Driving up into the mountains of northern Guangdong with a puppy and a broken satnav.

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Curiously, over about seven years living in China, travel has become both more and less interesting at the same time. The ability to chat with people has made special experiences more common, like the time I got invited to dinner at a village blacksmiths house. Or toasting with the CEO at a corporate dinner. At the same time I also feel progressively more and more like I’m at home wherever I go, and people are the same, and therefore what’s the point of going anywhere? Just last week I went up into the mountains in the north of Guangdong province for what was meant to be a great adventure, and it was simultaneously quite special and a bit ordinary.
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A homeless woman (these kids said she was ‘crazy and steals fruit’) saw me feeding char sui pork to my dog, so I gave her a pack of dried squid to assuage my guilt. The boys said I was nice and asked innocently if I had anything for them. I gave them some Thai mango. It seemed to go down well.

In order to break out of my shallow rut of traveling places with ease and seeing the same things, I rented a car and drove myself. Just to add a little fun I also took along Molly, my little dog. The slight sense of danger driving on Chinese roads, coupled with the scenery, the newness of genuine mobility here, and the charm of sweet little Molly made it a nice, fun trip, but there was still that creeping edge of staleness. At one point I was in the village square in ‘Thousand Year Yao Village’ where I stayed: The biggest, oldest, and most authentic Yao minority village in the province. I got talking to a store owner and paid the obligatory compliments to her about how beautiful the village was, and she replied by saying ‘Yeah, but it’s a bit too quiet here’, which is not what ethnic minorities in mountain villages are meant to say. This place was about as undeveloped as you can get in Guangdong. People wore traditional colourful, embroidered clothing to go about their daily business, collected firewood on the mountains and lived in wooden buildings, but I guess people there get bored, too. One guy was trailing half a dozen horses around that were used for carrying building materials into the village, mostly sand for concrete and whole, debarked tree trunks. He looked rustic, scruffily dressed, and what did he want to talk about? How much people earn in the city. Like other people in the countryside he guessed at 10,000rmb a month because it’s a round figure and way more than they earn. He said salaries around there were 2-3000rmb a month. I’ve had that conversation numerous times. Incidentally, Molly took his horses for big dogs, and barked at one that came too close. He advised me to keep her away from them.
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Taking Molly along felt like an inspired choice at the start. She didn’t whine in the car and was fun to have along on walks, scampering around the mountainside, but I also put her in a bit of danger. Twice dogs tried to bite her, and the second time was a close call. Most dogs were scared of me as I expected, but that second one was a mean devil, and went for her when she was off her leash close to me. The dogs were loose on the street all over the place in bigger numbers than I expected. Overall, travelling with a dog in China is fun, but be selective about where you go. Staying in an isolated village like that is unwise, because the dogs are loose. Anywhere slightly more developed and they will be in yards, and you won’t know which it is until you get there. Hiking through a place like that and hanging around it on their turf are two different things in terms of risk for your dog. Also, your dog may regress/ behave strangely if you take it away. Molly peed on the bed, presumably because her usual toilet wasn’t there or she was too damn cold to go looking for somewhere better. She hasn’t done that at home since she was a little fluffball.
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The big news in this post is really about driving for the first time, so let’s close by going back to that. Driving here isn’t as scary as you would think, partly because you won’t drive as aggressively as everyone else. However, there were still risky moments and afternoon rush hour in the city, in the dark, was not fun. I will definitely drive here again, but will continue to avoid busy times and places, and use cars for exploring isolated scenic spots and doing photographic trips. Being able to read the road signs was probably a big help, but people who can’t do that or ask for directions are unlikely to go away alone with a broken satnav.
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Waterfall, mountain, cute village, and man jiggling snake around by the tail.

Village sunset

One of my colleagues invited me to her home town recently, so I thought I’d share a few photos. It’s in the countryside somewhere between the two cities of Conghua and Zengcheng. I described the second one to my pal as being “nice, in the sense that it doesn’t look like the set of a Judge Dred movie.”

