Ready to get back to the mainland I stepped onto a super fancy high speed train that would bring me to Guangzhou within not even an hour and with an average speed of 300 km/h. The landscape outside looks like I recall it: little fields of whatever crops, banana plantations, garbage piles along the tracks, run down houses, factories and skyscrapers in the distance, huge bridges, broad highways and over it all hoovers that very visual heavy subtropical hazy air.
I stumbled off the train and momentarily got enclosed by that chaos of something that is a huge migration. Thousands of travellers stand and sit in this huge arrival hall. Security people yell into their megaphones, volunteers help the lost, railway staff directs people to their platforms. Deciding to travel in the vicinity of Chinese New Year comes close to ‚western travellers suicide‘. When not Chinese, you really have to keep your nerves together. Take a deep breath and here we go. It feels like the whole country migrates back home, back to their parents, grandparents, back to their roots. I tried hard not to feel lost and to orientate myself to find the exit of the train station and the entrance to the metro, that should bring me into the city and to my hotel. But I was worried for no reason – everything went smooth, people were happy, smiling, everything almost felt very much in order.
In Guangzhou I do what I mostly do: I walk, and I walk a lot to soak all in. As I roam through the city I come along big bustling roads, I stroll along small alleys and make my way through busy market lanes. I feel this bittersweet nostalgic sadness that sometimes overcomes me. I like that feeling. It connects me to places. I smile when I remember street names, I marvel on how many more high buildings tickle the sky. I shake my head in pure astonishment when I see new neighbourhoods appear on the other side of the river that rolls thick and brown through the city like it always did.
I barely ever walked that much in Guangzhou before. I guess I was terrified to get lost. Nowadays GPS navigation apps are a bliss. I should still feel lost in this huge metropolis, but as long as my phone isn’t running out of battery, I am not. I hold my phone in a clasp. It’s my insurance not to vanish in this ocean of lanes, markets, people that easily swallows you and maybe never ever spits you out again. I am suddenly surrounded by people that speak loud Cantonese, raw parts of meat in a butcher’s store to the right, a woman that plucks feathers from chicken on the sidewalk to the left. Old men on bicycles pass me, young people in stylish clothes with fancy smartphones in their hands don’t even look up. Buildings full of stores for shoes, buildings full of glasses, buildings full of stores that sell flowers, buildings with stores that sell all things needed to have a decent Chinese New Year celebration. Guangzhou is all about food, all about business; some used to call the province the factory of the world. There is probably nothing that you cannot get in this metropolis of 15 million people. People from many different countries come here to chase their dreams. Most of the foreigners I see avoid eye contact (which is a typical occurrence in China), some smile and nod at me, knowingly.
Memory lane! It’s 11 years that I lived and worked in Guangzhou for a year. My first serious professional teaching experience at one of the most renowned universities in China. Overwhelmed at the beginning, I didn’t want to leave at the end. However, I hesitated to ever come back, because sometimes new visits ruin a memory. Now I was back. Finding my way through the city, along the mighty Pearl River that finds its way into the South China Sea. Eventually entering the campus through this huge gate at the south entrance that I recall so well. Slowly I keep on walking. Yes, I remember the little bamboo forest that shades the campus from the humming noise of the city. Then, the building of the School of Foreign Languages. It is very calm, hardly anybody is here. Chinese New Year, probably the most important holiday in China, calls its sons and daughters back to their home villages, luggage full of presents and stories. The second window to the right on the second floor is where was or maybe still is the little German library where I used to sit and prepare my lectures. I walk on, towards the hotel of the university, where I lived in a nice spacious apartment. I take pictures. Suddenly I notice the litte shop where I used to buy my, well, daily supplies of chocolate and soda. The owner stands outside and looks at me, smiles. It is still the same person. I walk over to him and he smiles even more, says, he remembers me, gives me a big hug. It’s all emotional, very unexpectedly. He laughs and tells me to take a selfie. The campus remains calm, it is as beautiful as I remember: old gnarly trees line the lanes, birds twitter, all the buildings add to a very solemnly atmosphere. Here and there are some shattered palm trees. Even though it is January I can almost recall the hot and humid late summer months when I arrived here.
Nothing has changed and at the same time everything is different. I am happy to be here, because no memory is ruined. New experiences and feelings are added.
Guangzhou has what I sometimes miss in Beijing: it is rough, loud, real, chaotic and worn down in a nice way. But also it lacks what I appreciate in Beijing: more calmness, more structure, more distinguished, almost elegant … capital consciousness. The Chinese south is way more fidgety, bustling. In Guangzhou Beijing seems far, far away.