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Getting Around

It can take quite some while for expat newcomers to get acclimatized to their new host town of Guangzhou. Our local contributor offers valuable tips to help you make heads and tails of life in this southern Chinese megalopolis.

The Metro

The metro is efficient, clean, well connected to all the main parts of the city, including the airport, key train and bus stations. The system is surprisingly easy to use, with its simple graphic interface on the ticket machine and English spoken over the train loudspeakers. The biggest surprise has been the low cost: 40 RMB (40p) to travel for a couple of hours. It even beats the ridiculously cheap taxis. And it is getting bigger. Travel at off-peak times, and you should have no problem getting around the city.

However, there is another side to the metro, created by the constantly vast numbers of metro users and the different attitude towards body space. Rush hour times, weekends and big sporting events are the times to avoid if you can.

As the doors open, masses of people push off the train while an equal, sometimes greater, mass of people push on. There is no regard for how one set of people waiting for the other would help both parties; there is no distinction made for the elderly or children. It is an unmannerly scrum for survival in which bodies bounce off bodies and everyone is pushed like shuffling slabs of meat on butcher’s counter.

It is shockingly physical and it is easy to be offended as you ricochet of indifferent elbows, fists pushing into your back. You will marvel at how unsafe it all feels. No wonder pick-pocketing is easy in packed trains. The occasional upset Chinese traveller will agree with you; most are indifferent.

Oddly, you will also be stared at a lot in these crushing moments. This is probably their way of communicating a very reasonable question: why on earth would you bother travelling at this time of the day?

Hailed a Taxi? Always Keep the Receipt

The title says it all.

You probably won’t realise the importance of this until it’s too late. The taxi’s here are numerous and cheap. Like most people, you will pay the fee, jump out and leave the receipt behind, just pleased to have actually managed to get a taxi, as this can be tricky. Rush Hour, a change in shifts, and drivers who don’t want to engage with foreigners are three common reasons for difficulties.

That aside, always take the receipt. You will be offered it, or requesting it will cause no problems. Every taxi has a tiny printer that chugs the receipt out at the end of the ride. By taking the receipt you have the identification of the taxi, which in a city of up to sixteen million people is vital. Why? Because if, like me, you leave your bag and wallet in the front seat of the taxi, it is much easier to contact them and request it returned.

However, by not taking a receipt, the chance of retrieving all of my belongings is virtually zero, as it would be in any other country. My service apartment manager and his staff rang some of the taxi companies, but they’d have more luck finding tiny needles in giant haystacks. The local police were friendly and checked the CCTV in this surprisingly highly monitored city. Only, the monitoring is not that efficient. The taxi was not on the CCTV. After a day of panic, depression and card-cancelling, I had to accept the learning here.

Luckily, I was not carrying my passport with me. You are legally obliged to do so and you can be arrested without it. But to have lost my passport as well…

Travel Agents

Do you remember those pre-internet days when going on holiday meant visiting a travel agency, looking through brochures and talking to a travel agent? An actual person, on the High Street, with exciting last minute deals in the shop window.

Then along came the internet and the proliferation of cheap European flights, and suddenly you’re booking everything yourself online. You’ve probably walked past the last few remaining travel agents and thought them an archaic service from a forgotten time. Not in China.

You can still book all your holidays on in the internet the same old way; Chinese airlines and big hotels have English websites. However, it often means paying with credit and debit cards registered at home, which means paying out of your savings there and then paying yourself back transferring money home (another story). The Union Pay card is pretty universal here in China but not necessarily on the internet and certainly not on non-Chinese company sites.

Luckily, there are English speaking Chinese travel agents who will do all the work for you. They will even deliver or email travel tickets to your apartment. This being the 21st Century means the whole transaction can happen over email, without ever seeing or speaking to anyone. You can even pay for the tickets via a relatively simple (simplicity is ‘relative’ here) bank transfer that can be done at the ATM. As long as you are both China Construction Bank customers.

The catch? A certain element of trust is required unless you want to go and find the travel agent’s office. We have not been let down or cheated once. The small commission they charge easily outweighs the hassle of searching. If you want a good recommendation, just contact me here.


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Sean Henderson

"Looking for an appartment on InterNations, I met the expat community in Canton. Now I am sharing a house with another member."

Carla Echevarria

"Unlike other meet-ups around here, InterNations offers quite a few high-quality members and regular offline events in Guangzhou."

Global Expat Guide