China was one of the most tense and crazy adventures of my life. I met some Chinese Mobsters, did my best to fix my mental health and saw some amazing places. But this story is about one of the most stressful days of my life, the day I got lost in Guangzhou.
If you have read any of my other blogs on China you probably know why I was there so you can skip on a little, but for those of you new to our blog, welcome, and here is why I was in China. I was there to teach English in a Foreign Language School in Shantou, and that was incredible. My fellow teachers and I were there for two months working hard in this school and by the end of it we were tired but ready to travel, so we packed our bags up and set off around China.
One of the cities I chose to visit was Guangzhou a huge metropolis in the South of China. For me it was a really important stop on my trip as the main focus of my dissertation, Sun Yat-Sen, was from Guangzhou or Canton, as it used to be called. A little nerdy I know but I put a lot into my dissertation and wanted to see his Memorial Hall in Guangzhou. As well as the nerdy reasons Guangzhou also has some rave reviews, from my girlfriend and podcast co-host Sintija, and from other friends who had been to Guangzhou. Finally, it is one of the closest cities to Hong Kong, which is where my flight home was from.
I also decided that I wanted to travel Guangzhou solo. It had been a difficult year for me and I really wanted to push myself to do something I had always wanted to do and that was travel solo. It is also something really important for my travel goals as I want to travel the world a lot and I know there isn't always going to be someone who wants to go to the same places as me, so it will be useful for me to be able to travel alone. But as you can see by the title, maybe China wasn't the best place to start.
A Terrible Start
Our story starts nearly 300 miles from Guangzhou in the city of Guilin. Guilin is a wonderful city close to the stunning Yangshuo County. This region of China is a must for anyone looking for adventure travel in China and Guilin makes and excellent jumping off point. Check out my blog on Yangshuo for a little more information, right here. But this story is about leaving Guilin.
I was taking one of the high-speed trains that would get me from Guilin to Guangzhou in 2.5 hours. I very sensibly check how far the train station was from the hostel the night before and got directions from the Hostel Reception and I woke up really early to make sure I would make it to the train station on time. But this is were being sensible ends for me...
It started with me getting on a bus going in the wrong direction. The bus was the right number but just heading the wrong way. I counted down the stops and nothing looked familiar at all so I asked the bus driver what was going on. He laughed at me. He told me I had come to the end of the bus route and he is now going back round so I am now on the right bus. I laughed but was so nervous and glad I left the hostel super early. I left so early that I did actually arrived at the train station on time. That's good right?
It was the wrong station!
I had spent all my time rushing and stressing out about getting to the wrong station. This of course made me stress out even more. A guard at the train gave me directions to the other train station on the other side of Guilin, which is a small city for China but still huge in comparison to others.
When I finally made it to the correct station I was already 1.5 hours late. I was broken down and worn out already with the amount of stress I had faced in that day. I got to the ticket guard and he told me I needed to print out another ticket because it was now invalid, pretty obvious but I was just chancing my arm. I went to the ticket booth and the classic jostling in the queue began. Every queue in China seems like a fight, this is a real issue for a Brit. I managed to get to the front of the queue now over two hours late and gave the women at the desk my ticket. She was actually so nice and didn't make me pay for another, which I was very thankful for. The man at the kiosk recognised me at the back of the queue waiting to get to the platforms and told me to just go through because the next train to Guangzhou was in 5 minutes, again very helpful. I rushed through and then onto the train, checking with three different people that it was the right train.
We set off to Guangzhou and the journey was incredible, the ride of the train was so smooth, the seats were incredibly comfy and most importantly the train was incredibly quick. China is such a huge country but these high speed trains are a great way to travel around. My journey cost £18 to travel the same distance as Newcastle to London, in the UK that journey takes double the time and costs £50 if you don't have a railcard. I cannot recommend the high speed rail enough.
Arrival In Guangzhou
Two hours later I was in Guangzhou, yes we are finally in Guangzhou a four minute read later. On the train I had been looking at the directions to my AirBnB and they seemed very clear. I checked them through Google Maps and everything looked in order, get on the tube, get off at the right stop, find the bus station, get on the bus and I should be stood right outside my AirBnB. I think you know by now, nothing about this journey was simple.
I managed to find my way to the underground easy enough but this is where everything broke down again. I stood at the gates and saw everyone had tokens to get through the barrier. Obviously I knew I would have to pay, but I didn't see any ticket kiosks and definitely didn't see anywhere with these tokens. It was this point were I had just had enough and all the stress of Guilin got to me. I had to call Sintija to just have a little cry down the phone. I was questioning all of my choices, especially the decision to travel alone. But she got me in the right state of mind and just said something like 'Matty come on, there must be a way.'
