Wednesday 13 December 2017

Guangzhou, China: Legendary tale of two cities

Travel in China

The colourful, neon-lit city of Guangzhou, the third biggest in China and home to some 14m people, straddles the impressive Pearl River
The colourful, neon-lit city of Guangzhou, the third biggest in China and home to some 14m people, straddles the impressive Pearl River
Philip on a cruise, in front of Canton Tower
Garden hotel

Philip Hedderman

Nestled on the banks of the glorious Pearl River sits a bustling metropolis I'd never even heard of. It's home to 14m residents and has been an international trade hub for centuries.

Better known to westerners as Canton, Guangzhou is the third biggest city in China after Beijing and Shanghai, and the biggest in the Guangdong province.

Northwest of Hong Kong and Macau, the Flower City is now regarded as the South Gate of China with direct flights from Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Paris and now Helsinki.

We were lucky enough to travel with Finnair, firstly from Dublin and then in the lap of luxury (Business Class), from Helsinki to Baiyun Airport.

Transfer times are a real treat with connections in as little as 35 minutes. Ours took just over 40 which takes the real hassle out of long-haul travel.

Pampering also eases the pain a bit, and the Finnair staff on the luxurious Airbus A330 are seasoned experts.

Philip on a cruise, in front of Canton Tower
Philip on a cruise, in front of Canton Tower

There's nothing like a glass of bubbly to begin what was to be the trip of a lifetime. After the excitement has died down (it was my first time turning left at the aircraft door), one can then peruse the extensive in-flight menu which offers the finest selection of wines to accompany an array of magnificent dishes.

After dinner you can kick back (literally, in your very own retractable lie-flat bed) and watch a couple of movies or catch up on some much-needed sleep.

Thanks to the special relationship between Finland and Russia, Finnair has access to Soviet air space which is the most direct route to Asia.

Just 11-and-a-half hours later and totally refreshed, we touched down in surprisingly green and lush surroundings (a very definite clue to the weather we would encounter).

Humidity, not pollution or smog, is the biggest challenge you'll have to deal with here, and when it rains, boy does it pour (rainy season is anything between April and August).

That may have something to do with the legend of the Five Rams - a miracle sent from heaven to save the Cantonese people from years of famine.

According to legend, during the Zhou Dynasty, five immortals riding five goats with ears of rice in their mouths and each of a different colour, were sent to Earth and blessed the area with favourable weather that produced rich harvests.

After sowing the seeds the animals turned to stone and the province became a wealthy and populous place. The elaborate Five Rams Monument (below right) is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Yuexiu Park in Lychee Bay. The sprawling public amenity (212 acres) is made up of three artificial lakes, the seven hills of Yuexiu Mountain and is also home to Zhenhai Tower, the site of the Ming Dynasty City Wall, and Square Cannon Site - all of which are must-see.

The city itself is best described as an eclectic mix of old and new and both manage to blend seamlessly and unobtrusively into each other.

We stayed downtown in the 34-year-old Garden Hotel - a sumptuous five-star, 30-storey building overlooking the city and just 7km from the airport.

Boasting 828 rooms, 150 apartments and nine restaurants, the grounds to the rear are a landscaper's dream with a giant waterfall and mini lakes full of colourful tropical fish. Our suite was nothing short of decadent and comprised a lounge, office, gym, walk-in wardrobe and two bathrooms - one with a heated toilet seat.

Amazingly, this is reputedly the only hotel in China (being state-owned) that will allow visitors access to western internet sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, so staying in touch with home is not a problem.

Internationally renowned for its fine cuisine, Cantonese-style cooking is showcased at every turn, and none was finer than in the hotel itself.

We were treated to a host of local delicacies, including the most amazing roast goose (cooked complete with head and feet), melt-in-the-mouth spit-roasted piglet (you only eat the skin), Fortune Chicken (wrapped in lotus leaves and clay and roasted for six hours) and, of course, the legendary soup dumplings.

The city is also a shoppers' paradise, and a trip to the Korean Market is an absolute must, where serious bargain hunters can haggle all day with traders for the best possible price.

One secret tip is to offer one tenth of the asking price and then pay up to twice that, but not a penny more.

