Guangzhou – Pearl River

Where: Shamian Island, Guangzhou, China

When: June 2007

There’s a lot of waiting and staring out of windows involved in the process of adopting a child overseas. It might be when you’re at your local police station to get fingerprinted for background checks. It might be when you’re waiting to hear (for months) from the adoption agency, or a foreign bureaucracy. It might be in an airport between flights. And in this case, in a hotel room, with a sleeping child, before your appointment with the consulate.

We were in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, “the Chicago / New Orleans / San Francisco of China”, because that city has the Western foreign consulates that specialize in adoption cases. And we were staying on tiny Shamian Island, because in colonial days that was the foreign enclave. The diplomats had left years earlier for the shiny new skyscrapers downtown, but the island was still a quiet refuge that gave new families space and support to start the process of bonding.

There are two famous hotels on Shamian: the Victory Hotel, on the mainland side, and the White Swan, facing the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang). We were in the Swan with a river-view room – meaning a window about 18 inches wide. But it was still a front-row seat for an old logistician like me to watch all the shipping going on.

The main channel of the Pearl River flowed right past us, with just another hundred miles to go until the open water of the Pacific, and at all hours of day and night there was a constant show.

Watching the boats was on the one hand, a great game of figuring out what was going on, what was being carried, how the craft worked. On the other hand, it was also a meditative activity: we had all been through a lot in the previous week and now we had nothing to do except watch a boat bob along the river.

Ten years later, it’s fun to look back through the photos. The city is vastly larger today, but the action along the river hasn’t changed much:

Ocean-going vessels such as oil tankers and containerships can travel in deep water as far inland as Guangzhou. There is a container port just downstream from Shamian past the Hedong Bridge, looking very much like a 20-story tall spider that has just landed from space.

The many branches and tributaries of the Pearl make it easy to move cargo by water throughout Guangdong and its neighboring provinces, all the way down to Hong Kong and then along the coast. It is no surprise that the cities along the Pearl River Delta (abbreviated as ‘the PRD’) are such a manufacturing powerhouse: nature has provided its own freeway network. There are literally hundreds of islands and thousands of miles of densely-interconnected waterways that midsize craft can navigate in this region.

Unlike the US or Europe, where river traffic uses barges to haul bulk commodities like grain, coal, or chemicals, in China, the boats are all purpose-built and are much smaller. You can hook dozens of barges together with one small drive unit for a low labor and energy cost, but here the model is different. The rivers do have more bends and inconsistent shallows, which would make steering a consist of ten or twenty barges very difficult. But the other consideration is that all these people need jobs, and crewing on a ship is honest, hard work.

Here are some purpose-built craft:

A miniature containership

A small tanker - there are connections along the sides for pumping, and big valves at the prow.

A trio of open-top bulk carriers passing docked passenger ferries. The long snout of the biggest boat is a conveyor belt for loading and unloading - crushed stone in this instance.

Similar to the tanker, but the cover on top suggests this is a dry bulk carrier - could handle grain, plastic pellets, fertilizer, dry concrete mix, etc. She’s empty, judging from how high she sits above the waterline. The close-up shows her bridge, quarters, and even a spare propeller.

Here is one of the ferries connecting the terminal at the Bai’etan Bar Street on the south shore with the Huangsha terminal just upriver from Shamian. Did you know there are tunnels for an expressway and rail transit just under the river channel here?

At night, the river cruises parade in their neon glory. We would get to take one of these, and were gifted with an unforgettable night of laser shows, dancing grannies, and a mass stampede at the onboard buffet. I highly recommend the experience.

And far too early, I was up to witness fishermen venturing out in their tiny skiffs to gather the morning’s catch.

How to get there

Guangzhou is the transportation hub for all of southern China. High-speed rail comes in from as far north as Beijing and stretches out into Guangxi, Guizhou, and Hunan provinces. (Maybe someday it will get to Hong Kong!)

Baiyun Airport is the headquarters and largest hub for China Southern Airlines, and has Metro Line 3 (Orange) running all the way into the center city.

To get to Shamian Island, the Huangsha station shared by Line 1 (Yellow) and Line 6 (Purple) has an entrance just west of the island, and there is a footbridge to cross over the narrow channel. Line 1 ends at the East Railway Station, where it connects to Line 3 for the airport; Line 6 is useful to access key attractions further along the riverbank, as well as the Guangzhou Zoo.

Nearby accommodation and activities

The promenade along the Pearl stretches downstream from Shamian for several kilometers and holds some of the city's most historic architecture and restaurants. Just inland from Shamian is the Qingping Market, where most anything which can be cooked - whether an ingredient or a living animal - can be found. There are also several shopping streets just past the market for clothing and jewelry. The Canton Tower is a newer landmark and is said to have a good observation deck.

Guangzhou is also home to several major temples, and Baiyun Mountain for hiking if the pollution and humidity are acceptable. The city fills up to overflowing during tradeshow season, and it's not recommended to vacation then - but in the off-season good value can be had.

Outside of the White Swan and the Victory on the island itself, other family-friendly hotels with easy access to Shamian via subway include:

Sheraton Guangzhou Hotel

Guangzhou Marriott Hotel Tianhe

Oakwood Premier Guangzhou (serviced apartments)


Other links

Our Airport Guide for Guangzhou

Our Pinterest folder for Guangzhou and Shenzhen

Our Pinterest folder for High Speed Rail

Our Pinterest folder for China Southern Airlines