Saturday, October 13, 2012

Destination Cambodia I: Glimpse of Guangzhou

Last week was Golden Week here in China - celebrating the National Day on which the People's Republic of China was proclaimed. It is a week-long holiday, intended for people to travel to visit their families, and to increase domestic tourism. Not surprisingly, there are huge crowds everywhere, and expats often choose to travel outside China to avoid the crush! Even then, tickets are hard to find and exorbitantly priced, unless booked way ahead of time!

In August, once I knew that both Ajey and Manasi were going to be off for a week, I started scouting for possible vacation locations, finally zeroing in on Cambodia. I looked up hotels, air tickets, visas - just before I made the reservations, I hit a roadblock. My Chinese resident permit was delayed, and some additional paperwork was needed. Now the process for a residence permit is extremely long and tedious - true of all countries, but I found it to be even more so in China. We had to have all our documents, including Manasi's birth certificate and our marriage certificate, 'legalized' by Chinese authorities. Legalize a legal document??? Whatever!! So, in April, we sent them all our original documents. Of course, they wanted all our originals - what's the point in legalizing a notarized copy?!! Manasi's birth certificate was fairly simple, it went up to Chicago - but our marriage certificate had to go all the way to India to be legalized by the Chinese consulate in Mumbai. We just thought all this was bureaucratic red tape - annoying but necessary!

I entered China on a tourist visa with a stay of 30 days - until 2 days before my visa expired, we didn't a hear a peep out of the lawyers handling this legalization business. Then there was a mad scramble to get it done on time. Which, of course, didn't happen. After apologies all around, my tourist visa was renewed for 30 more days, and the waiting began again. It didn't really surprise me when a day before Manasi's school started, I got a call from India saying, 'Sorry, ma'am, there's a small issue, but you need to come to India to get the marriage certificate done'. Deep breath. Count to ten. April to August, out of which Manasi had been on vacation for 2 months - plenty of time for me to go to India if they had bothered to get their facts straight. The final straw was this agent sitting in Bangalore, repeating to me 'Just come down to India, ma'am, and we'll get it done'! Just come down to India? Really??

I spent the next couple of weeks on tenterhooks. There was absolutely no way that I could go to India. Manasi had just started school, and what was I going to do about Sunny? Besides, once I left China, I didn't have a valid visa anymore - so a 10 day trip could potentially become a much longer stay. Didn't want to risk that. After all this tension and suspense, the HR coordinator contacted the local authorities here, and they said that the legalization didn't really matter, as long as the certificate was notarized. Seems to me that these were the people we should have talked too in the first place!! So my marriage certificate came back from India without being legalized, and I still ended up getting my residence permit! I have no idea why the whole thing had to be so complicated!

Meanwhile, I could only watch helplessly as ticket prices for our Cambodia vacation soared. Finally, after my residence permit came through, I hit all the travel sites again. At this time, there was no way that I was going to get tickets to Siem Reap, which was our destination in Cambodia. The next best option was to fly to Bangkok, and then drive across the border. But even tickets to Bangkok were hard to find. To further complicate matters, we invited my parents to come to Cambodia, and then fly back to China with us. So now, I was looking for tickets for them as well! For about a week there, that was all I was doing - searching for the best price, looking at different options, different airlines - until I managed to book all the different itineraries! We would fly to Bangkok on 3rd October. My parents would join us there the next day, on the 4th. We would then drive to Siem Reap on the 5th, spend 3 nights there and then drive back to Bangkok on the 8th. 2 more nights in Bangkok, and then we would all fly back to Shanghai on the 10th. Manasi would have to miss 3 days of school - not ideal, but it was either that or not go anywhere at all!

Our tickets to Bangkok were via Guangzhou. To be honest, I had never even heard of Guangzhou till I made the booking. I looked it up on wikipedia - turns out it is the third largest city in China, after Beijing and Shanghai. That I wasn't expecting! On our outbound flight, we had a 6 hour layover, so we were planning to take in the sights! Of course, we tried to get our second flight changed to an earlier one. At Shanghai airport, and later also at Guangzhou, we spent about an hour at the airline counter - there was a lot of smiling and head nodding and frantic whispering, but no direct answer. Had to read between the lines - nobody would tell us that our flight could not be changed.

Canton Tower, Guangzhou

So we took the metro into the city - about 50 minutes. Then a taxi to Canton Tower - the highest structure in China. Guangzhou is a typical new China city. Gleaming skyscrapers, well laid out highways, imposing bridges - everything spic and span and shiny. An urban paradise, showing its best face to the rest of the world! And Canton Tower - a beautiful structure, no doubt, but with no apparent utility other than to be a tourist trap. As an added attraction, it has a bubble tram on the 114th floor - now, who can resist that! So up we went, after shelling out a hefty $100 for all 3 of us. First stop was the observation deck on the 108th floor, at a height of 433.2m. Very crowded, and the windows, for some reason were tinted, so couldn't really see the view outside. Quick walk around, then we headed to the bubble tram.

The Bubble tram ran on a tilted circular track on top of the building. There were about 20 'bubbles' - each could hold 5-6 people. The whole ride took about 20 minutes. There were good views of the Pearl River and the Guangzhou downtown, and a curious sensation of floating on air!  No thrills here, just a peaceful restful ride!

Bubble tram on 114th floor
We were almost out of time by the time we finished our ride in the Bubble tram. We rushed to the Metro station to head back to the airport. It was touch and go for a while, but we finally did make the flight! In retrospect, we should have just skipped Canton Tower and gone to a nice restaurant instead! At the least, we would have had a decent meal instead of the crappy airline food that they served us!

From Bangkok airport, we headed to Ajey's aunt's place, where we were spending the night. Bangkok was pulsing with life even at 11pm on a weekday, showing no signs of winding down for the night! Keeping with the spirit of the city, we, too, stayed up till 3am, exchanging news and gossip, enjoying the company of family! It had been a really hectic day - we had left home at 8am to get to Shanghai airport, and the frantic race back to the airport to catch our second flight had completely exhausted all of us! Who knows if we'll ever visit Guangzhou again? Nevertheless, it certainly did provide a memorable start to our first vacation here in China!!

To be continued...

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