Yesterday we had a guide and a driver of a van from the hotel take 5 of us to 3 different types of shopping areas in Guangzhou. Several of the group were interested in buying jade, and the guide was able to negotiate for them in the jade district, which covered several streets with small vendors lining this area. This approach kept us in the comfort zone since the guide and the driver were able to get us around with little trouble. At one area she advised me on negotiating a watch: I scored a nice Rolex for $21. Yes, what a bargain!
I could just sit in the hotel (the Ritz no less), relax at the pool, have a drink, whatever, and not get out of the comfort zone. But one surefire way of discovering and learning new things quickly is to force yourself out of the comfort zone, as I did today. There were 2 museums I wanted to see, based on travel guide descriptions. The concierge armed me with maps and cards from the hotel in Cantonese to show taxi drivers, who here, as in many countries where English is not the first language, speak little English.
The first museum was an easy setup, since all I do is tell the doorman where I want to go in English, he tells the driver in Cantonese and off we go. Taxis are still cheap here. This ride of about 20 minutes cost all of $5. Another thing is that I am traveling solo. I always feel more comfortable with a traveling companion to sort out problems, so there are several uncomfortable aspects of this trip: traveling alone, language issues, unfamiliar location, among others.
The museum was built around the tomb of an emperor from about 100 BC. This tomb was discovered in 1983 and Indiana Jones nor other tomb raiders had discovered it before that, so it was full of everything that went in when the emperor died, other than the emporer who deteriorated to small fragments of bone and teeth. Quite a find, and the artifacts are historically significant. Many descriptions are also in English, and I rent an audio guide in English that gives excellent descritptions of many artifacts. Museum entry was $2 and the audio guide $1.50.
My second museum was listed in the hotel travel map. Taxeee! Universal taxi hand signals work well. I show the driver the guide, he nods yes, and off we go. I get to the museum, go in, then discover this was not the one I wanted. The hotel travel guide listed this as the Guangzhou museum, which I want to visit, but it was really the Guongdong museum. Ooops.
Taxeee! This time there is a problem, as the travel guide I have for the correct museum is not written out in Cantonese, so the driver has no clue. Next best solution, head to the Ritz and sort it out. The card from the concierge is spot on with directions, off we go and within a few minutes I am at the hotel. Total taxi bill for this ride: $1.
I talk the problem over with the concierge who finds the correct address for the museum, writes it on the card, gets a taxi for me, tells the driver where to go, and off we go. This time I do end up at the Guangzhou art museum, which has a nice selection of Chinese art work. Only had about 1 and half hours till closing, but this was enough time as some galleries were not open. But it didn't have the terra cotta soldiers that one travel guide said were there. Must have been a temporary exhibit. Surprisingly, these last two museums here have not added English to many of the art notes, and the map of the facilities are not very useful. Beijing, Guilin, and Yangshou were way ahead of this city in English advancement.
Taxee! Now I want to go to a mall clear cross town, and the driver is able to figure it out from the travel guide I have. No problem getting there. I spot a Starbucks, score a latte and 2 Guangzhou city mugs, and relax in this crowded and noisy Starbucks, where everyone but me is oriental. So even the natives are getting into the Starbucks experience here.
This mall is crowded at 6 pm Sunday evening. Stores stay open late even on Sunday, and the place is a sea of young Chinese. Taxeee! Traffic is a mess, but I get a taxi quickly. This is not too far from the hotel so the ride is smooth. I’m back, no longer uncomfortable about getting around this city alone.
The hotel has almost all employees working on English. On the street and in museums, it is not uncommon for young Chinese, maybe 10 or so, to say “hello” when they spot me. I think they are trying out their English that they are now starting to learn in elementary grades. Even though this is a major industrial and trade city, there are not a lot of westerners here, relative to the population. Thus, people stare at us all the time. Which initially is uncomfortable, but after a while it no longer matters to us.
Overall the day was a success: 2 museums I needed to see today (they are not open tomorrow, Monday), I navigate the city with assorted tricks in taxis, people staring is not a problem, I have a better orientation of the city, and I feel more confident that I can get around a city alone where languages are not the same.