A handy phrase to learn here is "tai guile" (too expensive). When repeated over and over it will eventually translate into huge savings. Fashionistas, especially those with a penchant for designer bags (copied ones, that is) will be in heaven, with vendors promising the latest must-have item within 48 hours.

Those with serious cash to spend should head for Beijing Street where all the high-end shops trade - but don't expect any bargains as luxury items are heavily taxed here.

The bustling pedestrian zone is China's answer to Times Square and is a hive of activity as shoppers throng the neon-lit boulevard and hang out at juice bars or chow down on sushi, noodles, crab or tiger prawns until 10pm.

Ironically, in the middle of the road, covered with perspex glass, lies the original stone-clad street which dates back to the 11th century.

Real culture vultures though will be spoilt for choice, and a visit to the Chen Clan Academy comprising nine halls, six courtyards and 19 buildings connected by corridors showcasing Chinese art is well worth a visit.

A huge collection of work, including wood, brick, iron, paper and copper carvings are on display, as are traditional crafts such as priceless porcelain, embroidery and folk art.

Shockingly, ivory is still a prized collectable commodity in China, and several very expensive hand-cut pieces were on sale in the visitor centre. Those looking for a bit of spirituality can find their inner Zen by visiting no fewer than five temples, including the 1,400-year-old Temple of the Six Banyan Trees which has a rich collection of cultural-relics, and worshippers and tourists come bearing gifts of fruit and to give thanks to the gods.

Visitors can watch as the resident Buddhist monks chant and pray in the morning; you are then encouraged to light your joss sticks (you get three with the entry fee of around €10) after making a wish, or offer a blessing.

Surprisingly, Christianity has been practised here for centuries too, and one of the oldest Catholic churches can be found on Shamian Island, or in the foreign quarter. Home to dozens of embassies, the architecture is unusually European and has proved a favourite venue among local brides for wedding photos.

But it's the 'new' part of the city that literally took my breath away, with its stunning array of ornate skyscrapers, each painstakingly crafted and as majestic as the Terracotta Army itself.

Standing taller than the rest is the landmark Canton Tower which takes pride of place in the Haizhu District, at the south bank of the Pearl River.

Climbing 1,968ft (600m), in what were green fields just 15 years ago, it dominates the magnificent skyline which makes Manhattan look drab by comparison. It pretty much typifies the ancient proverb: When the wind of change blows, some people build walls, others build windmills.

All sparkly and new, the ultra-modern, uber-trendy district is a fantastic odyssey into the future. From the space station-like Opera House (also known as the Twin Pebbles) to the spectacular arena at the foot of the plaza built in the dimensions of a battleship (for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games), it showcases how technologically advanced China really is.

The Tower, like landmarks worldwide, is a bit of a rip-off with prices rising by the floor, tipping €50 per person in no time. But being thrifty - and quite thirsty - travellers, we headed for the Four Seasons Hotel directly opposite which has the most amazing bar on the 99th floor with unrivalled panoramic views over the city. The beer is a tad expensive (€8.50 for a 33cl bottle and the bar only opens from 5.30pm), but the scenery is astounding, topping that from the Empire State. That's upstaged only by the river cruise at night when all these epic structures flicker into life as you watch in awe and a sudden calmness descends.

One couldn't help but wonder, if just for a second, how great our little country could be if given the chance. In that instance the definition 'Made in China' took on a very different meaning.

Getting  there

Garden hotel

Philip travelled to Guangzhou with Finnair. Finnair flies from Dublin to Guangzhou via Helsinki with fares from €605 return in Economy Class and €2,240 in Business Class inclusive of all taxes and charges. Customers travelling from Dublin can enjoy fast and convenient connections to Asia via Finnair's home and hub at Helsinki Airport. Philip stayed at The Garden Hotel, Guangzhou - For more details on Finnair call +353 (01) 695 0015 or visit

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Chen Clan Academy

Built by the 72 Chen clans for their juniors’ accommodation and preparation for the imperial examinations in 1894 during the Qing Dynasty, it is home to the finest collection of carvings, porcelain and fine arts.

Yuexiu Park

Find peace and tranquillity amid the hustle and bustle of the busy city with a visit to the national park where the monument of the Five Rams takes pride of place.

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