I wish I had taken a photo of Panyu back on that hot summer's day in August 2003. This is because if I had taken a photo of Panyu all those years ago then I would have been able to compare to what it looked like in those days to what it looks like today. In those days Panyu was nothing but a dusty industrial town with very poor infrastructure, and was heavy polluted. Since the opening of metro Line 3 in 2009, two of Panyu's sub districts - Panyu Square and Shiqiao - have become heavily popular residential areas for most of Guangzhou's population. Rent is still remarkably cheaper than what you would have to pay in downtown Tian He (a three bedroom modern apartment can cost anything in the region of RMB 3,000 in Panyu...the same apartment would cost around RMB 7,800 in downtown).
Shiqiao, an area covering only 11.35 square kms is becoming modern at a dizzying pace (I would refrain from saying that it's becoming more Americanized like the rest of the country). In the space of around 3 years this tiny town with a population of around 280,000 in the south-east of Panyu district, has become home to SIX McDonald's outlets, TWO KFC outlets, TWO Starbucks outlets (as if one was not enough), TWO Pizza Hut outlets, and an abundance of 7-Eleven stores. Shiqiao is the political, economic, cultural and commercial centre of Panyu District, and has direct jurisdiction over 28 communities and 8 villages. Oh, by the way, there used to be a Dunkin Donuts outlet in the main plaza next to Shiqiao Metro station. It opened in 2009 when I first started living in Shiqiao, and then it closed in February this year due to lack of demand because Chinese people love Starbucks (it's seen as a status symbol among the rising Middle-Class and elite to drink Starbucks coffee).
I am a huge fan of Dunkin Donuts, and being British, I have always been highly impressed by the way they make their milk teas- now that's something rare for an American food outlet to achieve (!). I would be more than happy to speak to a few Starbucks executives about this, but in my opinion Starbucks are not marketing and selling the tea as it should be done (take note....Earl Grey is tea without flavour...and I'd like to meet the innovative person who thought about serving a cup of tea with milk FOAM poured on the top!!).
I have bought Starbucks tea in mainland China, Dubai, Istanbul, Singapore, Bangkok, Detroit, Toronto, Paris, Hong Kong, and even in London (home of tea!), and I can tell you that it tastes nothing like the tea that we loyal tea drinkers are used to. I am not sure what native Indians in India think about the tea offered by Starbucks. Believe me, being a British man of Indian heritage I know what real tea and coffee tastes like (I am, of course, referring to black tea). Chai, the word for tea used in most Eurasian countries (including Russia), originated in India during the British Raj under King George, and the original tea derives from the romantic hills of Darjeeling and Shimla (PG Tips and Tetley have it right).
Maybe Starbucks should stick to just selling the coffee - which by my definition is not real coffee either. In my opinion, Chinese people need to be brought up to revere real Italian coffee. Perhaps they should do what the Aussies did after the GFC, where 800 Starbucks stores were closed in Australia - mostly in Melbourne. Only poofs put vanilla in coffee, and milk foam on their tea...!
The Durian is commonly known as the 'King of the fruits', and is the only fruit that is banned on-board aircraft, and on the subway in Singapore (because it has a horrible odour). Its not as bad tasting as it looks and smells. Mostly found in South-East Asia. People in China love the Durian and use it as a vital ingredient for desserts.
On the final Sunday of May, blessed with clear blue skies, and sunshine (finally!), I caught this China Southern Airlines Airbus A330 on finals to Heathrow Airport in the afternoon. Flying three times a week non-stop from Guangzhou Baiyun Airport to London Heathrow, this route not only provides another option for those wishing to go to Melbourne (via Guangzhou), but also connects with business people who carry out trade with the numerous factories in the Pearl River Delta (Shenzhen, Dongguan, Foshan, and Guangzhou), as well the large number of Cantonese expats living in the UK who can directly go home instead of flying to Hong Kong first.
I carried out a flight review for this route last year. Check it here.
I arrived back from London on the 30th, and then after a few days I am off again...this time to Istanbul for a press trip. I will be going to London after that. It will be my first Christmas and New Year in London with my parents (all my previous Christmas and New Year festivities have been spent in China since 2008). As much as I would love to spend this festive season in London with my parents, I do miss Panyu already because it was my 2nd home for such a long time. So many fond memories.
I will upload photos of Istanbul, and the flight experiences when I have time. In the meantime, the above photo is my last photo I have taken of China. It may not be that beautiful to look at (it's only runway 02R at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport), BUT, it does remind me of the last time I'll be on Chinese soil for some time. It's always a sad feeling for me when I leave China, even if it is for a short time.
So it's goodbye to Guangzhou until 2013 at least!
To celebrate the switching of the Christmas lights, the Grand Hyatt in Guangzhou hosted around 200 especially invited VIPs and media to an action packed evening at the weekend. With plenty of delicious food and drinks going around, the General Manager, Mr. David Chen, officially switched on the Christmas tree lights at 7pm. There were plenty of tempting prizes in the raffle draw too, with the winner of the prize scooping a cheque of RMB 40,000 (almost £4,000!). Sadly, it wasn’t me (I have never won anything in life…except good education!)
It was the perfect way to end the day. Flying straight from London to Guangzhou (via Hong Kong) presents a different perspective of life. After which I did a few minor but important chores, before attending this event in the evening. So in all I had not slept for almost 25 hours (I always find that it’s not easy to sleep on a daytime flight, and once I landed in Hong Kong it was daytime again!).
Christmas in China is never the same as back in Western countries. Back in 2003 I recall seeing a lavishly decorated Hilton Hotel in Shenzhen- albeit in comical fashion. The money king represented Santa Claus, and the Dragon represented Rudolf the red nosed reindeer, and to add to the comical touch, the whole hotel was decorated in blue and white (instead of red and white). Things have changed for the better since then, and while China has become more Westernized it still doe snot really not feel like Christmas here.
