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April 6, 2017 / oneworld82

Guangzhou – A city projected into the future (with some serious good food!)

Aah, China! Finally, we meet again! The first and only time I visited the mainland was in 2006, when I went to Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, and Guilin – a time of great economic growth but also a chaotic time that made the country look more like a construction site than anything else. So, I was eager to see what changed in 10 years. Let me start by saying that it’s a lot different than it used to be – mostly in a good way.

China has been in the news a lot lately – which is of course unavoidable when you become the second largest economy in the World and are rushing to become a true World power (no matter how negative the press might be in the US towards China, but I have to commend the country’s effort to become a global player in R&D and trade – unlike Russia). Our first stop would be Guangzhou – the capital of Guangdong (the true economic engine of the country) and a city that aspire to become an international hub just as much as Shanghai and Beijing do.

To get there, we decided to take the train. After all, the city sits only ~100 miles from Hong Kong, and hourly intercity trains connect Hong Kong’s Hung Hom station with Guangzhou in about two hours. The whole process is rather easy – we took a cab for about 50 HKD to the station, collected the tickets we had pre-booked online through the HK railways website (around $15 each) and then we joined a line waiting to be admitted to the waiting area. After the gates were opened we proceeded to a waiting room (a large one for that matter) where there were a few snack stalls and a big duty free shop where I got myself some cheap Villigier cigars.

Waiting in line - Chinese haven't learned the meaning of "line" quite yet

Waiting in line – Chinese haven’t learned the meaning of “line” quite yet

Ten minutes before the scheduled departure time we queued up waiting to be admitted to the platform, and once time came we were allowed to board – the process was fairly straightforward. The train was nice – we had a first class ticket. Seats were clean and comfortable in a 2-2 configuration. Truth is: as soon as we left we fell asleep and woke up once approaching Guangzhou. Easy!

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After leaving the train we took an escalator and after a short walk we reached Chinese immigration.

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This was the funny thing: there is no immigration check in Hong Kong, which means no one makes sure you have the proper documents to visit Guangzhou. Immigration was efficient and we were quickly admitted to PR China! The Eastern railway station in Guangzhou is located in the Tianhe neighborhood of the city, that is the new business center. The Hilton was only 6-7 minutes away, so we just walked there. The roads were bustling, the evening mildly chilly, and the environment overall nice.

The Hilton is a nice, new hotel. It has a large lobby, attentive staff, and overall it feels luxurious – nothing to do with Hilton in the USA (as usual!). We were allowed to check in at the Executive Lounge (given my Diamond status), which was at the 24th floor. The lounge wasn’t too big, but when we visited (during evening happy hour) it wasn’t busy either. There a most friendly agent gladly checked us in and attended to my request for an upgrade to a panorama suite which was promptly granted for ~$70 a night – not bad.

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The lounge employee helped us with drinks –  I taught her how to make a Negroni! – and we helped ourselves with food – a decent selection of finger food but nothing too memorable. She also gave us a nice map of the city and tips of where to go for dim sum – she seemed genuinely happy that foreigners had decided to come to her city for tourism!

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After a drink and some food we headed to our suite. Let me tell you: the room was gorgeous, nicely appointed, with amazing view, and very large. Everything I was hoping for. I will let the pictures speak for themselves, but we couldn’t have been happier with the room.

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Welcome fruit for Hilton Diamonds

Welcome fruit for Hilton Diamonds

The view from the room (and the hotel in general) were nice although there was nothing particularly exciting to see in the direction we were facing. It was interesting though to see local residential complexes and a big school and how they looked like.

After taking a nice bath in our deep-soaking tub (with floor to ceiling windows) we fell asleep, fatally jetlagged, only to wake up at 4am – sigh. I headed to the gym – which was nicely appointed and with more equipment than the one at the InterContinental in Hong Kong.

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Come 6.30am, we decided to check out breakfast at the main restaurant – included for us since I am Hilton Diamond. We were among the first customers of the day, and our attentive waitress seated us and took drinks orders. I found that at the hotel English skills were not the staff’s forte, but everyone tried their best and was very accommodating. In this case, the waitress helped us understand what were the Chinese offerings and how to properly order food – a much appreciated gesture.

The spread was very large, ranging from delicious pastries to made-to-order omelettes but mostly focusing on local dishes – includding a made-to-order noodle bar; perhaps because I did not know how to “dress” my noodle soup, it ended up being quite plain. Overall, I enjoyed the buffet more than Thuy, and the selection was catered definitely more towards a Chinese audience than anything else.

After our big breakfast we were ready to explore Guangzhou. Situated along the Pearl River, the city has a long history dating from the Han dinasty. Although not too much remains of those early periods, recent excavations have revealed a tomb from the Lingnan period featuring many well-preserved artifacts. In fact, the Lingnan King Tomb Museum was our first stop of the day, and we were glad that we went as we were able to learn a lot about local history and metallurgy – and to see some amazing jade artifacts.

