Talk about visiting China and you there are usually three or four cities that quickly pop up. Beijing and Shanghai of course and then perhaps Chengdu for the pandas or Xi’an for the Terracotta Army. But what about Guangzhou, formerly Canton, just over the border from Hong Kong? It’s actually worth a visit.
I was eating my breakfast at the Park Hyatt Guangzhou when the Executive Chef walked up and started chatting. I casually mentioned that I wanted to learn more about Guangzhou and he immediately recommended a four-hour bicycle tour of the city run by a company called Cycle Canton. Started by a Dutchman who moved to Guangzhou, the company offers daily afternoon bike tours of the city, a 15km trek that shows that Guangzhou is not just a cookie-cutter Chinese city, but one that has a lot of character.
The tour begins at the Happy Monk bar in the old part of town. Money is collected (300 RMB, about $45) and a safety briefing is given. Helmets are offered but optional.
First off, the pace is very leisurely and almost all flat, so do not worry if you are in bad shape or daunted by the distance covered. Done over four hours (actually five in the case of my tour), you never really get tried.
Old Guangzhou is filled with winding alleys with small shops, homes, and foliage. The tour starts there, winding through these alleys and stopping at points along the way to learn about the architecture, history, and politics of Guangzhou.
An intellectual hub of China, the seeds of revolution were formed here, with Mao and his cadre of revolutionaries plotting overthrow here.
During the Revolution, all private property was seized but was actually given back to its former owners in the late 1980s. One rich family, who emigrated to America, owned five houses. The tour visits one of the homes — a beautiful art-decco home that has been left to decay. Why? Historical buildings are protected, but if they “naturally” fall apart then skyscrapers can be built in their place.
Through the center of town runs an old river that just a number of years ago was filled with sewage and various other waste. As part of an extensive cleaning effort, the river was cleaned, water purified, and now is drinkable.
The Dao temple was one of the more interesting stops. I knew nothing about this faith and walking into the temple it certainly resembled Buddhism in terms of the rituals and statues. Turns out it is quite different – more ancestral worship. Daoism was banned during the revolution but millions of Chinese today identify under that faith.
Another cool stop was at in People’s Park (once called Central Park) that was filled with locals eating, talking, and playing. We all were invited to take part in a game of trying to keep an object that resembled a ball with feathers from hitting the ground using only our feet.
There, a snack was offered of dumplings, small crisp pancakes (almost like potato chips) and fruit. Two bottles of water were also placed in the basket of each bike and were consumed—Guangzhou summers are very warm. Although the thermometer read only 90ºF, it felt like well over 100º outside, though by the time the tour ended it had cooled down nicely (though was still humid).
My favorite part of the tour was going into a local market and seeing the absolutely nasty (in my subjective view) creatures for sale. Snakes, scorpions, frogs – as our guide said, the locals eat anything that moves.
The city is gentrifying fast and I real estate speculators are grabbing as much property as possible, hoping to transform sleepy back alleys into sprawling high-rise luxury condos and apartments. As I mentioned above, the local government has responded by slapping historic monument placards on old properties, thus prohibiting their destruction. Developers have responded by leaving the houses open to rot – one beautiful fenced up wooden house had all windows opens, allowing the daily rain showers to slowly rot it. The plan is to let it fall down, then build on it.
The final few kilometers of the bike ride was along the river, ending at the Canton Tower just a short walk from the Park Hyatt hotel. A trick was waiting to collect the bicycles and everyone was invited to stop for drinks at a local pub.
Guangzhou is part of China’s 72-hour visa-free transit program, so if you find yourself flying China Southern (whose primary hub is Guangzhou) consider a stopover there. It typically does not add to the ticket price and Guangzhou is actually a fun city with affordable luxury hotels.
Cycle Canton was great fun and tour guide Ben (pictured below) really made the tour enjoyable.