The last time I flew out of Hong Kong, I was told to show up at the airport three hours before take-off. Now, Chek Lap Kok is a fine airport, but it only takes about 30 minutes to sample all its delights. Then what do you do? Three hours' waiting just to go away for the weekend - is it worth it?
You may think not when you consider there are so many easy-to-reach destinations right on our doorstep. Yes, I'm talking about Guangdong province.
Just across the border is a plethora of towns and cities that you can reach by leisurely boat, bus or train without having to remove your shoes or laptop - or indeed have your water bottle taken away.
After having visited all the big, bigger and biggest cities in China, which are all starting to look depressingly similar, I've come to appreciate the smaller towns in Guangdong. They can be easily reached for a weekend away, the people who live there (except imported taxi drivers) speak Cantonese, and they treat foreigners like rare and treasured gems, which is so much better than being treated like, for example, manure.
My latest discovery is also one of the closest: Zhongshan, a mere 1-1/2 hours away by ferry. This town is the rarest of rare mainland entities: a place almost devoid of taxis. Official taxis with meters, at least; private-car touts ply their trade quite forcefully.
From the ferry terminal, my friend A and I are therefore forced to take bus No1 (go out of the terminal and turn right on the main road), which goes to Zhongshan itself. Or so we thought. The bus conductress looks bus-conduct-distressed when we tell her we don't know where we are going; just "anywhere in Zhongshan?" Her face shows clearly what she thinks of people who don't know where they are going - vile troublemakers! She settles on charging us four yuan (HK$4.93) each, after some gnashing of teeth. A 20-minute ride later we see a parade of shops and al-fresco restaurants; white plastic tables and pink plastic chairs, markets and hotels, and think this must surely be it.
"Wait! Four yuan will take you much further!" the conductress protests - but do we listen?
We are in a suburb or sub-village of Zhongshan proper, but as long as there is a Sichuan restaurant, there is no immediate danger of starvation. Here, though, we encounter a phenomenon you could call "telling green (or red) lies".
You go into a restaurant, ask if they have Sichuan food, and they say yes. When the menu comes you see that it is actually Hunanese food. I put this kind of opportunistic dishonesty in the same category as going for a foot massage and asking for a male masseur only to have some giggling girl turn up 15 minutes later.
"I said I wanted a male masseur."
"Yes but a girl is good, too! Really strong. And more beautiful."
Maybe for some people a female is the same as a male, and Hunanese food the same as that of Sichuan, but not for me. It's the principle of the thing.
Having said that, Hunanese food is delicious, and seems to be gaining a foothold in Guangdong, where Hunanese taxi drivers appear to have run those from Hebei off the road.
Zhongshan is named after the father of the Chinese republic, Sun Yat-sen, or Zhong Shan ("middle mountain"), as he's known in the mainland. There are all sorts of contradictory stories about where he was born, so Zhongshan, formerly known as Xiangshan ("fragrant mountain"), just waded in and grabbed the honour; much like the people of Shangri-La, in Yunnan province, decided their home would be the location of the fictitious place made famous in the 1933 James Hilton novel Lost Horizon.
If Zhongshan is proud of "its" most famous son, there is little evidence of it apart from a statue of the moustachioed Cantonese revolutionary across the river from the Fu Hua Hotel. It's a lonely and forlorn little effigy, standing wistfully on an empty expanse of slate surrounded by building sites.
The city authorities have made the most of the river, though, and on the west side you can walk along it for miles, comfortably shaded by trees and spoilt for choice by sellers of street snacks. The other side, the one with the statue, looks like it wants to compete with Shanghai's Bund; half-built fake "new old" colonial buildings jostle for space with luxury apartment blocks and millions of square feet of commercial real estate.
The Fu Hua Hotel must have been the first international hotel in town. Everything happens around it. All the bus routes, including, of course, the No1, pass by - including a direct three-hour service to our own Prince Edward.
A lot happens in the Fu Hua carp pond, too. All you have to do is approach the edge and millions of neon-orange, white and red carp will immediately thrash their way towards you, jumping on top of each other in the water and shouting soundlessly: "Me! Me! Me!" That you are empty-handed means nothing to these badly raised solipsists. The hotel provides one and two yuan bags of fish food for the soft-hearted, but this lot don't deserve anything, if you ask me.
