Weekending in Guangzhou

One of the advantages to being a Chatteris CNET in Hong Kong is the opportunity to explore various different places and cultures. Here's Chatteris' own Oscar Ponton on the delights of a long weekend in Guangzhou...

Winter term can feel like a long haul in Hong Kong as a teacher, particularly when there’s no traditional half term like in other countries. So when the opportunity to take a long weekend presented itself, I readily grabbed it with both hands as a chance to explore and relax outside of Hong Kong and visit somewhere new. With original destinations like Taiwan and Korea too far afield for the purpose of a short weekend break, my attentions turned to the Mainland and finally tackling the beast that is China, albeit through a fleetingly short three-day trip to Guangzhou. I’d heard many different things about Guangzhou and China in general from friends, so I decided to check it out for myself to see what all the hype was about and also see if it lived up to my own expectations.

With visa and dodgy passport pictures to hand, I boarded the train on Friday evening after work and was in Guangzhou two hours later by eight pm. It’s easy to forget in Hong Kong just how close you are to the rest of China and whilst Guangzhou could feel like a world apart at times, I was pleasantly surprised by the similarities that persisted between these two pearls in the south China delta. For my accommodation, I had pre-arranged to stay with a local Chinese student through an app called Couchsurfing. I had used it before in Taiwan and it lets you stay with local people for free as a means of cultural exchange. In terms of my own experience through the site, I can’t recommend it enough due to the kindness and the generosity of the people I’ve stayed with, not to mention the pleasure of meeting new people across cultures who I would have never have had the chance to meet before.

My host in Guangzhou was very helpful, picking me up from the metro after I successfully found my way, taking me for food on my first night and showing me good restaurants in the area. My host’s place was a small apartment a bit south of the city center and was pretty well situated in order for me to get around the city. What struck me immediately about Guangzhou was the sheer scale of the place, with fourteen million people living there (which is twice the number of Hong Kong or London) and a severely over-crowded metro system which made rush hour at Admiralty MTR station feel like a breeze. Unlike Hong Kong and its densely structured quarters, Guangzhou seems to stretch out into the horizon for an eternity, with space less of a premium and fewer high rises in sight than I anticipated.

In the mood to explore, my host and I wandered the city in the day and checked out some sights they recommended which I was only too happy to see. The first stop was the African market, a small and slightly bizarre pocket of African culture in an otherwise cosmopolitan Asian city. Guangzhou is famous as an international trading hub for materials and products and most of the items in the market were strangely enough only samples which you could only buy in bulk for mass production. Other highlights of the day included relaxing in Yue Xi park, a lovely urban park with a lake and the chance to go pedaloing before grabbing a bite of Durian pizza in town, a delicacy which surprised me with how good it was (hint: it’s way better than pineapple on pizza).

Above: The delicacy that is Durian Pizza

On the following day we checked out Shamian Island, the old colonial headquarters for countries trading in China which provided some interesting history and also wandered among the botanical gardens which was a real treat in the mid-autumn sunshine. A less exciting venture was getting caught in the crowds for the city light show in the evening, which caused minor panic as well as a few metro stations to close due to the perils of overcrowding.

Above: Guangzhou Tower at night
As a city to give a glimpse into China, Guangzhou was perfect for me. The food was delicious, the people charming and it provided plenty of new experiences too. Despite not knowing much about the city beforehand, it is a place I would definitely choose to go back to again as it’s simply so big you can’t fully experience it in just three days (not to mention the minor cities and mountain ranges that surround the area like Baiyun national park). A trip to a new city is always full of surprises and Guangzhou is a city modestly packed with them. If you go, I’m sure you’ll encounter some of them and maybe even learn and see something new along the way.


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