Traveling to Guangzhou and Shenzhen instead of Beijing and Shanghai is akin to visiting Dallas over New York or Los Angeles.
These aren’t “show cities” with tour buses ready to transport travelers to cultural excursions; instead, these are “overnight cities” that are abundant in shiny skyscrapers and construction cranes.
Sarika Chawla reports on her experiences finding authentic local experiences that lurk underneath New China’s glossy exterior.
If you’ve never heard of Guangzhou or Shenzen, you’re not alone. Located in southern China in the prosperous Pearl River Delta (PRD) these cities have sprung up from old farming and fishing villages over the past three decades, but are often overlooked by leisure travelers and tour groups. Sure, it’s seen as a shopping extension of Hong Kong, worthy of a day or overnight trip—but as a destination for Americans, this region isn’t given a lot of credit as a city with history, culture or attractions.
The PRD, which also encompasses nearby Hong Kong and Macau has flourished as a center of manufacturing and exports, and its growth has been dizzying. Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is a dynamic port city and the capital of the Guangdong Province. China Southern flies directly into Guangzhou, but for many U.S. travelers it’s more common to enter from Hong Kong or Shenzhen. Nonstop flights to Hong Kong depart several times daily via Cathay Pacific, United Airlines and US Airways. Guangzhou is easily accessible from Hong Kong on Dragonair or by train, or from Shenzhen by road or rail.
Whichever way you arrive, it’s impossible to miss the rapid urbanization, as the few remaining three- and four-story buildings are drowned out by modern structures and towering skyscrapers.
Don’t miss the beginning of Sarika’s adventure in the New China with What To Do On a Long Layover in Hong Kong, China.
Note that English isn’t commonly spoken in this region. Have your hotel concierge write down the sights that you want to see—including the name of the hotel so you can return safely—in Chinese characters to show your taxi driver.
Better yet, talk to the hotel concierge to arrange your excursions with a driver and/or translator. Right now, the only American-branded hotels are the luxury Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou, and the more moderately-priced Marriott (aka China Hotel), Westin Guangzhou, and Grand Hyatt Guangzhou.
For a quick and easy cultural excursion, head to the Nanyue Royal Tomb Museum. Dating back more than 2000 years, this tomb was uncovered in the 1980s, revealing the remains of the king who killed himself, along with 15 others. Visitors are welcome to enter the tomb; indoors, various other antiquities, semi-precious jewelry, and even the king’s gold-embroidered jade burial suit are on display.
One area where Guangzhou really holds onto its history is through its food: namely, Cantonese cuisine. This style of cooking is all about simplicity, the goal being to let the ingredients shine instead of being gussied up by sauces and spices.
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Heavy Cantonese migration into the U.S. has made this type of cuisine more familiar to American palates than other Chinese styles. But, unlike your corner Chinese restaurant, true Cantonese cooking relies on seafood and animal parts that we’re not used to seeing. Pig’s feet and sea slug soup, anyone?
To experience some old-fashioned foodie culture shock, head to the Huangshan Aquatic Products Wholesale Market on the west side of town. Fish-mongers in thigh-high boots wade through puddles of water in this outdoor market, showcasing tanks of writhing, wriggling seafood. PETA supporters need not apply as the sight of lobsters and turtles stuffed into plastic bins—as many as can fit, and then some—can be disturbing. But the array of exotic seafood is astonishing, from hairy crab to slippery sea cucumbers to rock-like abalone (and the occasional thrashing snake or tank of scorpions), along with more familiar-looking salmon and flounder swimming along happily.
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Perhaps nothing satisfies American-style cravings for “authentic” Cantonese than dim sum. The term applies more to the style of eating than the food itself, as there is no such thing as a set dim sum menu. Often served from 6 a.m. on weekdays and as brunch on weekends, dim sum involves copious amounts of small bites—dumplings, pancakes, buns, to name a few.
Dim sum restaurants abound throughout the city, but check out Lai Heen Cantonese restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou, which serves dim sum paired with teas selected by the in-house tea sommelier. Another good option is Bei Yuan Restaurant, a gorgeously designed space built around a tranquil garden and pond and all-day dim sum.
What’s a trip to China without some tea? The Fang Cun Tea Market isn’t just any tea shop—it’s perhaps the largest tea-vending complex in the world, packed with more than 1,000 vendors from all over China selling loose leaves, tea sets and ceramics.
If navigating the construction and chaos of ultra-developed Guangzhou becomes overwhelming, travelers can find respite in Shamian Island.
This tiny sandbank is separated from Guangzhou by a small canal, and served as an important center for foreign merchants. As a result, quiet, pedestrian-friendly streets are lined with grand Colonial-style buildings.
A Starbucks, a youth hostel and trinket shops give it something of a touristy edge, but architectural gems such as Our Lady of Lourdes church and the occasional glimpse of a local doing tai chi under a banyan tree make it a worthwhile visit.
(As a bonus, if you’ve ever had questions about adoption in China, you might find answers inside Shamian Island’s White Swan Hotel. Because it’s located down the street from the American consulate, this luxury hotel tends to attract adoptive families, earning it the nickname, “White Stork Hotel.”)
To get away from the oppressive air, take a short taxi ride to Baiyun Mountain just north of the city.
Baiyun, which is Cantonese for “white clouds,” is made of up dozens of mountain peaks, the tallest of which stands more than 1,200 feet.
Fresh air, gorgeous greenery and crowds of locals picnicking and playing the Chinese version of hacky-sack (see picture on right) round out this truly authentic experience. Trolley buses are available to transport visitors up the mountain, but if you’ve got the energy, do as the locals do and start walking.
Much of Guangzhou’s claim to fame is the abundant, and downright affordable, shopping. Being so close to Hong Kong, travelers will often hop over for a night to explore the goods—everything from silk to porcelain to electronics.
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Guangzhou is especially known for its jade industry, which is mostly centered around the Jade Market on Hualin Street. The space is packed with stalls of jade vendors, selling everything from dinky green-dyed rocks to exquisite jewelry. If you can hire an interpreter to help with the haggling, all the better—but at the very least, arm yourself with a few key Cantonese phrases! (Perhaps the most useful is “Tai Gui,” or “too much.”) If you’re purchasing a necklace, check the clasp—some vendors are actually selling the stones on a string, not a proper necklace.
For the non-shopper, however, the biggest surprise is 500 Arhat Hall in Hua Lin Temple, which appears unexpectedly in the middle of the market. Follow your nose to the source of incense, and you’ll be greeted by a dark and solemn room filled with more than 500 golden statues, each representing a different manifestation of Buddha. There’s something eerie about the hundreds of statues peering down at you, but also oddly peaceful.
Guangzhou boasts several other renowned religious spaces, notably the ancient Temple of the Six Banyan Trees on Liurong Road, a multi-faceted pagoda original built in the 6th century, and the Huaisheng Mosque, noticeable for its distinctive pointed minaret and thought to be one of the oldest mosques in the world.
The scent of frying oil will light up your senses as you jostle through crowds past stall after stall of street food. Chinese teens gather here to chatter and snack on everything from bowls of pitch-black sesame seed paste to skewers of fried squid.
And just a few steps away is a bustling pedestrian square, with hordes of storefronts emblazoned with Chinese characters, save for the dueling McDonald’s sitting kitty corner from one another with a KFC in between.
By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.