Apart from a charming garden full of rather uncharming carp, Fu Hua has a superb revolving restaurant serving dim sum that is far from the typical Guangdong fare - Hunanese is my guess; as I'm discovering, it normally is. Relaxing with these delicious delicacies, 14 floors up, you can see all of Zhongshan, with its sedately flowing river, its big parks and lakes and its warren of beautifully restored colonial-style buildings, which date from when the city was a wealthy shipping hub.
One of the streets has been made into a pedestrian precinct, the absence of cars amply compensated for by music blaring from shops apparently taking part in a decibel-generating contest. This street is Zhongshan's major tourist attraction and is a trip down someone else's memory lane (unless you're 100 years old and from somewhere in southern China).
Coming from a Hong Kong increasingly unsuited to pedestrians, how lovely it is to walk around a town without having to dart across six-lane highways or, worse, clamber up and down pedestrian flyovers, or fight one's way through underground shopping malls, just to cross the road.
Another nice touch in this immensely livable and walkable town is the number of taxi-like contraptions: bicycle- and motor-driven rickshaws with various kinds of fancy canopy. Given the absence of real taxis, they are a blessing, with or without a Hunanese behind the wheel.
FOR AN OVERNIGHT TRIP, Zhongshan is ideal. If you have two days to spare, I recommend Sihui. I discovered this gem the best way: by going to the bus station closest to the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border and getting on the first bus available.
Board the right one and, 31/2 hours later, you'll find yourself in a charming little river town as yet undestroyed by progress - i.e. there remain whole neighbourhoods which have yet to be razed to make way for high-rises. Sihui, with its throbbing markets and stubbornly low-rise brick houses, is still its old, hopping self. Especially at Lunar New Year.
If you have never travelled in the mainland during Lunar New Year, don't let that holiday fall on your first visit to a big city. Two years ago we started our Lunar New Year holiday in Guangzhou, and what a dismal affair it was. Everything - absolutely everything - was closed, shuttered, battened down and deserted. The normally heaving city had shut up shop and the nine or so million inhabitants, every single one of whom is normally to be found plying his or her trade on the streets - or so it seems - had deserted on packed-way-beyond-capacity buses to the various towns and villages from whence they once came. Home, for a short rest from a year of gruelling work.
It was also raining.
What a relief it was, then, to get off the bus after 2-1/2 incident and traffic-free hours from Guangzhou and discover a busy Sihui with more people than usual congregating in the town square, hundreds of street-food sellers catering to the hungry crowds and music thundering from over-lit shops that were open until midnight and beyond. There is no New Year respite for the staff of any establishment in this town; instead they work longer hours.
Along the river on Ferry Pier Road dozens of bars and restaurants had pulled out all the stops, and peeping through a door to see what was going on we were Shanghaied into a private karaoke room (yes, "Shanghaied", what else would you call the opposite of gatecrashing, where you're quite forcefully pulled into a party?).
My friend P had a microphone thrust into his hand while drunken revellers shouted, "English! English!"
Neither P nor I had heard the song they picked out for him; and the English lyrics on the screen didn't help: "Oh, my love, you are. But because, yeah baby, I love you. Ooooh, rain. Crying. And when you left me! I can't take it no more. Tomorrow is another day … my baby."
P gamely went along with the lyrics and the unknown melody, and delivered a bravura performance seldom seen inside a karaoke bar - or outside of one. Those revellers not catatonic on ketamine (the horse tranquilliser is strangely popular in this part of the world) launched into raptures of applause, air-punching and backslapping.
This is why I favour the smaller towns of Guangdong over the big cities on the mainland; it's impossible not to meet people and be feted as some kind of visiting dignitary. If you like even a tiny bit of attention and would like to feel for a fleeting moment what it's like to be, oh, I don't know, Brad Pitt promoting his latest film, get on a Guangdong bus and see where it takes you. (This method has failed me only once - when I ended up in factory hell-hole Dongguan, which seemed to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, although, admittedly, I didn't hang around long enough to explore the entire city.)
Sihui's qualities stare you in the face as soon as you step off the bus. The traditional one or two-storey brick houses (which could be described as "Dickensian" but make for a much better photograph than the buildings replacing them across the country) are astounding, even if they are fast disappearing. Only a few of the streets here are wide enough for cars; mostly they are teeming back alleys that transport you to a distant past, when everybody walked and people perched on stools on the street outside their living rooms.
As is the way in small towns, where local variants of the Urban Renewal Authority have yet to dig in their sterilised claws, Sihui's streets are pulsating with markets. Everything happens outside and the few Western-style shops nonetheless operate with most of their merchandise spilling out onto the pavement.
