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Sunday, March 29, 2015


With the girls in Taiwan yet again, I went away this weekend to Guăngzhōu 广州, China's third largest city with a population of 12 million. Those of an older persuasion probably know it as Canton; in any event, it's the capital of the booming Pearl River Delta region. Getting there was a nightmare, however. Due to some official business that I had to take care of earlier in the day, I had reserved a late evening flight on Friday evening from Shànghăi' Hóngqiáo International Airport  上海虹桥国际机场, with a scheduled departure time of 8:30 that was supposed to have me at Guangzhou Báiyún International Airport 广州白云国际机场 by 11 p.m. Chinese airports are notorious for their delays, unfortunately, and my flight departed two hours late. It was 12:30 in the morning by the time the airplane touched down at Baiyun; 1:30 by the time I made it to the front of the queue waiting for taxis; 2:30 by the time I finally checked into the Guăngdōng Victory Hotel 广东胜利宾馆 on historic Shāmiàn Island 沙面岛; and, after unpacking and taking a shower, 3 a.m. by the time I was able to crawl into bed. Not the best of starts to the weekend.

Shamian started out as a foreign concession in 1859, and became the site of a number of Western-style buildings constructed by British and French traders, many of which have been restored in recent years...:

...but I hurried through the streets on Saturday morning as I made my way to the nearest subway station, for my destination was arguably the closest thing Guangzhou has to a "must-see" sight: the Mausoleum of the Nányuè King 南越王墓:

Zhao Mo 趙眜 was the second ruler of kingdom of Nanyue, the borders of which spanned from northern Vietnam to southern China. Considered a weak ruler, Zhao Mo died in 137 BC, but his tomb remained hidden until 1983. As a result, it was never looted, and thus turned up a veritable treasure trove of archaeological finds. The actual tomb is in the rear of the museum, and visitors can take a look in the chambers:

This is all that's left of one of the concubines that was buried along with Zhao Mo:

The most celebrated artifact displayed in the museum is Zhao Mo's jade burial suit, consisting of 2291 jade plates bound with red silk thread. It was believed at the time that jade could preserve a body following death:

More than a thousand burial artifacts were recovered from the tomb, many of which are displayed in the museum. Among the items are jewellery belonging to the concubines who were interred with Zhao Mo, although the unfortunate women had not yet reached the natural ends of their lifespans at the time they joined their king in the mausoleum:

The museum also presents artifacts illustrating the lifestyles of the people of Nanyue, from elaborate works of lacquer to more mundane items like cooking vessels:

Leaving the mausoleum, I rode the subway across Guangzhou to seek out another museum, this one located in the Zhūjiāng New Town 珠江新城 area. The contrast with the 2000-year-old Nanyue kingdom couldn't have been more jarring as I walked past the surreal opera house and the surrounding high rise buildings:

I soon found myself in a huge plaza:

On the other side stood my next destination, the equally enormous and weird-looking New Guangdong Museum 广东省博物馆:

Inside the free-of-charge facility were displays on the flora and fauna that used to inhabit the region:

Windows provided views of the outside world as I worked my way down from the top floor:

Scenes of Guangzhou from days gone by were recreated:

This dragon boat was too long for the whole craft to get in frame:

Kāipíng 开平 is a city 140 kilometers southwest of Guangzhou that is noted for its diāolōu 碉楼, watchtowers combing eastern and western influences that were built in the early 20th century by villagers who had made money working overseas as coolies. This exhibit is probably the closest I'll ever get to seeing them:

It wouldn't be a Chinese museum without displays on ceramics and porcelain...:

...though this plate made just last year has an odd juxtaposition of  19th- and 21st-century scenes:

For me, the highlight was the exhibition on Cházhōu woodcarving 潮洲木雕, with its astonishing level of craftsmanship:

The spacious interior of the museum. By this point, I was "museumed-out"; the New Guangdong Museum alone probably requires spending most of the day to properly appreciate all its exhibits:

It was with a not inconsiderable sense of relief that I left the Zhujiang New Town area. With its combination of "anything goes" when it comes to architectural designs (reminiscent of Tōkyō 東京 at the height of the Japanese "bubble economy" バブル経済) and the Chinese love of enormity, I found Zhujiang dehumanizing in its brutalism:

I fled back to the subway system and traveled to the Xīguān 西关 area, where old Canton is still holding on in places, though even here urban renewal is making inroads:

Lonely Plant's China guide recommends a stroll down Ēnnìng Road 恩宁路, though the "cultural relics" that the LP writers maintain must be seen in order to make a visit to Guangzhou complete weren't all that special, especially if you've already visited similar neighborhoods in other areas of China:

I returned to the Victory Hotel on Shamian Island in the late afternoon, and had dinner outside at a place called Lucy's:

In the evening, I met up with a friend from Shanghai who is now living and working in Guangzhou. Three Tsingtao beers 青岛啤酒 (to go with the two I had earlier at Lucy's), one Moscow Mule and a Rum-and-Coke later, I returned to my hotel and staggered upstairs to my room.

I spent the next morning (this morning as I'm writing this) walking around Shamian following breakfast. The island is small, being only 900 meters from east to west and 300 meters from north to south. Like Shanghai's Bund 外滩 and Xiàmén's 厦门 Gŭlàngyŭ 鼓浪屿, Shamian owes its current popularity with Chinese tourists to the buildings (including several old consulates) left behind by the Westerners who lived and did business there during its time as a foreign concession. The main street, Shamian Dajie, is a pleasant stretch of buildings and trees:

The Bank of Taiwan building was constructed in 1913, in the days when the island wasn't (ahem) part of China:

The most popular site on Shamian seems to be the French-built Church of Our Lady of Lourdes (1892) 天主教露德圣母堂, a popular locale for couples having their wedding photographs taken. I wanted to go inside to have a look, but the Sunday morning mass was still going on and the interior was packed:

For me, the most attractive building was the Shamian Clubhouse - the 1907 "Red Mansion" is a splendid example of British colonial architecture, though it proved impossible to get a picture of the entire facade of the structure:

The morning walkabout concluded with a stroll through the park facing the Pearl River 珠江. Soon afterward, I took a taxi back to Baiyun Airport. Karma, which had been such a bitch to me on Friday, made amends this afternoon, as my return flight to Shanghai was on time:

The verdict on Guangzhou, gleaned from my very limited stay? Imagine Hong Kong without the British legacy (you know, civility, rule of law, those sorts of things). From a sightseeing point of view, the city can be safely skipped by the tourist traveling through China. However, for those who find themselves living and working in the country, Guangzhou does seem like as good a city as any in which to do so. It has all mod cons and from what I've been told, there are numerous eating and entertainment options. The climate is warmer than much of the rest of China, and the air quality not quite as awful (though today was pretty bad).

And, besides, Hong Kong is only a couple of hours away by train.

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