Chinese cities tend to be industrial and functional in a sense that makes them look like they were wholly built by BP or Middlesbrough. This may be faint praise, but I kinda liked it. It’s built a lot lower and more spread out than Guangzhou, and there’s a riverside promenade complete with trees, grass, bamboo and reeds, which thinking about it, is pretty good for a large city anywhere. They also have an artificial beach. They put a little peninsula running down the middle of the river and added a beach facing back towards the bank, and it’s about half a mile long. This may sound weird to anyone back in the west, but local governments here have a number of reasons for liking big infrastructure projects. Cheap entertainment for local people never goes down badly anywhere, and even here in coastal Guangdong, that city is almost four hours’ drive from the sea. Guangzhou is closer, but I’ve still met a number of people there who have never seen the sea before. These people were university students and, in one case, someone doing a masters in marine biology. It takes a while to get used to, but if you don’t have a car, paid holidays, or live within a day trip of the sea, I guess it’s not surprising.

The countryside is your typical Guangdong stuff, with rice fields, banana trees and quaint old houses. This is all a bit deceptive, though, because you’re looking at it and thinking that it’s lost in the mists of time, and the reality is better.
Village backstreet near Zengcheng
It’s standard in the countryside for people to own their home outright, because it’s been in the family for generations or they got it when the government stopped owning it. People often don’t sell up. They just go to the city, often buy somewhere to live there, and then have another home to come back to. That’s the case for my friend. Her dad has a business and home in the nearest city. So the village is cute, poor and undeveloped, but that’s just because all of the action is elsewhere.

Baishuizai waterfall was pretty odd. It’s on the road between Conghua and Zengcheng. Near the entrance there was a fork in the path, with a sign saying that the best scenery was on the left. I was suspicious, but followed it. Look what I found. The best scenery? Let’s say that zen-like minimalism isn’t quite as prevalent here as you think. They’re charging you about $10 to walk up a hill and look at a mountain, so they need to justify it by ‘improving’ it. Painting up a mountain, cobbling sections of it over the top of natural rock to make it look better and adding concrete railings shaped like branches, all together makes me wonder whether it occurred to them to put bright red lipstick and a short skirt on it as well. I power-walked past this part and didn’t slow down until I got through the crowds.

In amongst all of this a group of people spotted a snake, and I put my camera on rapid fire to try to get a shot. They were mostly out of focus, because the little thing was terrified and trying to get away, but this one is clear enough.
man jiggling snake around

Some guy decided to pick it up and have a laugh with it. I felt sorry for it, because otherwise I would’ve found this daft woman hilarious. It was the size of a worm. Stop being such a wuss! And to whoever it was that said: “It’s a water snake.” [sigh] It was a snake, and it was in the water. Thank you, Dr Dolittle.
Baishuizai waterfall near Conghua

A little further along, you can see the top of the waterfall in the distance. I believe the mountain was only about 500m high, but it was actually a pretty brutal trek with only a KFC meal in my stomach and not enough water. I took about two hours getting up there on some very windy paths, and then, somehow took 1hr 40m to get down, going two steps at a time the whole way. My calves were so sore I couldn’t walk right for days and I had to go find milk and cookies as soon as I got down to recharge my mojo.
Here’s a more scenic one:
Baishuizai waterfall

The next morning I went out for breakfast in zengcheng, and thought I’d take a couple of shots of an ordinary back street, that accidentally included two gems: “generic old man no1” and “the kung fu film extra.” This guy has steamed bread on the back of his bike, but I expected Jackie Chan to jump out right after he rides past. He has that kind of vibe.
Kung fu film extra

Generic old man no1

Generic old man no1 could be just about anybody’s grandad coming back from theshops with a massive bag of mints in one hand and seventeen crossword books in the other. The main street had big stores and malls, and the inevitable mcdonald’s, but the backstreets are a little more interesting. The people were friendly, and while I sat down for breakfast I had the lady who ran the store and woman with a little girl asking me questions about salaries and kindergartens and the usual stuff. The lady selling cheap noodles for breakfast had a son at university in Guangzhou studying business, so you can see why she was happy. Things here tend to progress in a positive direction like that, but in the west it’s often the other way round.

Here’s the massive artifical beach.
Zengcheng river artificial beach

The river is to the left of the trees and looks like this from the cycle path.
Zengcheng riverside

I think this is a gill net, that might be a touch illegal in Britain. He seems to be trying to catch the fish as they come out of this little tributary, and considering that the net went right across from one side to the other, I think he had the upper hand.
Fishing