Thanks to China Southern Airlines (see my report HERE!), I was able to fly directly from a cold, and wet London to a rather fresh (and thankfully less humid), Guangzhou, in under 13 hours. Rewind the clock a few months back, and that journey would not have been as comfortable because normally people had to fly first to Hong Kong and then take a coach to get to Guangzhou (not to mention the tireless amount of walking with your luggage through the Hong Kong/Mainland China border at Shenzhen).
The good thing about China Southern Airlines flying from London to Guangzhou is that it will give many people travelling to Australia or other parts of South-East Asia an opportunity to explore the capital city of Guangdong Province. It goes without saying that despite the close proximity of Guangzhou to Hong Kong, the average person in London has probably never heard of this city which boasts over 4,000 years of rich history and culture (except if you are Chinese, of course).
Yet the fact is that the majority of Chinese people in London have their origins in this city. This is true for those who are second or third generation Chinese people with businesses in the China Town's of London and Manchester, as they are of Cantonese origin from either Hong Kong or Guangzhou.
Guangzhou can be the perfect stop-over destination. For those with 36 hours to spare in this city, I strongly recommend you take a hike up Mount Baiyun (Baiyun Shan) to get breath taking views across the city, shopping at Beijing Lu (Guangzhou's equivalent to Oxford Street), eat your heart's content at one of the oldest and original Cantonese restaurant, Beiyuan (www.thetraveleditor.com), take a evening boat ride along the Pearl River, visit the Chime Long Theme park, and take a ride up the futuristic looking Canton Tower.
With so much local culture to explore in Guangdong province, I decided to take a day’s trip down to Panyu, the oldest part of Guangzhou located in the south part of the metropolis. This town was the original capital city of Guangdong province. I decided to check out the tiny village of Shawan, the part of the city that formed the epicentre of that original capital city. Located around 6 kilometres from the nearest metro station at Shiqiao, Shawan village is neatly hidden away in the outskirts of the city.
Though the village is trying to attract tourists, it still resembles somewhat of a ghost town as there is hardly a whisker in sight on any given day of the week (except of course during the holiday season). On any average hot summer’s day it is normal to walk through the quite narrow lanes of the village and perhaps come across shop keepers lazily taking an afternoon siesta in the shade away from the blazing midday sun. The village does not possess the charm that may be found in more well known ancient preserved villages such as for example Suzhou or Hangzhou.
What is amazing is that people live in Shawan in a similar style and in a similar style of environment as they used to do hundreds of years ago. The only difference may be that nowadays people have electricity, proper sanitation, internet, and most important of all, air-conditioning to take respite away from the hot and humid weather.
However, other ways of living are similar to traditional style of living like milking the cows by hand, hens, and rabbits freely flocking the grounds, butchers having their meat being sold on ice-carts, and bread rolls, and seeds being dried using the baking sun’s heat. And in between these people’s homes, large former mansions belonging to Emperors and former ancient government ministers have been converted into museums for all to see. It just goes to show the lavish life they had in those days.
Try indulging your taste buds into the local delicacy, sweet milk curd (known locally as ‘Shuang Pi Nai’). Every morning cows are milked in the farms nearby. The ridiculously delicious milk is then blended in with sugar, and served either hot or cold. It tastes a bit like lemon curd, or fresh Greek style yogurt, but not as thick in texture. The temptation to have more than one cupful is difficult to resist. Each cupful costs RMB 5 (around GBP 50 pence).
Allow a good 1 hour to explore the place. It may feel isolated at first, but I tell you, looks can be deceptive. Shawan has more jewels to offer than the eye meets at first glance. Just make sure you take your camera with you, and be ready to capture the unusual.
How I got to Shawan:
If you are coming from downtown Guangzhou, then take metro line 3 to Shiqiao station and then take exit C. As you come out of the metro station exit C, turn left in front of Seven 11. After Seven 11, turn right, and you will come across a branch of Pizza Hut. Right in front of Pizza Hut is a bus stop from where you can take bus number 12 straight to Shawan. The cost is RMB 2 one way, and takes around 20 minutes. After you get off the bus stop at Shawan then walk straight ahead for around 30 feet until you come across a large cinema complex, and then turn right. Shawan Ancient Town is straight ahead of you!
How much does it cost?
Visitors can purchase a RMB55 that allows you entrance to all the 10 preserved mansions and small museums, or there is a separate RMB10 charge for each attraction (i.e. it makes sense to purchase the RMB 55 collective ticket as you get more for low price).
After being in Guangzhou for nearly 4 months, I returned back to Shanghai from Guangzhou for a couple of short visits earlier last week. It felt like going to another country because everything is just so different in Shanghai compared to Guangzhou. Food, people, culture, weather, quality of life…and just about everything else (including language!). You can immediately feel the aroma of high life lingering everywhere around this fast paced metropolis. On the way from Hongqiao Airport to the Jumeirah Himalayas Shanghai hotel, which took around 40 minutes door-to-door, I passed 3 Ferraris, 2 Mesaratis, and countless number of Mercedes Benz luxury cars. Most of the drivers seemed to come across as being young professionals rather than your stereotypical mid-60s aged CEO of a multinational. Then there are the US$6 million villas dotted around the Jinqiao area of Shanghai, which is the kind of stuff that English footballers would love to have as their Asian holiday homes. If there is one city in the world that is defying the global economic crisis, and growing at a horrendously dizzying pace, then it is Shanghai. In a nutshell, Guangzhou and Shanghai are like oil and water.
Compared to its southern Guangdong friend, Shanghai’s culture and economy is forging ahead at an electrifying pace. Yes, the rooted Shangahinese culture and the history are there, but it just does not feel like China. There is too much affluence, too much arrogance, too much competition, and it’s just too damn fast. Talking of speed, things do generally get done quicker in Shanghai compared to other cities (even my former hometown Suzhou is slower paced!). So for example if you go to the bank to get a new bank account, or if you are waiting for a taxi, or even if you are waiting to have your freshly brewed coffee made for you, then in my experience it all tends to be quicker (and smoother without the language misunderstandings) in Shanghai. Then there is sheer glamour, which must promote Shanghai as China’s vanity capital. A recent example of this has been the arrival of the former Chelsea footballer, Didier Drogba. The African from Ivory Coast has joined Shanghai Shenhua, a club that is currently languishing in 13th place in the 16-club league, for a reported US$350,000 a week. This is in a country that has plenty of ambition to rise up the ranks of global football, but are struggling to do so. Such feasts of money can only be added to Shanghai’s history of creaming to attract the world’s attention. Last week, the club hosted Manchester United for a friendly in another vanity show (much as they strived to achieve their best in the heat and humidity, they lost 1-0 to the visitors).
