Secretary of State Alexander Haig's recent diplomatic visit to China again has focused worldwide attention on that intriguing travel destination. This article is the first of a series .

The train to Canton moved away from the rail station in Hong Kong precisely at 1 p.m.

Ahead loomed a new adventure: China, once the most powerful state on earth, a nation today with the earth's biggest population (and problems to match), with a history of opium smugglers and soldiers of fortune, tragedy, violence, war and final victory over imperialism.

After so many years of wonder, my time had come. And although legions of visitors had preceded me since China's welcome went out to the Western world only a few years ago, this was my own particular moment.

The railway station in Hong Kong had been a scene of chaos. Chinese going home to visit relative jostled one another in the long lines leading to the rail cars, even though a full hour remained before train time. Joining them were Americans, Australians, Italians, Germans -- all armed with cameras, everyone speaking excitedly.

As the departure time drew near, the station echoed with a cacophony of shouts and creaking luggage carts, shrill train whistles and the impatient honking of taxis arriving with still more passengers.

Now at last we were moving toward China. As the train picked up speed, steel grinding agains steel, I watched through curtained windows while Hong Kong's skyscrapers disappeared and the New Territories came slowly into focus. Over a loudspeaker a woman's recorded voice wished everyone a pleasant journey and TV sets came alive with a beautiful Chinese woman singing native classics.

I turned to the window again. The sky was filled with gloom, as well as mile upon mile of new apartment buildings that rise near the foot of cloud-shrouded peaks, a seemingly hopeless gesture considering the constant outpouring of humans from Mother China.

Forty-five minutes out of Hong Kong the train passed a refugee camp filled with Vietnamese. They watched hopelessly from behind a barbed-wire enclosure. No smiles, no waves. Just grim reality. The train hurried on into the open countryside. Hakka women in black pajamas and straw hats tended the fields.

Barely 10 minutes later -- less than an hour out of Hong Kong -- the train reached the border a Lo Wu, and memories of another gray day, years earlier, flooded back. In 1961, I had driven to the border and stared across the bridge at Lo Wu into a then-unfriendly China. The Chinese soldier on the other side had motioned me back with his rifle while British police on our side warned against taking his picture.

This day, though, the soldiers standing beside the train waved, and suddenly we were inside China, with its misery, hope and despair; a land with more than 30,000 births each day, adding another 12 million newborns to the population annually.

The train window framed rice paddies that reached to infinity. Bent figures tending the delicate plants moved methodically between rows, faces expressionless: peasant farmers growing food for China's masses.

The train hurried deeper into China. Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and now communism. During three turbulent millenia China has been plundered, pillaged and put to the test by the likes of Genghis Khan, the Japanese, the British, the French and, yes, even us Americans.

Exactly three hours into the trip, the train to Canton slowed to a halt in this ancient marketplace of China. Waiting in the wings was a slip of a girl, Liang May, the guide who'd been assigned to us by the China International Travel Service. For although I was traveling with only a friend and not on a tour, the same rules would apply: Our guide woiuld see us through to the very end.

I introduced Liang May to my companion, David Lee, the taipan (tycoon, if you wish) of that superb restaurant in Los Angeles, General Lee's as well as Lee's travel in Chinatown. A moment later we drove off in a wheezing Chinese limo to the Bai Yun Hotel, where a sign in the lobby announced: "The BAI un is a high building; the rooms are quiet, clean, beautiful and comfortable."

High, yes (33 floors). Beautiful, no. Quiet, no. Not with a new hotel going up across the street, the 600-room Canton Garden, which promises to become the city's flashiest highrise. Topped with a revolving restaurant, it will feature both swimming pool and sauna. So who said China is a backward nation?

Rising simultaneously is an immense 800-room hotel near the fairgrounds, plust the 40-story White Goose beside the muddy Pearl River.

Until these are completed, though, Canton's leading hotel is still the 2,000-room Dong Fang, affectionately known by guests merely as the Fang. Once rat-infested, it's been fumigated, painted and otherwise spruced up. Only recently a French beauty salon was introduced. This along with air conditioning, Coke machines, a renovated restaurant and that sure sign of bourgeois intrusion, a disco. In China? You bet -- and a sauna too.

Because of its proximity ot Hong Kong, Canton gets plenty of tourist action. Yet it's far from being China's prize. Shanghai is an altogether different world. So is Peking. But with the closeness to the bright lights of Kowloon, Canton is invaded daily by hordes of tourists. They come not only by train but by plane and hovercraft, skimming at 40 mph past junks and sampans, settling in at Whampoa, the city's ancient port. Mostly they are in-and-out visitors on quickie sprees from the British crown colony. Up one day, the next.

Whether on a fast visit or otherwise, nearly everyone does the standard tour: dropping by the Canton Zoo and the Temple of the Six Banyans, visiting China's oldes mosque and the memorial to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, checking out the 14th-century Tower Museum at Yue Xiu Park. And, if time permits, looking in on artsycraftsy stores beyond town and the ceramics factory, whose guide winds up the tour at the company's retail outlet. Communism be damned; the idea is to make a buck, right?

