It’s 10:00 on a Friday morning and I’m standing under the Guangzhou Ring Expressway overpass. I’ve been walking nearly five hours and I still haven’t left Guangzhou.
A sputtering sanlunche lurches past and down a side road. The elderly driver eyes me warily and takes a wide berth as he turns. I am envious of his speed.
I look down at my map and then up again, and he’s already 100 meters farther down the road. Even at full sprint, I wouldn’t be able to catch up with him.
Meanwhile, roaring trucks and cars above spray road wash and grime off of the expressway and onto my jacket. Most of them are going to Dongguan and Shenzhen.
I am walking the same route and I hope to be at my hotel in Dongguan and in the pub sometime in the next seven or eight hours. With luck, I’ll reach the airport in Shenzhen by Sunday night. The drivers overhead will arrive at their destination in about an hour, maybe two, if they are going all the way to Shenzhen.
The world is a much larger place on foot.
FOUR DECADES OF ECONOMIC PROGRESS IN CHINA CAN BE SUMMED UP BY MY OLDER NEIGHBOR WHO TOLD ME “IN THE 1980S, I BOUGHT A BICYCLE AND I THOUGHT IT WAS LIKE FLYING.” HE TOLD ME THIS AS HE DUSTED OFF HIS AUDI.
In 2015, The Guardian reported the Pearl River Delta region had overtaken Tokyo to become the world’s largest urban area in both geographic size and population. Between 2000 and 2010, the amount of urban space in the Pearl River Delta grew from 4,500 square kilometers to nearly 7,000. The region is now home to almost 60 million people. In global terms, it ranks ahead of South Africa and only slightly behind Italy in total population.
I wanted to know what that looked like at ground level. It has become too easy to talk about urbanization in China using large round numbers and global comparisons. The cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Dongguan have their own urban geography: sprawling cityscapes built at record speeds. But where were the gaps? What was between the bustling downtowns and the suburban factories? Was it now possible to walk on this earth for over 100 km and always be in a city?
Shortly before Chinese New Year, I decided to find out: I would walk 100 km from Guangzhou East Train Station to Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport. It would enable me to see how urban spaces of the world’s largest megacity fit together.
One of the first signs of a developed society is that people get off of their feet. Four decades of economic progress in China can be summed up by my older neighbor who told me “In the 1980s, I bought a bicycle and I thought it was like flying.” He told me this while he was absent-mindedly polishing his Audi.
In the more developed cities of the world, a pedestrian is an object of scorn. Walking suggests an inability to afford or manage higher forms of transport. Walkers are people who have no need to hurry. Nowhere to be right now.
This attitude has, of course, sparked a backlash. Writers like Will Self and Geoff Nicholson have revived the walk as a literary genre. Self’s book Psychogeography takes its name from an intellectual movement with roots in the last century that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” around urban environments.
For my walk, I had no set rules or guidelines. I’d go as long as I could safely and comfortably on foot and stay overnight at hotels along my route. If I needed to use public transport or a car to get past a bridge or expressway (or if my feet were too sore), I would. This trip was about urban exploration, not a test of endurance. The aim was to explore the Pearl River Delta, not retrace Shackleton’s route to the South Pole.
INVARIABLY, A CAR OR TRUCK WOULD VEER TOO CLOSE STARTLING ME INTO A KIND OF SPASTIC RUNNING DANCE, LIKE A BULL MOOSE RIPPED ON KETAMINE.
In the end, I walked most of the way. There were sections each day where I’d find myself pressed up against the side of a multi-lane highway without much cover or confronted with a bridge that offered little protection from the oncoming traffic. I also had to flag a cab for the final part of my approach to the Bao’an Airport where there was limited legal access for pedestrians.
RETAIL GHOST TOWNS
On Friday noon, I found myself on the outskirts of Guangzhou with another 40 or so km to go before I could rest. In the early morning hours, I had walked by hotels and shops of the Tianhe District and had even taken a slight detour through Tianhe Park. Only a few minutes into my walk, a light rain began to fall, soon becoming a steady drizzle. I stopped by a small lake in the park grounds to put on my rain jacket, a pair of waterproof pants and tucked a watertight neon-orange cover over my pack before trudging on.
Midday I still felt as if I were walking through urban space, but not necessarily a downtown. The last few hours had been New Jersey urban. Birmingham Bull Ring Redux. City streets gave way to rows of apartment tower blocks. Tall white monuments to optimism, hubris, and overheated real estate money. It was hard to gauge how many were occupied. Certainly it looked like a few apartments had somebody living there. There was laundry hanging in the windows. Old Chinese New Year cut-outs stuck to the glass. Furniture left out on a sun porch.
But the base of each tower told a different story. As is the case with many complexes in China, the ground floors were reserved for “mixed retail.” As I walked along the outskirts of Guangzhou toward Dongguan, it was clear that few of the new towers had enough people living there to support so much retail space.
At first, I thought it was a function of the season, it was close to the Lunar New Year, but as I walked on I saw that many were boarded up or had giant photographs plastered over unused spaces. These were aspirational images: Blown-up stock photos of blondish Euro-moms sipping red wine at an outdoor café, or buying bread from a jovial elderly baker with blue eyes and rosy cheeks. It was a vision of urban modernity cut from magazines but far from the reality of partially-filled tower blocks on the road to Dongguan.
In the late afternoon, I took a public bus from Xintangzhen to Xindiancheng to bypass several bridges. Bridges were always terrifying. The sidewalks ended, and I was forced to scurry along the edge of the tarmac. Invariably, a car or truck would veer too close startling me into a kind of spastic running dance, like a bull moose ripped on ketamine.
A little after 5:00 pm, I dragged my carcass into the Sun Believe Hotel in Wanjiang. I was glad my wife had reserved a hotel on the western outskirts of Dongguan and not, as I had ambitiously considered, in the city center. After checking in and ordering room service, I went to my room and took off my wet shoes and socks. I had a blister the size of a Hong Kong dollar on the sole of my foot.
THE PUB AND THE HANGOVER
Aware of my evening obligations, I tenderly pulled on some dry socks and hobbled out into the evening to meet a friend at a pub in Dongcheng. All I wanted to do was sleep, but my friend was eager to ply me with booze. Thirty minutes later (by cab) I shuffled into Murray’s Irish Pub. My friend was at the bar and introduced me to our generous host, and pub landlord Matt. And what better way to recuperate from walking 50 km in a day than drinking multiple bottles of Jameson’s until the wee hours of the morning?
The next day, I woke up feeling like the B-side of a Johnny Cash song. There are many things which are difficult to do hungover: surgery, flying an airplane, explaining to your wife or girlfriend why you are wearing somebody else’s clothing. As it turned out, walking is not one of them. For the first three or fours, it was a slog. One foot in front of the other in a steady drizzle that threatened to turn into sleet. But by noon -- a fistful of Advil and several bottles of “Pocari Sweat” later -- I was feeling almost human.
THE PROPRIETOR SHARED MY RESPONSE WITH HIS WIFE AND KITCHEN STAFF WITH A DRY CHUCKLE WHICH MADE IT CLEAR HE DOUBTED MY INTELLIGENCE AND MENTAL STABILITY.
One unexpected treat had been a nearly uninterrupted stretch of well-built sidewalk that had lasted almost all the way to Dongguan. On the second day, there were times that detours forced me to abandon my sidewalk haven and travel overland up muddy slopes through villages and industrial parks. The villages tucked into the hills behind the highway held more life than the quiet boggy parking lots of the tower block.
A former rugby prop strolling through a village in head-to-toe rain gear with a neon-orange pack cover and minus any visible means of transportation or discernible reason for being there earned me a bit of attention. But there were open shops to escape the rain, and the curious eyes of the villagers were a respite from the open road.
I stopped at a roadside café for a late lunch. After the usual questions establishing my nationality, weight, marital status, annual salary, and blood type, the proprietor finally asked me where I was going.
“Oh! I can take you there.”
“No, I prefer to walk.”
“Walk? To Shenzhen? It’s too far.”
“I know. I’m doing it for fun and to see the beautiful scenery of Dongguan.”
The proprietor shared my response with his wife and kitchen staff with a dry chuckle which made it clear he doubted my intelligence and mental stability. He kept chuckling as he served me my pork trotters and rice but I was sure I caught him once white knuckling a cleaver under the service counter.
It was a conversation I was to have several times during my three days on the road.
Cleavers aside, my biggest fear was being struck by an inattentive or inexperienced driver.
Occasionally big rigs stormed by, downshifting hard on rain-slick roads, detoured and delayed, and honking their frustration when a lone pedestrian didn’t give them a wide enough berth.
Saturday was a relatively short day. The blister on the sole of my foot threatened to rip open with every step. By the fifth hour on the road, I was anxiously searching terms online: “Foot rot,” “Gangrene,” “Flesh Eating Bacteria + Dongguan Hotels.”
By Saturday evening, I had wandered into a weird world of cluster manufacturing. Shoe City. Furniture Town. Home Improvement Land. With the Lunar New Year just a few weeks off, there seemed to be few employees to service even more scarce customers. My Saturday night hotel, in Xitoucun, was attached to an enormous convention center. The convention hall was a stone-silent gargantuan structure the size of an international airport as if a monstrous concrete bat had alighted in the middle of a city block. It was completely empty. A sign outside entreated me to attend a trade fair in November 2015.
The area around my hotel was devoted to home furnishing mega-malls. The shops inside looked like Elton John’s estate sale at the gates of Hell. My sudden appearance in the doorway roused the bored staff into their pre-rehearsed sales pitches (for whom, I wondered) but when it became apparent that I had no intention of backpacking a rosewood living room set back to my home country, they left me alone.
THE FINAL FURLONG
On Sunday morning, I awoke to bitter cold. Later I would learn that day it snowed in Guangzhou for the first time in the best part of a century. I wore a down parka under my rain jacket, gloves, and hat. I looked like an overstuffed easy chair, and I was still freezing. Motorcycle taxis, plying the route between Dongguan and Shenzhen, periodically slowed down and asked me if I needed a ride. One persistent fellow, taking pity (or picking me out as an easy mark), told me he’d take me the rest of the way for free. I wondered what had inspired his charity. A glance in a store window as I shuffled past told me all I need to know: Even I was shocked by the bedraggled foreigner with the bulging rain suit limping past, maniac eyes staring blankly from beneath a dripping hood.
THE BLISTER ON THE SOLE OF MY FOOT THREATENED TO RIP OPEN WITH EVERY STEP. BY THE FIFTH HOUR ON THE ROAD, I WAS ANXIOUSLY SEARCHING TERMS ONLINE: “FOOT ROT,” “GANGRENE,” “FLESH EATING BACTERIA + DONGGUAN HOTELS.”
I walked most of the way to the airport, but once I reached the city streets of Bao’an I began looking for a cab. I had been warned that the approach to the airport was unfriendly to non-motorized traffic, and I was in no shape to be dodging incautious motorists or suspicious security guards.
URBAN SPACE RECONSIDERED
I walked the better part of 100 km expecting to see nothing but urban blight. While it is true that I never felt like I left the megacity, there was much greater diversity in scenery and cityscape than I had imagined. And while there were certainly stretches — sometimes long stretches — of unlovely sprawl, there were also parks and fields, and even the occasional village temple still standing on a quiet street in the middle of a growing suburb. There was a random quality to it all. The giant convention center standing empty. The mega-malls and shop clusters waiting for their drive-by customer base. The dirt lanes in the shadow of sweeping overpasses. What was to be built and what was to be preserved seemingly decided by cosmic randomness rather than the firm hand of state planning.
The PRD megalopolis is the result of particular historic moments: the declaration of Shenzhen as a Special Economic Zone, Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour. But in the spaces that exist inside the timelines, the moments between the momentous, the cities and towns of the PRD mutated and merged, of their own organic logic, to show a possible future for the world’s cities. Clumping through this landscape one can see how, beneath the satellite imageries of urban sprawl, the fabric of communities remained. If Guangzhou and Dongguan and Shenzhen are to be the future of the world, it’s nice to know that at least they’ve built some decent sidewalks.
A version of this article first appeared as the cover story for the March 2016 edition of Here! Dongguan.