But among all this hustle and bustle, one thing sticks out clearly. Some observers have pointed out that Shanghai has already reached the accumulative elegance and affluent reputation enjoyed by Hong Kong. Chic fashion, money, glamour, and absolute snobbery are all the cultural ingredients that make up modern Shanghai. The Bund and Pudong areas are paved with gold. Perhaps a strong sign that the city which used to be known as the ‘Paris of the East’ during the pre-second world war years, may now enjoy the title of being dubbed the ‘New York of the East’. Indeed, Shanghai (and other 1st tier Chinese cities) are being exposed to a myriad of foreign brands, especially American goods and products due to inward investment as keenly encouraged by the Chinese government.
In my viewpoint, China’s newly found middle-class and upper-class are indulging in tastes of western food and other shopping traits, more than what European people or Americans’ would indulge into. KFC, Pizza Hut, MacDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Papa John’s Pizza, Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Subway Sandwiches and others have outlets in every street corner of the major cities (even in 2nd tier cities). You name it- all the big American brands have established base in China, and business wise they are profiting at a higher rate than back in the USA because selling Western fast food to Chinese people is no longer a mission impossible. The downside of this could be that the younger generation of China may not appreciate their own way of culture and food in years to come. I don’t know. This is just my own personal viewpoint.
A sheer example of speed being used to the max in Shanghai, and its dramatic connection to technology (literally) is the super high speed Maglev train. Balanced at around 20mm above the tracks, Shanghai’s Maglev Train breezes the 32kms between Longyang Road Station and Pudong International Airport in a remarkable 7 minutes 30 seconds. Winding up to the maximum commercial speed of 431 kph takes about three minutes. There are no seatbelts - at this speed it’s not worth worrying about the consequences (really). The front of the train displays battle scars - victories of scrapes with birds and bugs. The train banks into a slightly tilting angle, and produces a quick fire shotgun-like sound when it passes other trains at speed. This is as close as passengers will get to enjoy the feeling of what it may be like if a plane was speeding on the ground instead of at 37,000 feet. The adrenalin rush is felt from the moment the train begins its journey right the way through to the end. The feeling stays with you for a while after disembarking the train – almost like as if you have touched down on earth again.
However, I found out last week that even the technological heights of the Maglev are a world away from reality of rural China. Because of a severe typhoon hitting Guangdong Province last week, I decided to take the plunge and embark on a 14-hour train journey from Shanghai to Wuhan, and then on from Wuhan to Guangzhou (costing a total of RMB 1000). If I had wanted a real adventure, then I could easily have taken the direct 15-hour night train from Shanghai to Guangzhou (costing only RMB230), however there were no sleeper beds available and only hard seats (not wooden seats as may imagine, but still uncomfortable for a 15-hour night journey). Now, without being stereotypically negative, from my experience I have found that while 1st tier Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing may have world-class infrastructure and sheer affluence, however the culture and quality of life in the rest of the country still needs improving. With a thriving economy, the issue that stems out is that China is a large and complex country with many things on the government’s agenda that will take time to resolve. Because of the extreme cultural and social contrasts, China is a country that you either fall in love with, or you end up despairing. I adore the former concept because of the color and vibrancy of the place.
The train journey itself showed a different side of the country as opposed to the ivory towers of Shanghai. Some of the odd and eccentric behavior I encountered on the train journey (and this was in the first class cabin) was: people carrying live chickens in their hands (read = dinner/lunch for those who have no fridge), loud snoring (with mouth open), playing mah-jong, non-stop chain smoking, a bunch of grannies talking non-stop, kids keep taking photos of me and then running to show their parents ('mum/dad, look a foreigner!!'- they would say), slurping loudly of noodles (!), loud slurping/sipping of tea cups, spitting with a loud 'Krrraaggg thoo', people drinking alcohol and barbecued meat at SIX in the morning at Wuhan station (!), people wearing pajamas during the daytime train, mothers breast-feeding their babies in front of everyone (!), strong stench of human waste coming in from the open train lavatory, cutting finger nails (non-stop), loud mobile phones (annoying music tunes to go with them), and just endless…noise. It was an experience....
I noticed someone took a photo of me, and as we came close to Wuhan station a young couple from Hunan approached me asked me if it was OK for them to take a photo with me (because I am a foreigner). It wasn’t a quiet journey, even if the cabin was meant to be a ‘quiet cabin’. People stared at me in curiosity. These days, in the bigger cities Chinese people would not even blink an eyelid if a foreigner walked passed them because they have got used to us. However, in rural areas and places such as a long haul train, it is still common for people to stare at foreigners. It’s just friendly curiosity.
Even as I am sitting here in a café in Panyu (Guangzhou), people are randomly stopping by and curiously just standing and watching what I am doing. Because I can understand Mandarin, I can hear things like ‘Oh look, there is a Laowei (foreigner), what’s a Laowei doing here?’; ‘Oh look, there is a Laowei using the laptop, so many Laoweis’ in China these days!’; ‘I think he must be from Iran, yeah looks Middle Eastern. Shall we ask him?’. It goes without saying that questions like these may be common place for any human being to be asked at if they are in a non-international/non-multicultural environment. So, yes I may get those kind of questions and curiosity from the locals even if I go to, say for example, Africa, North Korea, or Burma. In all my years in mainland China, I have got used to these kind of comments (even though I personally don’t like it). However, I am sure that for any newcomer to China it may make them feel: either 1. Annoyed, 2. Feel like a superstar, or 3. Spoil them because people are treating them like a VIP. I wonder if North Korea would be the same one day (if they open up to the world as China has done).
