KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Guangzhou (Canton) has a long history as an active trading port at the mouth of the Pearl River. Many people give the city a miss because of its reputation for pollution, traffic snarls and drab concrete architecture. There was nothing we had heard about the city that would tempt us to make a visit but as there are no direct flights from Guilin to Hanoi, we had to choose to return to Kunming or move on to Guangzhou. We could have passed through the city as a transit passenger, but we have come to trust the Lonely Planet and it describes a recent attempt by the city planners to spruce up the city and also points out that if one is willing to take a little time to scratch the surface, there are little treasures tucked away that are worth visiting. We decided to explore the city for ourselves, as we would probably not pass this way again.
One of the mid-range hotels recommended in the Lonely Planet is The Elan, conveniently located near some of the sights we wanted to see. The Super 8 hotel is way to the northeast in the business district, so we decided to check out the Elan. It's a cute little boutique hotel with very modern décor and even though the price was slightly higher than we'd paid in all of China, we chose to stay there for the funky feel of the place and because we could walk to some of the points of interest.
On our first day in Guangzhou, we made it a point to get our visas for Vietnam and this was made easy for us because the consulate is located in the central Landmark Hotel, near one of the Metro stations. We did not have a week to wait for the visa, so we paid a premium and picked up our passports later the same day. As luck would have it, there was an airline booking office next door to the Landmark and we were able to purchase our tickets to Hanoi (and get the funds from a nearby ATM) with the greatest of ease. We also purchased a Metro pass so that we could explore the city easily, but later found that all the lines are underground. This allows passengers to get from one place to another quickly and easily, but we weren't able to see the city as we moved around and that was a little disappointing.
While we were waiting to for our visas to be processed, we visited the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall just a few Metro stops away. The enormous compound was built as an ancestral shrine by the families of seventy-two counties in Guangdong Province where Chen is the predominant family name. The complex of nineteen buildings was constructed in 1894 in the Lingnan style, which combines traditional Chinese, Japanese and Western traditions. The Ancestral Hall was unlike anything we had seen anywhere in China and we were glad we were able to visit it. The entire complex is decorated with scenes that depict stories from Chinese literature and folklore, but it is the ornate statuary and scrollwork on the roof tiles that is particularly fascinating.
On our second day, we walked to the nearby Yuexiu Park and toured the Zhenhai Tower which now houses the Guangzhou City Museum. The tower was built in 1380 and was later incorporated into the city wall for protection against the pirates that once harassed China's coastal cities. During the First Opium War, the British occupied the tower. There are good views of the city from the top floor of the tower. I had hoped to see some photographs of old Canton, but even though there were few in the museum, the displays were interesting and artfully done.
Later that afternoon, we rode the Metro to the Pearl River to take a walk around Shamian Island. This tiny island, really no more than a large sandbar, was where foreign traders were first allowed to set up warehouses after the two Opium Wars. The French took over the eastern end of the island and the British the western. The wrought-iron railings on the colonial buildings announced the European section of the island before I read that I was in the French enclave. The island was connected to the mainland by several small bridges over a narrow channel and in the past, strong iron gates were erected to prevent any Chinese from entering. Some of the old buildings have undergone major restoration and have been transformed into trendy cafes, restaurants and hotels. There is still and air of decay about the place though and we were pleased we had decided on the Elan Hotel in a Chinese neighbourhood, instead of Shamian Island.
The flights to Hanoi leave late in the evenings, so we had a full day to explore another museum before heading to the airport. It turned out we had saved the best for the last. The Mausoleum of the Nan Yue King was very near our hotel and we set out on foot after checking out at noon. The tomb from the 2000-year-old kingdom was discovered in 1983 when workers were excavating a sight for a new shopping plaza. The tomb had never been robbed of its contents, though ancient flooding had taken its toll on some of the artifacts. The museum is considered one of the best in China and we were impressed with the building's design and its artful displays. We were able to rent English audio guides and this really added to our enjoyment and understanding. The king, Zhao Mo, was buried in the tomb along with fifteen others, sacrificed to attend to the king in the afterlife. Four of these were his concubines. The king's burial suit of thousands of jade pieces and the concubines' jade and gold jewellery are enthralling. The musical instruments, everyday vessels, tools and implements that were stored in the tomb gave archeologists an accurate glimpse into life in 111 BC. It was a great way to end our short stay in Guangzhou.
Now the inevitable question arises, should one include Guangzhou on a trip to China. I would have to say that it depends on the amount of time available. If time is tight, as it is for most travellers, I would have to say no. But with more time, I don't think a trip to China is really complete without seeing this city. It is quite something to arrive and find that you are suddenly immersed in a different language (Cantonese) and culture. The few words of Chinese (Mandarin) that we had learned are understood by everyone, but it's not the same as greeting or thanking the people you meet in their own local language. Most of the Chinese people who immigrated to Canada and the United States came from the southern coastal cities of China. When we return to Canada, we are more likely to meet Cantonese-Canadians and I imagine they would feel that we hadn't really seen China if we missed seeing Guangzhou, a major player in the history and economic development of the nation.