Beijing Road

That’s Beijing Lu, a shopping promenade in Guangzhou. It’s just like the Promenade in Santa Monica but with more flavor — and knockoffs. You can slip into a building that’s filled with tiny stalls selling shirts for a couple dollars or watches for 10 bucks; it’s easy to get lost in the labyrinth. If only I was in the market for a fake Louis Vuitton handbag.

After three days of touring and crisscrossing the city with my cousins, resulting in a blister on my foot, I decided to spend a leisurely day by myself. I was able to find space at one of the many local Starbucks to read (Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze), study my Mandarin flash cards and reflect on my time in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

It’s been illuminating to be in Guangzhou following a week in Hong Kong. My aunt’s family has been wonderful, opening up their hearts and homes to me. My cousins spent three days as my tour guides, shepherding me to nearly every sight in Guangzhou and insisting on paying for everything. And one of my aunt’s daughters invited me into her home for a home-cooked meal. I’ve been touched by their kindness and warmth.

If there’s one thing I take away from my trip, it’s that family is as important as ever. And that bonds last despite distance, sorrow, misery, even death. My only wish is that I had met my aunt and her family sooner.

Walking around Guangzhou, it’s easy to notice the differences with Hong Kong. I felt it the moment I stepped out of the train station. The heat, the smells, the grime, the dust, the noise — it was all turned up a few notches. It’s rougher around the edges, more unkempt, with a wild streak. I can only imagine what Shenzen, or one of the metropolises in central China, is like.

The energy of the city and its residents is palpable, it pulsates from the swoosh of the newly built subway, the sparkling neon lights advertising beer or whitening creams, the nightclubs that are open all night and morning, the cheesy but well-intentioned “light show” along the Pearl River, the cacophony of noise amid the plume of smoke in a dim sum restaurant, the crush of people jostling for position on the street and in life. I’m enjoying ever minute of it.

I took this video of a crosswalk in Guangzhou, south of the Pearl River, which is considered to be less civil than the neighborhoods north of the river. The light is red and the crossing signal is green — but no matter.

I think the video conveys the pace and energy of the city, which I’m growing to love. Guangzhou is preparing for its own coming out party, as it hurriedly prepares for the Asian Games in 2010. Don’t you change on me, Guangzhou.

But my time in Guangdong province is coming to an end. I’ll be heading to Beijing on Tuesday, eager to stay up for two weeks straight and pump out thousands of words a day. I’ll have a couple weeks to explore the city before the Olympics start, so I hope to keep updating my Flickr feed and blog.

It’s a little ironic, but being in Guangzhou is the calm before the storm.