Yes, neon lit cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Suzhou give you the impression that China is as advanced as any other global city in the world. The infrastructure in China is one of the best in the developing world (and in some parts even better than the developed world). For example, I have not experienced a power failure in all the 9 years I have been in China (like India experienced earlier this week, where half of the country had a power shortage- that kind of thing can never happen in China because the infrastructure is much more advanced).
The younger generation who live in the big Chinese cities have not been exposed to the difficult humble upbringings that their forefathers endured during hardships times in years gone by. This goes especially true for the 2nd generation who are born after the 1980s who are perhaps more used to having dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, or drinking their morning coffee everyday at Starbucks instead of tucking into traditional Chinese breakfast. However, it’s only once you enter the countryside and the 2nd tier cities you immediately realize how much improvement there needs to be made in order to get the rest of the country to where it should be. On the train journey I took there were a whole host of things that made me feel how damn lucky I was not to have taken the all-night hard seat train as that would have been a million times worse than the daytime experience.
Below are some photos from my time in Shanghai (and some of the train journey as well).
- Navjot Singh
I fondly recall taking part in the dragon boat race this time last year in Shanghai, of which our super team was beaten into 2nd place by less than only 2 seconds! As captain, I was gifted with a superb team who excelled in all departments of organization, structure, and perfect motion of the oars with great timing. A fantastic team, along with perfect weather conditions helped us to become (almost) winners of the tournament. This year, though I will not be taking part in any dragon boat race, I will, however be watching a few races at the Zhujiang River (Pearl River) in Guangzhou.
The Dragon Boat Festival is a lunar holiday, occurring on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival is a significant holiday celebrated in China, and the one with the longest history. The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated by boat races in the shape of dragons. Competing teams row their boats forward to a drumbeat racing to reach the finish end first.
The boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival are traditional customs to attempts to rescue the loyal Chinese poet Chu Yuan. Chu Yuan drowned on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 277 B.C. Chinese citizens now throw bamboo leaves filled with cooked rice into the water. Therefore the fish could eat the rice rather than the hero poet. This later on turned into the custom of eating tzungtzu, and rice dumplings (known as 'zhongzhi'). Chinese people normally have 3 days off work. So this year the 22nd, 23rd and 24th will be national holidays for all mainland Chinese people.
In Guangzhou, a race was organized in the Lizhiwan area of the city. Lizhiwan looks rather like Guangzhou’s equivalent of Amsterdam with boats navigating through the 743 meter-long waterway from Shamian Island to Liwan Lake. With lush greenery, numerous shops selling all kinds of traditional Cantonese food and period style buildings there is no better way to spend your day off. The one thing that does catch ones eye is the sensational ancient buildings with colonial style architecture that lie right next to rather traditional Cantonese architectural styled buildings. There is the amazing Wen Tower, a hexagonal designed pagoda style tower that gives a glimpse of the old style buildings. While in contrast there is the Chen Lianbo Residence, a typical Canton building from the 1920s colonial era.
Some people also pay a visit to their local temple to pay respects to Buddha or Guangyi. The celebration is a time for protection from evil and disease for the rest of the year. It is done so by different practices such as hanging healthy herbs on the front door, drinking nutritious concoctions, and displaying portraits of evil's nemesis, Chung Kuei. Now, supposedly, if one manages to stand an egg on its end at exactly 12:00 noon, the following year will be a lucky one. Maybe I will try to do that this year and see if the following year will bring me good luck. On the other hand, no matter what, everyday is blessing from god.
Because China is such an enormous and complex country, therefore moving to a new city in China can be described as an experience similar to that of moving to a new country (even if those two cities are within the same province). This means when you relocate your life from one city to another city in China then you will most likely have to:
1) get a new mobile phone number,
2) apply for a new bank account,
3) re-register with the local police as a foreigner,
4) get accustomed to the culture, and language of the new city
5) get used to the local food
6) get used to the business culture as well as the people’s culture
From my first three weeks in Guangzhou, what I have come to realise is that generally in the south region there is no real sense of urgency in everything the local people do- and I mean EVERYTHING. The first impression of this is clearly visible as one arrives at the city’s airport. The ever-slow paced queue at the arrivals taxi stand seems to go on for as far as the eye can see. Other examples include the laid-back approach displayed by the staff at local banks, and even mobile phone shops, and waitresses at restaurants taking forever to deliver your dishes.
Despite being in Guangzhou for such a short time, I have also happened to experience two separate cases of theft in such a short time. The first case involves identity theft.
I relocated from Suzhou to Guangzhou, which is a journey of around two and a half hours by plane. When I left my apartment in Suzhou, I forgot to deactivate my internet account, and I forgot to deactivate my mobile phone account for Suzhou too. Once I got to Guangzhou, I called the service provider (China Mobile), and asked them to deactivate my Suzhou internet account. To my frustration, they told me that I have to physically go back to the branch outlet where I originally signed up for the internet account to be able to permanently deactivate the account. That meant that I would have had to take at least a day (make that two days just in case of flight delays, etc.) to go back to Suzhou just to close an internet and mobile phone accounts.
Now, to make matters worse, the person who moved into my home in Suzhou started using the internet for free under my account because it was still open. He even started using mu mobile phone number (by claiming to be me!). The only solution for this dilemma was for me to change my password for both my internet account and also my mobile phone number, and until I returned to Suzhou I could not close both accounts down (and I have no idea when I'll return to Suzhou).
The second case happened on the ground here in Guangzhou. This Cantonese city, in my experience, being a 2nd tier Chinese city, also comes across as a riskier place compared to the westernised cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. Good people and bad people reside everywhere; however, that risk of bumping into certain troubles tends to become more apparent in slightly deprived areas of any city in any part of the world. Guangzhou is no exception to this.
What I experienced yesterday was nothing short of stuff compared to classic Hong Kong movies (without being stereotypically negative here). I was in a coffee shop in Panyu in the southeast part of Guangzhou. My intention was to have a nice cup of coffee and make my way to the local bank so I could open a new Guangzhou bank account. As I left my laptop bag on a chair, and made my way to the counter to pay for my coffee a young man calmly picked up my laptop bag and left the coffee shop.