I went back to the underground and found some other very confused tourists, one from South Africa and one from Singapore and we collected our knowledge together, me knowing we needed tokens, the South African saying he saw queues back in the station and the lady from Singapore reading a sign for underground tokens back in the station, to find these tokens and head into the underground on our way. Once I was in the underground system I was very comfortable and the token system was actually very easy once you realised it existed.
I got off at the correct stop, thankfully the signs were written in Pinyin, which is Chinese written using the Latin alphabet. But a Chinese student I had been talking to on the train told me not to get off at the stop. He would show me where I should be going. I stupidly got off the tube anyway because that is what Google told me to do. I had, had a bad experience earlier that year in Morocco with getting directions and being scammed, check out our podcast for more on that.
Despite the students warning I continued on my merry way following Google and getting on the bus I was told to get on. I counted down the stops and it was starting to get dark and by this point I had been carrying my very heavy bag for hours. I was just looking forward to getting in my bed, thinking to myself what a great idea it was getting an AirBnB for some privacy and a good nights sleep.
I got off the bus to find the next challenge of my Odyssey laying in front of me. Google said I had to cross what it said was a main road, which in China it might have been, but in every other country this would be considered a motorway. It was huge, with cars flying at around 60mph, and I didn't want to play a real life game of Crossy Road where I was the chicken. I thought there must have been another way but I could see no crossing. So to my dismay I turned around and started retracing the journey I had taken on the bus to find a suitable crossing, this was really disheartening, especially because the bus journey had all been downhill.
Here is the thing guys don't trust what Google says in China it is almost always wrong and this experience showed me this.
A Dark Corner of Guangzhou
I did eventually find my way across this motorway and according to the AirBnB directions I was very close. I took the turn into a dark corner of the neighbourhood they told me to take and found myself looking up at towering, dark, derelict buildings. This was clearly not the path most tourist take as I got very threatening and scary looks from the locals.
By this point I was scared, stressed, tired and sweaty. I had messaged the owner of the AirBnB and received no reply, not helping my worries. I just stood in this dark and gritty neighbourhood looking up at the street signs and names of the buildings and all I could think was, well if it doesn't exist at least I don't have to stay here. But I mean I would rather have the place to stay as just round the corner of this terrifying courtyard seemed very nice.
Then out of the darkness came my saviour. I think of him now and in my mind he was glowing like and angel. He called me and said 'Hello sir, are you okay?' I just showed him my phone and asked him if he knew where the address of my AirBnB was. He said the words that were kind of devastating but also freed me.
'This address ... does not exist.'
Honestly, you would think I would be broken and after the day I had just fall apart, but I just laughed. I got to the point of, guess I will have to find a way. My saviour was a very kind man and showed me to the nice part of the neighbourhood and we got some street food together and started talking. Turns out he went to Cardiff University just like me! Crazy right? He asked me what I was going to do and I just said I was going to head back into the centre and think of something from there. So after we finished our food he took me back to the nearest tube station which of course, was 5 minutes walk away and just the next stop up from where I got off earlier, clearly where the student was telling me to get off. I felt like a fool, but again just laughed.
So I headed back to the centre of Guangzhou. Luckily for me I had some friends who were in Guangzhou from the teaching program and thank god they replied to my messages because I was running out of charge. They said they would meet me in an hour as they had been exploring for the day. So I went and sat in a Bubble Tea bar with my massive backpack to wait for them and charge my phone. I sat and looked back on my day and just thought if I can deal with all of this I can deal with anything.
I slept in my mates accommodation for one night which was small for three people but better than sleeping on the street. Thank you so much Leon and Jess for saving me. I also booked a hostel with very clear directions. It was a fantastic hostel called Lazy Gaga and I can't recommend it enough. It actually made me feel lucky and that everything worked out for the best. My advice to anyone travelling alone is go for a hostel. You meet cool people and having the staff there really helps you find great things in the city.
This experience helped me learn a lot about travelling alone. Mainly trust local people, normally that is my whole MO to get to know how the locals live, but that scam in Morocco really knocked me, I wont let that happen again. I also learnt that I will always be able to find solutions if I just keep calm and think about what I could do. But the final, and most important thing is, don't use Google Maps in China, they never work. If you do need an app to help you get around Chinese cities it is best to use the Movitt App. I switched to it for the rest of the trip and it is so much better.
Thank you so much for reading guys. Go check out some of the stories linked to this one by clicking on the links throughout the article.