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Around the World in 80 Days

Day 44: 7 November

Michael Palin - Around the World in 80 DaysDown in the cabin the passengers are riveted to a beauty competition beamed out on Hong Kong television. Basil says the Chinese love beauty contests. He thinks maybe it's an identification with the rags to riches story, the refugee's dream of making it into the glamorous life; which is the motivation of Hong Kong.

As we draw closer to the centre of Guangzhou I notice that the tallest structures are not offices and apartment blocks but something I never saw in Hong Kong - factory chimneys. And they're all belching smoke, lending the skyline a Victorian aspect.

On TV Miss Chinese International 1988 has been chosen and her two dry-eyed rivals attend her simperingly while she, radiant and sparkling, allows a tear or two to trickle deftly onto her left cheek. Whatever is the Chinese equivalent of patriotic music surges and chord-changes its way up the emotions and rings in my ears as I step out onto the soil of the People's Republic for the first time in my life.

One thing a land of over a billion people does not have is staff problems, and this small, rather homely ferry terminal is manned by countless young people in Ruritanian uniforms - peaked caps, lots of braid and buttons and gold-trimmed epaulettes, bottle green for the police and navy blue for the Customs. Unfortunately none of these ornate uniforms fits very well, and no amount of twirly stripes and badges can disguise the cheap and shapeless material, nor can Dan Dare-style peaked caps disguise unflattering lumpy hair cuts. But the set-up is extremely efficient and courteous and we are processed through in just 40 minutes, which must be a world record.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day: 44
  • Date: 7 November
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Guangzhou
  • Book page no: 144

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