My immediate reaction on realising the theft of my bag was of shock and anger with myself of leaving it on the chair (even for less than a minute). I called 110 for the police, and at the same time questioned the shop staff on why they did not stop the man. Their response was that because the man left the shop so calmly, they thought he was my friend. The most worrying thing for me was not losing my laptop or passport as those could easily be replaced with new ones, but of losing my precious photos, and all the articles I had written (including the manuscript for the 2nd edition of my first book on China). Even my backup USB drive was in the bag.
In the 5 hours of drama that followed, remarkably the thief called me back (he found my number on a document inside my bag), and asked for 200,000 yuan in ransom (approx. £20,200 GBP). To cut the story short, eventually I had agreed to go with at least 10 undercover police officers to a specified location on the outskirts of Guangzhou with 'fake money'. The plan was to hand over the ‘fake money’ to the culprit, and at that moment, the plain clothed police officers would jump in to arrest him by surprise. I did manage to tell the thief (through a translator who could speak Cantonese), not to erase any of the data from the laptop as that meant a lot to me.
As we made our way to the undisclosed location in a disused industrial area of Guangzhou, we got news that the unarmed man had turned himself into a local police. Thankfully, all of my belongings were returned in one piece (including my passport, house keys, credit cards, and around 1,000 yuan of cash). It could easily have turned ugly.
While being interrogated, the man claimed to be mentally ill (he showed the police a doctor’s note), and claimed he was not aware of what he was doing. With tears rolling down his face he apologised to me.
It's perhaps a relief that I got everything in one piece but shockingly according to Chinese law, if someone is mentally ill then they cannot be charged for any crime no matter how serious the offense is. So effectively this man got away lightly. A journalist from the Guangzhou Yanchang Evening News accompanied me throughout the event to note it on record. He told me that only 3 weeks ago another mentally ill man beheaded his own uncle in Tian He District, but he could not be charged for the murder because he was proven to be mentally ill. Scary hey?
So, thankfully it was a good conclusion, and it was nice to know so many good people were there to assist me at this difficult moment in my life. This included my colleagues, the police, and my friends who kept me company on the phone throughout the ordeal. I got my laptop back. However, most importantly I got my articles, manuscript, and precious photos back. You can bet your bottom dollar I’ll never let go of my bag next time I order a coffee (not even for a second…not in a place like Panyu).
Located within only a few minutes’ walk away from Guangzhou East train station, the busiest train station in China’s Guangdong Province, is the stunning Westin hotel Guangzhou. The Westin Guangzhou was one of the first international hotels to be opened in this southern Chinese city way back in 2005. The remarkable thing about the Westin Guangzhou is that all of its 446 well appointed guestrooms and suites are the most spacious in the whole city- far more than any other hotel around the world actually. With the smallest rooms, the Deluxe and the Renewal rooms being 46-59 Square Meters, the standard sized rooms at the Westin Guangzhou are similar size to what you may get in a junior deluxe suite in another 5-star hotel. In a nutshell, they are so huge that one could effectively do some simple workout inside (not that I did during my stay). One cannot resist the 600-thread cotton duvets in which one can cuddle up on a cold rainy winters Guangdong evening.
But it’s not just the grandstanding of the location or the guestrooms that the hotel has become a firm favourite among the most affluent of Guangzhou people. But rather it’s the quality of the excellent customer service of the staff members that distinguishes the Westin Guangzhou to other hotels within the vicinity of its tall shadows. While the hotel may not be that imposing or beautiful from the outside, it’s the attractiveness of the inside that matters the most. Every attention of minute detail is paid to where the customers are made sure that they do not feel out of place at any one time. What one would like most about the customer service here though is that not only do the staff speak impeccable English, but they are also very proficient in the way they take care of when a customer checks in, stays and checks out. I was rather surprised and happy to know that someone managed to remember my name on at least separate occasions.
For such a large hotel that has all the positive advantages of a geographical and physical attractiveness, the key of an eventful stay may include the dining experience as well. There are five restaurants and lounges that can keep you busy for a while should you wish to indulge yourself into the various amounts of culinary delights on offer. Apart from the usual Chinese (Hong Mian), and Italian (Prego) options, the Westin also provides an excellent feast at an American Latin (Yes, a Latin) eatery known as Qba. Not many 5-star hotels in China have a Latin restaurant (they normally have a Chinese or an Italian option). Located firmly on the first floor, Qba is steeped in enticing aromas, music, and atmosphere. Grilled, charred or spicy—an extensive menu offers tempting small plates and entrées. After a good meal, why not savour a drink or leisurely smoke in the inviting Cigar Bar.
Greetings from a sunny London! Thanks to the ever lasting global warming that the world is experiencing all kinds of weird and wonderful weather spells. I left my home in Suzhou on Wednesday afternoon (London 8am GMT), and within that short time span until now I have had the pleasure of experiencing the sights and smells of the following places:
Wuxi (tiny town next to Suzhou- this is where I got the plane to go to Guangzhou), Guangzhou (lovely photos as taken below), Doha (airport Business and First Class lounge is NICE!), London (HOT weather in October), Milton Keynes, Birmingham, and then back to London again. Thats around 14,000km in approx. 90 hours and 23 minutes. Not bad at all I say.
Now, one thing that did tickle my fancy were the amazing shots I managed to get of Guangzhou as we landed in from Wuxi. Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province, sparkles at night, especially places such as Zhujiang New Town (as seen in the photos below). These photos were taken from a moving plane as we turned into the final approach into Guangzhou Baiyun Airport.
Guangzhou sparkles at night time! I flew in from Wuxi to Guangzhou on a clear evening last week, and was gifted with this beautiful view of Zhujiang New Town and Tian He District. You can clearly see all the city’s major landmarks, such as the Canton Tower and the Tian He 88 floor building! Guangzhou’s pollution levels have improved vastly in the past few years. 10 years ago there would have been smog everywhere and this view would have been impossible. Guangzhou is becoming more modern and clean as the days go by. Its not easy to get nigh time photos, and even from a moving plane. But I am pleased with this result.
