So I recently travelled to Delhi for a friend’s wedding and it turned out the cheapest way to get there from Australia was with China Southern Airlines. Not the fanciest of airlines, in fact it felt like stepping back in time. But hey I was saving hundreds of dollars and it gave me an excuse to have a little stopover in southern China as their hub is in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province.
For hundreds of years Guangzhou has been a meeting place of east and west, and in my travel experience such places have a special energy that arises from that fusion. Guangzhou is still a focal point where the west does business with China.
Guangzhou hosted the Asian Games in 2010 and as part of the preparation for that they built, inter alia, a dazzlingly modern metro system. I could have been in any big, modern city in the world zooming about underground on those trains. Signage, and the PA system, is in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. It is dead easy to get about using this very comprehensive system.
So here’s what I did over two days in Guangzhou:
The Mausoleum of the Nan Yue King
This is a pretty outstanding attraction and a social, cultural and spiritual window into the past of this – on the face of it – very modern Chinese city. The 2,000-year-old tomb was discovered in 1983 and the findings of the excavation have been beautifully presented. You can walk inside the tomb itself, although it is quite bare and difficult to imagine how it would have been stuffed with everything (and everybody) the king may have needed in his life after death.
The museum does a good job of bringing that to life, however. Analysis of the corpse indicated that Emperor Wen, who ruled over a large area of southern China, lived a very fine life with good food, sweet wine, music and luxurious surroundings. His burial suit made up of jade discs sewn together with red silk thread and encrusted with pearls is certainly impressive.
Shamian Island was once the original ‘canton’, the area set aside to confine foreign traders and dignitaries who wanted a base to do business in China. It was built on a sandbank in the Pearl River during the Ming Dynasty to manage foreign traders. This is where the British and French launched the infamous Opium Wars and has been the site of several battles.
Shamian Island is now home to consulates and the company headquarters of various multi-nationals. There are streets of elegant 19th century buildings and local people throng across the bridge to enjoy the boulevards, gardens, sculptures and riverside park. It had a real holiday atmosphere in the winter sunshine, with buskers and singers competing to outdo each other.
I didn’t actually do any shopping in Guangzhou (I don’t really much while travelling) but I did enjoy exploring some of the neighbourhoods of this great city of commerce. The Liwan District was really fun to wander around. Loud shop promoters; busy shoppers; little lanes with basic pavement cafes; leafy streets.
There is a pedestrianized area but actually there are so many people on the streets there isn’t much traffic and it barely inches along. There are quiet old streets with Xiguan-style Ghangzhou houses that contrast with the busy city. I also enjoyed poking about in the tea selling district of Fangcun – huge ceramic pots filled with gorgeous looking bits of plant.
And there was a smelly but interesting seafood market just along from Shamian Island.
Guangzhou is seriously famous for its food. It’s the home of Yum Char and dim sum after all but also famous for its rice rolls and a panoply of other delicacies. I found it a bit difficult to find really good places to eat. I went to the Tao Tao restaurant in the Liwan district and enjoyed most of the food, especially this amazing pile of mushrooms. In the end just having noodle soups at tiny local cafes was a very satisfying experience.
The Canton Tower
Actually I didn’t go up the Canton Tower. It’s one of those towers that was at some point the tallest in the world before being superseded by some higher television mast and it is quite an attractive piece of architecture and lit up prettily at night. But I talked to another traveller and he said that the view from the tower is only worth seeing if you go after some rain, when the air is clearer. Looking out of my hotel window at the murk I believed him. Air pollution in China is no joke.
By Natasha von Geldern
Has anyone been up the Canton Tower in Guangzhou? Did I miss anything??