number--whose lives and those of their extended families on back for generations have almost nothing in common with life as I know it. Our existences are different in so many details, our lives' experiences utterly different. It's odd to contemplate who I would have become in this setting, how my values would differ, what things that I currently treasure would have no meaning here in this existence. This visitor's bird's eye view affords a natural anthropological slant, like looking at ants in a formicary. Thinking about such vast numbers of unfamiliar people and lives tends to gloss over the details and leave only the trends, the mass movements and historical facts. Our familiar world maybe makes it harder to see questions of epidemiology or longevity or nutrition as clearly when the subjects are us or people we know and love or people just like us. It's hard to get the distance. But in a strange, densely-populated place like this, it's almost the inverse--it's difficult to see past the trends to the individuals beneath.

I have another trip almost identical to this one coming up in a couple weeks, except that my long layover is not in HNL but here in Guangzhou (CAN--for Canton, the city's old name). So I will doubtless have more to say at that time.

(How to photograph this? A man wearing a garbage bag tied up with rope. There aren't lots of homeless people here, but you don't have to look hard to find them. That there's any is a bit of a puzzle.)

No comments: