North and South

I’ve talked BJ and SH but what about GZ, the third Big City in China? Three days in Guangzhou, right down in the south of the country, and the differences between north and south could not have been more apparent.

One extremely annoying thing about travelling in China is that as soon as I leave Beijing my Chinese SIM card goes on roaming – yes, even though I am in the same country. Though actually, travelling from Beijing down to Shanghai is almost the same distance as London to Milan, so it practically is like going to another country. Certainly going from near-freezing temperatures in Beijing to temperate climes hovering around 20°C in Guangzhou, a further 900-odd kilometres south of Shanghai, smacked of a very different land.

Northern Chinese are certainly noticeably taller, whiter skinned and with longer noses. They are known for being robust and strapping; their heavier, more wheat-based diet (buns and noodles as opposed to small bowls of rice in the south) produce big, busty girls and heavy-set, muscled men; and all the better, for they must brave bitingly cold winters. Southerners are in contrast regarded as small, dark (no doubt due to the year-round sun exposure) and skinny by their northern counterparts.

In the south, the people take pride in being more polite and refined compared to those rough northerners, who like the fisticuffs. It’s true that while I am constantly being bumped from all directions while walking in the streets of Beijing, in Guangzhou, though we came close many times, nobody even touched me. A man actually paused at the top of a flight of stairs to let me walk up them first; I was stunned. I also found service people more friendly and polite, though people do seem to stare more in Guangzhou. Probably because I was about a head taller than most.

My short Guangzhou break really highlighted how big this country is (3.5 hour flight to get there), so no wonder there are big differences. Not to mention the fact that an entirely different language, Cantonese, is spoken in Guangzhou (though mandarin is widespread). There is, naturally, rivalry between north and south. In fact, the English stereotype of “northern monkeys, southern fairies” fits rather nicely for China, too; the rough ‘n ready northerners versus the softer southerners.

I was disappointed in the lack of things to visit in Guangzhou; Beijing certainly beats all other cities for points of interest, culture and history. Like Shanghai, in Guangzhou there wasn’t much to do but eat and shop. However I won’t deny that I felt more comfortable and less stressed out in Guangzhou – possibly because I had a friend to guide me around and speak Cantonese for me everywhere, too. Or it might have just been because people seemed more civilised. Or the lack of smog in the air. Or because I am simply a southern fairy at heart.

SH vs. BJ

Two bullet train rides and a total of 45.5 hours in Shanghai: this was my weekend, accompanied by my Yankee Beijing bestie and lodging with my German cousin who has his own Big Fucking International Business in SH.

The second capital, the Paris of the East, China’s Sin City and former coloniser central, Shanghai feels in many ways like China Lite for westerners. It was bizarre to see so much western architecture downtown, and of course Shanghai has a truly stunning waterside skyline (though let’s face it, not quite a match for Hong Kong’s, much as I love the Pearl Tower).

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My weekend was a blur of skyscrapers and swanky venues. It saw me on the 92nd floor of the famous bottle-opener skyscraper (home of the Park Hyatt Shanghai), some fancy restaurants and an opulent rooftop bar complete with jacuzzi and beds (neither of which we made use of I might add). Saturday night was on the strange side, involving a monkey-themed hip-hop bar accessible only through a bakery, followed by a pirate ship-themed club. This second was a true Chinese club experience, complete with a garish singer wailing on stage, flanked by two strapping, dancing white men, cuddly toys, food, flowers and all manner of bizarreness. A fascinating ten minutes we spent in there.

In the age-old battle of supremacy between Shanghai and Beijing, I am and always have been Team BJ (get your mind out the gutter!) This Clash of the Titans has opinion split more or less down the middle. Both cities have much to offer, but I lean toward Beijing for its more authentic Chinese feel (fewer skyscrapers and no Western pretensions…sorry), more chilled-out atmosphere (the vibe in Shanghai felt distinctly more superficial and hostile; people STARE much more than in Beijing) and CULTURE! As cuz put it, there isn’t much to do in Shanghai apart from shop and eat. I suppose you can stare at skyscrapers and go up them, but there’s only so much of that one can do.

Shanghai folk are famous across the country for being super-proud (i.e. arrogant) about coming from Shanghai; something Shanghaiers have freely admitted to me themselves. They turn their noses up at people from anywhere else in China as unsophisticated and poor. I feel Shanghai is sadly impoverished of culture and soul, but that’s just my opinion… I suppose overall Shanghai, as I said, is a less Chinese version of China, so is good for foreigners who are wary of having the full-on and probably more difficult experience that is Beijing, if you don’t mind the arsey Shanghai attitude.

Generally the air quality is much better in seaside Shanghai compared to inland Beijing (though still bad… it is still China) but unfortunately we appeared to bring the smog with us for the weekend, during which the air was very good in Beijing. The distinct advantage of central Shanghai was that… well, there is a centre. Beijing is so big and sprawling, it takes forever to get from one place to the next, whereas downtown Shanghai is more compact, so getting around felt less exhausting. Unfortunately the underground in Shanghai gets just as crowded as in Beijing, though there are fewer cars on the road.

One thing that truly makes me glad I live in Beijing and not Shanghai is… radiators. Shanghai homes do not have any. It is colder here in BJ than in SH at the moment, but I was freezing every night in my cousin’s apartment, whereas we actually have central heating here in Beijing, so I’m quite comfortable. Though the winter temperatures in northern Beijing drop much further than in Shanghai, Shanghai is by far the colder city for this reason. No thank you!

But it was nice to get out of town for a weekend; I benefitted from some convivial company and thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Shanghai. I might call the place shallow but it was a bit of a relief to hang out in some expensive, clean-looking places and feel a bit more comfortable. We are but weak westerners, after all.