Guangzhou – mixed feelings

My first visit to Guangzhou, apart from in transit, was in 2000, when I stopped there overnight on the way to and back from the Shanghai Bike Show. Then as now I had mixed feelings about the place.

I really enjoyed both nights in GZ, met great people, as I danced, sang and drank the nights away, and in my mind when it came to having a good time, GZ ranked well above Shanghai.

And that is not to say Shanghai was no fun, in trade show mode running with the bike industry crew we had a few late night walks on the wild side, but somehow GZ had a feeling of being more friendly and open, and in some ways reminded me of Taiwan, which at that time had been my home for almost 4 years.

I was staying in a cheap hotel near the shopping district of Shang Xia Jiu Road, which is car free at night and the shops were full of branded clothing at knock down prices, fakes or factory rejects, who cares, these clothes served me well for years to come.

But on the negative side was the city planning, as with Taiwan there appeared to be a complete inattention to planning for pedestrians or cyclists, in Taiwan this is compensated for by the scooter culture, not so in GZ, where at that time buses or taxis were the only choice.

Travelling around mainly by bicycle, I discovered a city where bikes are useful within small neighbourhoods, but the propensity of car only main roads and provision of footbridges for cyclists to cross these great motorised arteries, makes urban cycling show, difficult and frustrating.

So here I am over a decade later, and my opinion of the city remains mixed.

Firstly the good.

Last week I visited the market near to where I now reside when staying in Guangzhou.   In this most international of markets Africans, Indians, Europeans and Middle-Easterners weave their way in between the Chinese majority. Stalls and shops selling everything from food to waterproofs, compete for space on a small network of lanes. Colourful, enjoyable street life abounds making sitting watching the world go by a joy, the opposite of the sterile shopping centres and department stores only a few hundred metres away.

Cycling around the city these last few weeks I have discovered many such islands of street life, tucked away on alley ways too narrow for cars or along quiet streets, in fact Guangzhou could almost be described as a patchwork of lively streets, cleaved apart by the main roads and network of elevated highways.

The negatives remain the same, the motorised traffic only roads, the footbridges for cyclists and police patrols making sure cyclists must get off and walk across junctions.

One positive is the expansion of the mass transit network, and travelling by PT is now much faster and more comfortable.

I personally prefer not to spend my time underground, and while the buses seem frequent, I rarely use them, as my first choice for a journey of under 10km will always be the bicycle.

Since I have now spent three weeks cycling through the city rather than the two days a decade or more ago, I find it hard to compare like for like, but things seem slightly better now.

While it still takes much more time to cycle around than it would for an equivalent distance in London, due to the detours and lack of priority, it is generally possible to pick a route along smaller roads and very occasionally find cycle lanes that are almost of some use for transportation purposes.

As an example, on the same night I discovered the market, I had originally set out to the train station. Cycling along the main road from the office, which in this case I think is allowed, I found myself on several occasions dangerously exposed to fast moving traffic turning right.

That night, while waiting to cross an intersection I a gazed out across this huge expanse of roadway occupying the very heart of the city, I realised the challenge that remains. I was presented with a vision of  an intersection where at ground level up to 10 lanes  filled with cars, trucks and buses arrive and depart in each direction, while the elevated highways up above were also full of traffic. The buses themselves were crammed with humanity. The narrow pavements too, were packed, especially at the crossings, as getting over these roads can take several minutes, and the feeling is that you are never safe.

On my return, crossing this Goliath of a road just so I could cycle back, seemed a task so daunting that I decided to find another way home, which led me to discover the other face of Guangzhou.

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