Transportation in Guangzhou: Me and My Bicycle.

I found the snapshots I took in China. It’s not like they were hiding. I put them where I could find them easily, but finding implies looking and I never looked for them. I found the two albums while I was cleaning for a guest.

Since I was usually the person taking snapshots, they are not nearly as scenic as those taken by my ex. My interests were different, probably still are. There are photos of people, daily life, parties, friends. And I was very happy to find this one:

My brand new Wu Yang (Five Rams) bicycle, made in Guangzhou (Yang Cheng, Ram City), decorated by my students. Things to notice: Wrist watch. Wooden clogs with NO back thing to hold in your foot (losers). Belt. Fitted waist pleated khakis. Turtleneck with pendant. Giant glasses.

My best friend in China was probably my bicycle. Bicycles were freedom. If there was time and energy, it was a far easier way to get around than public transportation. Public transportation was great, but slow and sporadic.

It took a lot of bureaucratic effort for the Heads at my school to get us permission to buy bicycles. First, we had to prove that — though foreigners — we could ride a bicycle. Then we had to prove that we could get around on our own. This was a matter of being able to speak Mandarin well enough to fulfill our needs (directions, food, etc.) and map reading. For the first month or two, we’d come back from a trek on Bus 22 and relate our adventures to our friends and Xiao Huang, our watcher. They would inevitably say, “How did you get there?”

Bus 5, exactly like Bus 22

And of course, they reported to the Heads everything we said.

It surprised them that I could read a map in Chinese. The maps were great. They showed exactly where to catch busses, which busses and which trams. That and the Fodor’s I brought along with me made it pretty simple to find things in the city. So, after a couple of months, we got bicycles.

It was a big event going downtown with our “watcher” to pick out our bikes. Mine was special in that it had green handlebar grips. Every other bicycle in the city had black grips. I’m sure that everyone in the city knew that it was the foreign teacher’s bicycle.

Traffic laws back in those days favored bicycles. Our route to and from the city of Guangzhou from our village of Shipai took us through fields and country lanes. If we were coming home at night the laws were that lorries, tractors, whatever motorized vehicles were on the road could not drive with their lights on so that bicyclists would not be blinded. From time to time, a vehicle would flash its lights briefly. Everyone relied on night vision.

It worked a lot better than it might sound.

The road to Guangzhou. Typical afternoon traffic.

One of the funniest things that could happen in Guangzhou would be when one of the exceedingly rare independent tourists came up and asked us where we rented our bicycles. You couldn’t rent bicycles in Guangzhou in 1982/83. And, truly, the Heads’ caution in allowing us to get bikes was wise. Riding bikes in that city wasn’t for the faint-hearted or uninitiated.

There were tourists in Guangzhou at the time. They were rare. Most came from European countries in guided bus tours which, of course, the government preferred because it was easier to keep an eye on them than on the stray weirdo from the developed world with his backpack. My friend and my mother-in-law came in as independent tourists. I do not remember all the ins and outs of the arrangements, but I do remember that, at the time, the only way in was to get a visa in Hong Kong from China International Travel Service. My mother-in-law had no problems. First she retained her Canadian passport during her entire life in the US. Second, she was family and family is everything in China. My friend was a little more complicated and it was literally a leap of faith for her to fly to Hong Kong. We went to meet her and lead her through the CITS (China International Travel Service) hoops, but it was scary. It could easily have gone the other way and she could have flown to Hong Kong and been told, “Sorry, sweet cheeks. You are not welcome in the Peoples’ Republic of China.”

This morning I read an extremely bitchy and unenlightened article in The South China Morning Post Magazine about the first Lonely Planet guide to China which apparently came out in 1984. The writer of the article does not seem to understand that China was still primarily a closed country, though it had begun to open to American tourists/travelers. In this article the guy compares THOSE days in CHINA (for the love of Kuan Yin) to THESE days. Even mechanically, China was very complicated.

Among other things, there were no private telephones. There were only public phones and phones attached to businesses. When I was arranging for the travel of my mother-in-law and friend, I had to get permission to call them. Once I had permission, we went (with our watcher) to a special building where there were phones. When our turn came, we got three minutes. All this had to be prearranged with the MIL and friend or the calls would have been pointless.

For local calls, there were phones on the streets. Not phone booths, but guys sitting behind tables on street corners. The phone sat on the table and people bought tickets to make local calls.

I took umbrage with a lot of stuff in this guy’s article, but most egregious, to me was this statement of false authority

There was never any doubt as to which volume was meant by “the guide”. As far as budget independent travellers were concerned, there was only one: Lonely Planet’s China – A Travel Survival Kit, by Alan Samagalski and Michael Buckley, first published in 1984.

The Post “How Tourism changed China: Lonely Planet’s First Guide

There was Fodors. There were guides in English inside China and in Hong Kong, which I also used. The author of this article makes the point that one of the problems with accuracy is that China was changing rapidly and was hungry for foreign dollars. It would be hard for any guide book to keep up.

There are other snarky comments in the article. One thing really bugged me. The thing that the Chinese liked Polaroid photos back in the day is true. Processing color film in China at the time was almost impossible. A few people had cameras (Sea Gull was a favored brand) but locally, most developers could only handle black and white film. It was a big deal. To have someone point a camera at you, wait a few minutes and hand you a picture was really GREAT and a superlative ice-breaker.

OH WELL…. One thing he got completely right was the role of CITS and CTS (CTS being the internal arm of the China Travel Service). For the most part, it was a scam. Its main role was controlling foreigner’s access to China, making sure the foreigner was not a spy. Its secondary role — which I only encountered in Beijing — was making money off of foreign tourists; graft. The author of this article has gotten that right.

I think since the beginning of foreign travel in China millennia ago people have argued about what China really is. It’s not surprising to me that the disputes continue even about something as peripheral as a version of a Lonely Planet Guide published in 1984.

But, there was one photo in the article that I appreciate very much. It’s a shot of Nanjing Road in Shanghai, the way I remember it.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai, 1986

5 thoughts on “Transportation in Guangzhou: Me and My Bicycle.

  1. I almost never drove in Israel. The buses, either Arab or Israeli, went anywhere you wanted to go and would stop no matter where you waited. They were either free or so cheap it didn’t matter. What a difference public transportation made in our lives!

  2. I love that shot of Nanjing Road; physically not too much has changed, only the spirit is completely different. So very different from us humans, where the spirit remains about the same even as we change physically.

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