With our guide, Liang May we threaded our way through Canton's swarm of bicycles, which outnumber cars several hundred to one. Cyclists ride stubbornly down the center of the street, so motorists inch their way through the crowds, horns blowing constantly. Without a horn you can't move. In Canton, a horn is a necessary as an engine. We could barely hear Liang May and her spiel about Canton.

As an attraction, the city scores about 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. Make that a minus 8. It's crowded. It steams.

Still, beneath the veneer a certain excitement surfaces, if only because this is China. You're actually inside a nation that was out of bounds to Americans for more than 30 years. And the beauty of it is the Chinese like us; they put forth a bubbly good will that makes us glad we came. So we do the obligatory tour.

Well, it's far more fun doing the two-hour boat trip up the Pearl River. The tab comes to about $7, including all the beer and orange soda one can handle. This plus spectacular photographic opportunities -- sampans and batwing junks bobbing in the muddy Pearl; barges, freighters and a shoreline that bristles with ancient, European-style structures, decaying monuments to a time that's finished.

The boat glides past Sha Mien Island, the one-time sanctuary of Canton's prewar Europeans. In its heyday Sha Mien was an Eden of lush gardens and magnificent villas, the private enclave of the British and the French. Later they were joined by Germans, Italians, Americans, Portuguese, Dutch and Japanese. Wealthy taipans strode banyan-shaded lanes and beautiful European women accompanied them. But while Sha Mien was their link with home, it was a curse for the Chinese, who were refused permission even to cross the bridge.

That was a time when the British East India Co. exchanged opium for silks and teas, an era of excitement and intrigue.

Well, time passes. The Europeans are gone. Broken shutters slap against the walls of Sha Mien's once-lovely villas. Dampness and termites eat away at the foundations. Porticoes sag. Weeds grow waist high. Decay is everywhere, even inside the old French consulate that now serves as the International Seaman's Club.

In another corner, the island's Protestant church is used these days as a warehouse and Sha Mien's lovely old Catholic church makes do as a printing plant. Spirits reach out. Particularly in the gloom of evening.

But Canton survives. Traders have been calling at this southernmost major city of China since the 17th century. And now it's the tourists. They spill over into the lobbies of every available hotel. Ours is so crowded with foreigners one gets the idea an international Rotary convention has been called to order.

The scene is a circus. This morning a German wandered by in a Mao outfit -- cap, jacket, baggy pants, the whole bit. Others wore jeans, plaid shirts, knickers, tailored slacks, short skirts, long skirts. So many cameras were visible it looked like the inside of a Tokyo photo shop.

Everyone is mustered out by 8 o'clock. And if they've missed breakfast, well, too bad. They'll not get another chance to eat till noon. Tours are regimented and exact. Board the bus. Get off the bus. Twenty minutes here. Another 20 there.

You hear dialogue like, "Hey, Mable, get the name of this thing [it happens to be a museum] so's I can caption the picture when we get home." Or, "I've had enough culture; let's go get a beer."

By late afternoon a good many of the foreigners, are dragging. And usually they have less than an hour before dinner (most hotel dining rooms shut down by about 8 o'clock).

"If I could just get a good martini," one American sighed. He shrugged. "Or even a bad one!"

But no martini? Well, there is a substitute: China's high-octane mao-tai . Compared with a straight shot of maotai , a gin martini is on a par with a glass of root beer.

The food at the hotels isn't all that good, so to eat well visitors go to restaurants outside. The Bei Yuan is a good choice for romantics, because of its atmosphere as well as its food. The Bei Yuan is set inside an old teahouse. Paths wander parallel to pools and tropical plants. The meals are an experience: shredded chicken with sharkskin soup, dim sum, pork with sour sauce, steamed shrimps, oiled prawn balls, jelly melon slices, fried rice noodles, sauteed prawns.

And there's the Ban Xi, a series of pavilions and tea houses surrounding a lake. The waters reflect the lights and the lights illuminate ornamental bridges, bamboo forests and tropical foliage.

On the riverfront the Da Tung gets good marks for its peacock chicken, quail eggs with diced pork and the sauteed shrimps with stuffed dumplings. This along with a splendid view of the Pearl River, the sampans, junks, steamers and freighters.

And for something exotic there's a snake restaurant in Canton. The name slips my mind, but just tell the driver to take you to 41 Jianglanlu. He'll know the place. Every Cantonese does. They love snakes.

The window at this particular restaurant is alive with them: little snakes, big snakes, even boa constrictors. If you're particular, you can pick out the one that appeals to you, just as the tourists do (only with fish) at the floating restaurants in Hong Kong.

After dinner, unless you understand Chinese radio or have something to read, well, you might as well turn out the lights and go to bed. By 9 l'clock nearly everything shuts down. Everything but an acrobat show, the disco over at the Fang and a play here and there.

Our room is best described as Early Salvation Army or Period Goodwill. There are a couple of beds, a dresser and two straight-back chairs. The walls are painted hospital white. Charming. Still, after a hard day's sightseeing, decor is of little concern. What counts is sleep. Unfortunately, I can't get to sleep because my roomie snores. And so I try to read by the light of a single fluorescent lamp shaped like a Hula Hoop. Only it keeps flickering on and off until I'm nearly blind.

Right now I'd give a box of fortune cookies for a good 60-watt bulb and a set of earplugs.