A word of warning here: if you don't like watching dogs being beaten to death, stay away from the market on the far side of the river, near the best digs in town: The Film Centre Hotel. If the spectacle of dogs being killed with sticks by laughing men isn't bad enough, the screams of the panic-stricken animals will cut you to the bone. If there is one thing I truly hate about the mainland, it's the casual violence meted out to animals. It may be hypocritical and ridiculous to eat meat and still be against killing animals, but I can't see why it's necessary to, for example, hang chickens upside-down by their feet for hours before dispatching them. Short and swift, I say, with no or minimum trauma.
HAVING SAID THAT, it was, to a degree, animal abuse that led me to Yunfu. We had taken a bus to Somewhere Interesting-Looking on the map, which turned out to be a very drab, built-yesterday and quickly becoming tacky kind of town. We came upon a cage containing an ostrich that was about four inches too tall for its confines, just standing there in the middle of the pavement. The bird had been driven so psychotic with boredom, it had scratched its head raw and plucked off most of its feathers. We felt we were in an evil place, and left on the first bus, which happened to be heading to nearby Yunfu. That turned out to be an inspired decision.
If you want to climb scraggy crags, those fantastical karst formations people go to Guilin and Yangshuo to see, there's no need to get on a plane and pay wildly over the odds for a four-hour river cruise. In Yunfu you can see them everywhere - for example, from the glass lift on the outside of what must be the best hotel in small-town Guangdong, the five-star-standard but three-star-priced King Royal International Hotel.
A room in this opulent, high-ceilinged, large-roomed establishment, with its deep carpets, bathtubs, televisions in the bathrooms and soft beds as wide as they are long (beds in mainland hotels are notoriously rock hard) used to cost 273 yuan a night. I should never have commented on how ridiculously low this price was in front of the receptionists; the management has raised it to 400 yuan. No matter, that's still in the "bunk-bed in Chungking Mansions" ballpark and just outside the window is the most charming town.
As is common in Guangdong, small vegetable patches - ruler-straight rows of cabbage and kale lovingly tended by blue-jacketed farmers - surround Yunfu's traditional homes. Around the town's main lake, which turns pink and purple at dusk, the black crags rise up like scattered teeth only a five-minute walk from the hotel. If it starts raining or you feel cold, you can head to the Panlong Cave - a good half an hour's walk through the mountain but festively lit the whole way. Deep in its bowels it's a steady 25 degrees, apparently all year round, which certainly beats the 12 or so degrees the hotel thermostats are set to.
Yunfu's main (only?) business is stone. Hundreds of football ground-sized warehouses are packed to the rafters with the stuff. Marble, limestone, dolomite; all the favourites from the world of geology are here, as are their offspring: slabs, tombstones, plinths, statues, flooring, temple decorations and those balls balancing on top of fountains. With more than 4,000 companies engaged in rock mongering, this town must surely be able to meet every stone-related need in the entire world.
Meanwhile, if you like having your eardrums burst while getting drunk on strange concoctions served up in test tubes, you could do worse than take a stroll down the main drag of Yunfu, on the right-hand side of the road as you walk out of the King Royal. You'll feel the vibrations before you see the place. What was the Time Pulse Bar has changed its name to Bar Noble, and added to its collection of flashing chandeliers. But its clientele and staff are as accommodating as ever, plying you with drinks and food and often becoming deeply offended if you try to pay for them.
All the more regrettable, then, when it's time to leave beautiful Yunfu and Guangdong. The concrete-and-mirror-walled canyons of Central await. But it's comforting to know that, on any given day, as long as I have a mainland visa, I can quickly be in another world with a minimum of effort. And I'll be un-X-rayed, with both shoes firmly on my feet and my water bottle in hand.
GETTING THERE - ALL ABOARD
Zhongshan (Jung Saan, "middle mountain") takes 1-1/2 hours to reach on Hong Kong Ferries' hourly service from Ocean City, Tsim Sha Tsui.
Sihui (Sei Wui, "four congregations") is a 3-1/2-hour bus ride from Shenzhen, from the bus station next to the Holiday Inn and behind the Railway Station Hotel. There are also buses from Guangzhou, from the bus station next to Guangzhou Railway Station.
Yunfu (Wan Fau, "clouds drifting") is a 2-1/2-hour bus ride from Guangzhou's main bus station (see above).