Down to the king's tomb

Down to the king’s tomb

The museum was very well kept and arranged, and it was quite big.

Old stone pillow...!

Old stone pillow…!

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Jade armor - impressive!

Jade armor – impressive!

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Chinese vending machine

Chinese vending machine

So, we got our museum fix – something we always welcome. But what about exploring parks a bit? After all, Guangzhou is a major Chinese city, and cities here are known more for pollution than anything else. Is that really true?

Well, it’s certainly true that smog is a big issue here. The day we toured the city the smog level was so high that we couldn’t see the sun… even though weather.com said it was supposed to be sunny! In fact, air levels were “dangerous”, which makes you wonder about the long term public health of the city.

However, Guangzhou offers plenty of parks that offer respite from all the city pollution – and you can tell that the government is trying to cope with the increase in road traffic somehow.

Not far from the museum lies 越秀 (Yuexiu Hill), a large park that’s literally the playground for many elders here. When we visited – around 10 in the morning – we saw plenty of families and retired folks just strolling around this beautiful, sub-tropical park, which was very well tended.

The park houses the famed Five Ram Statue, the true symbol of the city. While built in granite, it’s nothing really remarkable, although it made up for a nice photo op (although we found out that Chinese teenagers are not really good at taking pictures – unless it’s a selfie, that is).

Getting around the city is really easy given the extensive, reliable, and clean underground system. The best part is that you can buy a day pass for only 20 yuan – less than $3. That’s called a bargain!

Our next destination was Shamian Island, the colonial heart of Guangzhou.

shamian

Up we go (to cross the street)

Shamian Island is mostly pedestrian, which makes touring it very easy. Its late XIX century building, with a clear French connotation, make this place so different yet so attractive. Everything is really well-kept, nice coffee houses are around every corner, and the place is simply very relaxing.

One of the (incredibly) neatest features of the island is… Starbucks. I mean it. While I am not the biggest fan of the “iconic coffee brand from Seattle”, I must say that this particular location, housed in a colonial house with neat balconies, was really cool – both outside and inside. We had a crème brulee latte (I think) and a matcha latte – the perfect way to rest a bit and warm up (temperature outside was around 14C – not cold but not too warm either).

Shamian Island sees a lot of families and children walking around – we saw at least two schools located here. Fountains and gardens dot the main thoroughfare, so greenery is dominant here. A very nice church dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima only adds to the Old World charm of the place.

After Shamian it was lunch time; what else could we get in the capital city of Guangdong if not dim sum? I read good reviews about Sui Xuan – the Cantonese restaurant at our hotel – and since we wanted to drop off a few things anyways (and planned to visit Tianhe in the afternoon), we figured we might as well dine there.

We ended up getting to the restaurant around 1.30p, past the busiest time. We were promptly seated, and no less than three menus were brought to us – dinner menu, dim sum menu, and drinks menu.

We ordered some jasmine tea – excellent as always – and then we ordered some dim sum, which were brought out one after the other at good intervals.

We had crispy pork belly (delicious), chicken feet (can’t pass on those!), fried cheese dumplings (meh, nothing special), and we finished the meal off with milk tarts with bird’s nest – these were fantastic. The meal was clearly not as unbelievable as Yan Toh Heen, but it was good nonetheless and left us full for the remainder of the day.

The last piece we visited in Guangzhou was, as I mentioned above, Tianhe – the new business center of the city, where skyscrapers coexist with museums and the iconic Guangzhou Tower. A central boulevard connects the area, and a vast square sits between the business area and the Pearl River. From here, you can easily see and access the Library, the Museum of Arts, the Theatre, the Opera House, and you can enjoy very nice views over the Guangzhou Tower.

We checked out the library – it seemed to be very popular with local university students – and the Museum of Arts; the latter was large, futuristic, with interesting exhibitions on local history (especially calligraphy and crafts took our attention) and a well-stocked gift shop.

While we wanted to go out for dinner, after going back to the hotel we irremediably fell asleep and woke up at 3.30am… Yes, jet lag could be pretty bad! 😉

So, what do I think of Guangzhou? I liked it – honest! I did not know what to expect once we got there, but I ended up wishing we stayed one day longer, as there were a few more sights we could have seen (like Beijing Lu or a couple of good temples) and more food we could have tried. Yet, I feel we were able to get a good sense of what the city is like – a great example of how fast China is becoming a developed country. Guangzhou was overall clean, people were polite, and modernity was creeping up everywhere. Still, tradition can be seen – and sensed – everywhere; from elders dancing at the park to a big effort to preserve the history of the city, you can feel that Guangzhou is trying hard not to forget its well-established roots.

While I wouldn’t make this city my first stop to China, I would definitely consider it as part of a wider itinerary or if in Hong Kong. You will be rewarded with some authentic, not touristy experiences that will hopefully open your eyes on what China is today.

 

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