For those of you who live in Zhujiang New Town, can you see your home? :-)
Located in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, the area called Lizhiwan looks rather like Guangzhou’s equivalent of Amsterdam with boats navigating through the 743 meter-long waterway from Shamian Island to Liwan Lake. With lush greenery, numerous shops selling all kinds of traditional Cantonese food and period style buildings there is no better way to spend your day off. The one thing that does catch ones eye is the sensational ancient buildings with colonial style architecture that lie right next to rather traditional Cantonese architectural styled buildings. There is the amazing Wen Tower, a hexagonal designed pagoda style tower that gives a glimpse of the old style buildings. While in contrast there is the Chen Lianbo Residence, a typical Canton building from the 1920s colonial era.
During my time in the U.K. (in February 2011), I was invited to give an action packed talk on travel to Beijing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The 1 hour talk focused on the sights & smells of the capital city of China.
Straight after I returned from London, I had the chance to review the famous White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou. Ideally situated on the beautiful island of Shamian in Guangzhou, the capital of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the splendid White Swan Hotel is a reminder of the rich history and culture of this Cantonese city. The White Swan Hotel was jointly invested by the Guangdong provincial government and Mr. Fok Ying Tung's Hong Kong Wai Cheung development company. When it was officially opened on February 6th, 1983 it was the city's first formally recognised five-star hotel, the first joint-venture deluxe hotel in China and the first one conceived, constructed and managed hotel entirely by local Chinese people.
Since 1985 the White Swan Hotel has been a proud member of "The Leading Hotels of the World" as the first Chinese member of this prestigious hotel organization. In 1990, it became one of the first three five-star hotels in China (now you have more than 300 five-star hotels in China!). The hotel is a favourite among many Chinese and international government officials, Heads of States, Royalty and various captains of industry.
Most visitors these day may think that the White Swan Hotel is becoming a thing of the past, however it can be reassured that because this was one of the first finest five-star hotels in Guangzhou (and indeed in China), so therefore it is something of a privilege and an honour to stay here. The White Swan Hotel is very much part of the rich history, culture and ambiance of the city of Guangzhou. The hotel has a perfect location, lying on the banks of the Pearl River with stunning views looking across to the city on one side and on the other fascinating views of Huangsha island. Buildings with fine French and British colonial architecture surround the atmosphere of the White Swan Hotel.
The White Swan Hotel is also a preferred choice of many westerners who come to Guangzhou specifically to adopt Chinese babies. In actual fact, the relationship between the hotel and the adoption agencies is so close that the lobby of the hotel is used as a family welcoming area for parties and receptions when adopted children are formally welcomed to their new family and photos are taken.
An area that is closed off to the public is the top floor of the hotel, which has been used as the Presidential suite since the hotel opened. Remarkable as it may seem, the whole floor is taken up as the Presidential suite, separated into two parts - one for the Queen (the female area) and the other part for the King (male area). While the rest of the hotel may be renovated in the coming years, the Presidential suite will remain untouched. This is to preserve the heritage and the ambiance of the rooms and the furniture on which people such as North Korean leader Kim Jong II, 37th US President Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth II, Deng Xiaoping, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and many others have lived in. It's perhaps one of very rare Presidential suites in the world that has a manmade garden complete with a small waterfall and a lake inside.
It has to be mentioned that no visit to the White Swan Hotel is complete without enjoying a culinary experience at the hotel's signature Cantonese eatery, the Jade River restaurant. While most westerners may not be used to eating a Cantonese style breakfast, it is highly recommended that one gives it a go when you are here. After all, it would be a waste of time and experience if you came all the way to China and you dare not try the local cuisine. Eating an authentic dim sum at the Jade River restaurant is all about the experience, the art and design of the food and the ambiance of the Cantonese surroundings.
The first that strikes you when you enter this fabulous restaurant are the words highlighted in Gold as: "叙初堂", literally standing for "this is a place" (堂) where long lost friends reunite and recall（叙旧) their past good times (当初). On the whole the name shows the charm and the poetic beauty of Chinese literacy.
To enjoy the true authentic Cantonese dim sum taste and aroma, it is highly recommended to start off with a bowl of traditional congee with preserved duck egg and minced pork. The congee should be slightly salty on its won because of the added flavour of the preserved duck eggs and the pork. It is suggested to have this dish along with a piece of fried bread stick (You-tiao) and dry scallop (just adorable).
The meal should be accompanied by a Chinese tea or teas of your choice. Highly recommended is the jasmine or the white chrysanthemum tea (good for the eyes, especially black eyes).
It would be a good thing to go for such culinary delights such as steamed rice flour roll filled with minced beef and a deep-fried turnip cake which has generous flakes of dry scallops that melt away in the mouth as one takes a spoonful. The latter dish goes exceedingly well with a slight garnishing of mustard on the top.
Just sit back, relax and watch as Chef de Cuisine Mr. Qui Wei Guo presents a session of live dumpling making in front of you as you sit back and enjoy your dim sum. Chef Qui's dumplings are rather extra special as he makes them into all kinds of different shapes and sizes. As they say in Cantonese culture that if a dim sum does not have a customary egg tart for dessert than it is not really a dim sum. The egg tart at the Jade River restaurant has all the signs of a perfect egg tart. There are none of those messy flakes falling off while you take a bite (most egg tarts of a bad quality have this feature) and there are no messy droplets of the actual egg yolk. It's just perfect the way it should be, and just gently melts away in your mouth. The egg tart is accompanied with a crispy flour cake with syrup
The dim sum of chef Qiu Wei Guo is famous and highly-recommended by Mr. Cailan, the famous Gastronomist of Hong Kong and many celebrities and VVIPs. When visiting heads of state reside at the White Swan Hotel he personally adheres to their culinary requests.
Guangzhou, the Capital City of Guangdong Province in China, is growing at a frighteningly rapid pace, especially the newer parts of the metropolis such as the Zhujiang New Town that is widely compared to be “Guangzhou’s future equivalent of the CBD in Hong Kong”. It’s an area located around a kilometer away from the Tianhe shopping district and one that is beginning to resemble any other western CBD in the world with it’s high rise glass, offices’ of global financial institutions, shopping malls (some are still being built) and, of course, lavish five star quality international Hotels.
It is fair to point out that the city is becoming more modern and for unrecognizable for visitors who have not been here for, say, around 5 years or so. When I first visited Guangzhou back in 2002 there were only a handful of renowned “International” five star quality hotels’, such as the famous Garden hotel, the White Swan hotel and the China hotel (by Marriott). I would even go to the extent that the majority of people on the mainland would probably have not been exposed to the likes of international five star brands’ such as the “Grand Hyatt”, “Ritz-Carlton” and so on. Each time I visited Guangzhou, I fondly recall the proud feeling and sheer delight in the eyes’ of some of my close friends (local Guangzhou people, of course) who would introduce Guangzhou’s local fine hotels’ to me. “Navjot, you must go and see or stay at the White Swan hotel- it’s Guangzhou best hotel”- they would say. And in those days these five star hotels in Guangzhou also doubled as tourist attractions’-though the “tourists only saw them from the outside and did not stay there. I suppose that these hotels are still star attractions and will continue to be so because they have grown alongside the city that they lie in.
Though the skyline, the infrastructure and the economic situation of the vast majority of the world may not have changed much since 2002, but in China it’s a different ball game altogether. Guangzhou, being one of the big four cities of this huge country, is no stranger to the rapid economic and cultural revolution that we are witnessing.
The rather novel Grand Hyatt Guangzhou, with 347 rooms and 28 suites, is a masterpiece blend of excellent architecture, Feng Shui, fantastic location and caters’ for a clientele that fit in with Guangzhou’s who’s who. The hotel’s architectural genius and interior design based on bamboo comes from the great mind of Remedios- who has won accolades for his work on the Grand Hyatt, among other projects’. The hotel is located centrally in the prime setting of the Zhujiang New Town. The opening and closing ceremonies of the 16th Asian Games in 2010 were held at a stadium that is only a 10 minute walk away from the hotel. Visitors can enjoy a lovely walk from the hotel to the Pearl river bank to witness the stadium and the Canton Tower. The park is even more so beautiful at night when it is brightly lit up in colored neon. Perhaps the most beautiful garden I have seen for a long time anywhere in China.
If you are visiting Guangzhou for the first time- especially on a business trip- then most likely you may have been whisked straight from the airport to the hotel, and then straight to your meeting room or office (and vice-versa). So when you are in an international bubble like this, it is difficult to enjoy the true colors and flavor of the real Guangzhou city. For some guests, like Airline Pilots, Directors Etc., it would be even more challenging to get out of the “western bubble” because the atmosphere of the Grand Hyatt Guangzhou portrays’ their unique lifestyle. This means that all you would see from your window is a skyline full of modern high rise buildings’, the Canton Tower and not much more (except the huge construction site that is visible from the eastern side of the building).
The Grand Hyatt Guangzhou building is an architectural marvel it’self- looking rather like a large sandstone colored Arc De Triomphe with one tower housing the hotel rooms’ and facilities’, while the other consisting of offices’. It somewhat reminded me of the “La Defense” building in Paris, though on a much smaller scale! An upside-down fountain that resembles a rain shower is constantly on the move in the middle of the large structure. Like most of the other Grand Hyatt hotels’ in China, the lobby is not located on the ground floor- another unusual aspect of this hotel and a first for any other hotel in Guangzhou.
The first thing that strikes out about the rooms is that they are rather unusual compared to most other Grand Hyatt hotels around the world- perhaps only comparable to the Park Hyatt in Beijing. This is more than true for the rooms in the Club Grand area. It’s almost as if this was a modern boutique hotel with Chinese courtyard styled aspects rather than a luxury business hotel. Examples of this are evident everywhere ranging from the light switches with pictures (no on/off words’), to the studio style setting where the only thing separating the bed with the spacious innovative open bathroom is the huge glass window (rest assured the view can be blocked off with an electronic drop-down curtain!). Nothing beats the feeling of standing under a rain shower after a long hard day’s work- now that is refreshing (and priceless). I wonder if the design and architecture of the hotel is meant to resemble the neat blend between the modernity of the new China and that of the old China (especially with the bamboo touch, and the open soaking tub). There are plenty of choices for the guest to poke into.
The room is such an adventure that I got horribly confused and thought that the marble bathroom sink was actually a designer kitchen sink. Well, at least it looks like one! Not to mention the other minor but important touches included in your room, such as the HUGE 37 inch LCD Philips flat-screen that neatly folds away into the wall, and the innovative iPod docking stations’ that every room has (essential for the essentials).
Every inch of the building is made to full use-this includes the bridge that connects the two towers’. The suspended bridge houses the “Guanxi Lounge” which is another innovation from the designers of the hotel building. Here you can just while away the evening while sipping a glass of, say for example, fine “2 Up Shiraz” or the in house, “G Wine”. The “Guanxi Lounge” can be the perfect place to have pre-dinner drinks and nuts. From my experience there is nothing like it anywhere else in this vibrant Cantonese capital of 9 million inhabitants’.
The gastronomical highlight of the Grand Hyatt Guangzhou has to be the exciting “Market Café”; an action packed dining area on the 22nd floor consisting of a multi-cuisine buffet with food from around the world (including Japan, Europe and Chinese). Renowned Chef de Cuisine Larry Liu and his team have done a fantastic job in creating a truly gastronomic magic in all of the eight live cooking stations that offer nothing but exceptional service and a totally interactive dining experience. Conveniently situated on top of the Market Café is the splendid Penthouse restaurant offering fine authentic Cantonese cuisine to guests’ with 13 luxurious, residential-style private dining suites’ that offer stunning views’ across to the Pearl river and the Canton Tower. Food lovers must jump at the first opportunity to try any one of the dishes at with the Market Café and the Penthouse. The latter also comes complete with a personalized butler service.
From the glamour of the culinary delights and the rooms décor comes the fine art of relaxing. After a long tiring day nothing beats the feeling of going to the O Spa for a wind down massage. The O Spa offers at least 36 varieties of treatment including pedicure, manicure and professional body massage services to cool down your heels after a long day. Highly recommended is the 60 minute “Signature O Spa Massage” that loosens up the body and thoroughly refreshes your mind and soul. Having a relaxing foot or back massage after a long tiring day forms part of the culture in China. Evidence of this can be seen with the numerous Spa houses scattered around every city and village. Local Guangzhou people that have a deep passion for massage and Spa treatments’ would jump at the first opportunity to have a luxurious massage at a place such as the Grand Hyatt.
Even five years’ ago I would never have imagined that Guangzhou would host a truly five star hotel such as the Grand Hyatt. I just could not picture it simply because the rich history and culture of this city is much rooted into the local life- the Cantonese lifestyle that is. While I was eating my breakfast at the rather quite Grand Club and looking towards the Pearl river, thoughts went through my mind. I was like “Wow, is this really the Guangzhou I came to in 2002?” Sometimes the rapid pace at which this country is developing is all the more dizzying and sometimes hard to swallow. It’s just such an emotional ride. I am sure that the staff at the Grand Hyatt will also feel the same when they realize how rapidly the area and the environment around them is changing everyday. After all this is China- it’s where the money is and it’s where the future is.
Just like the rest of the Zhujiang New Town area (including the beautiful Canton Tower), the Grand Hyatt Guangzhou is a bit dull during the day but projects to be more beautiful and comes alive at night time when all the hotels lights’ are lit. This is very much true for all the eateries and the lobby area as well. There is so much happening at the Grand Hyatt Guangzhou and it is such a unique attraction that the longer you stay here the more you tend to fall in love with the place. Though still a virgin to Guangzhou, the Grand Hyatt brand is steadily becoming popular, and will continue to do so as the city becomes more international in the years to come.
Located on the 3rd floor of The Ritz-Carlton hotel in Guangzhou, the award-winning Lai Heen restaurant is a fine example of fine Cantonese dining. It provides an experience like no other. You just have to be there to feel the true aroma of the Cantonese food, art and culture.
Design, perfection and presentation are the buzz words that The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou prides itself in especially when it comes to providing a truly five star quality cuisine. The experience at the Lai Heen commences even before you set your hands on your chopsticks. Guests are greeted by the sight of a Chinese lady dressed in traditional wear and playing the stringed Zheng. Waitresses dressed in the tradition Qi Piao can be observed delivering the dishes to the various dining rooms. The atmosphere portrays elegance and is not as loud as one would expect from a typical Chinese restaurant in mainland China. After all, this is a high quality eatery at The Ritz-Carlton that mostly plays host to business people and the high end market. Though quiet on the whole, yet still some gentle remises of laughter can be heard in the background and sometimes even the occasional “Gambei!” (“Cheers!”), followed by the clinking of the wine, or Mao-tai glasses.
Besides the main dining room, there are six private rooms and eight semi-private rooms’ that are elegantly designed and decorated. The private dining rooms can be separated by either the doors, or the tradition style of a drop-down Chinese curtain. The Feng Shui cannot be any better because all the rooms are facing towards the direction of the lady that plays’ the stringed Zheng in the veranda of the restaurant. Now, whether that’s a good thing or bad is purely a personal choice but the fact of the matter is that it projects a feeling of elegance. All the dishes are prepared under the excellent direction of Cantonese cooking master Chef Mark Leung.
The Lai Heen specialises in providing an unforgettable experience when it comes to Tea pairing. The process of “tea-pairing” consists of a pioneering blend of eastern and western fine dining experience and tradition that is available only at the “Lai Heen”. Guests can experience the Cantonese ambience and taste of an exclusive set menu featuring seven set dishes that are expertly coupled with five different varieties of tea from across China. I actually felt that this was more like an excellent art exhibition of the food and not just a restaurant. If you love tea, like I do, then you would jump at the first opportunity to try the most original of the foods at this restaurant. In all the years that I have been reviewing restaurants’ and living in China, this was the first time that I had come across a restaurant where the food has a direct relationship with certain types of Chinese tea. I could not wait to get my chopsticks into the dishes!
The culinary adventure commenced with a lovely “Grilled suckling pig in lychee tea flavour”. This dish was accompanied with freshly made Lychee tea. The suckling pig is a traditional Cantonese dish that forms part of any formal meal. Normally the standard way to present the dish is to have a whole suckling piglet in the middle of the table (complete with the head and tail!), and the guests slowly take parts of the meat.
The suckling pig is used because the skin is not so thick but rather juicy and crispy. So therefore the whole flavor of the meat along with the herbal toppings can be slowly absorbed by a melting feeling in the mouth. The suckling pig was accompanied by a fabulous portion of colored carrot that was presented in the shape of a circle- looked a bit like chess draughts’.
The next course consisted of the “Double boiled minced pork, fish maw and black truffle soup”. This scrumptious dish was generously accompanied with Chrysanthemum tea. I found this dish to be of a rather peculiar taste, not just because it was simply too hot but the fact that a soup was meant to be drank at the same time as the tea. Nonetheless, this combination is meant to be ridiculously good for the body especially during the winter.
Sautéed wagyu beef “French” style. Now, this was indeed a surprise. “French style, in an authentic Cantonese eatery at The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou?” I hear you say! Well, actually, yes, the sautéed wagyu beef was cooked to sheer perfection in true Cantonese style but had an added French touch in terms of the presentation. It goes well with the French-Cantonese fusion. This meal was accompanied with a Rose tea that had no colour but had the strong aroma and flavour of the romantic flower that it’s named after.
For those who have not had the chance to experience what it’s like to eat food straight from a handmade clay pot I would certainly recommend that you try the “Poached mix vegetable, dried shrimp, scallop and vermicelli in clay pot”. The clay pot is used to keep the food hot for a long time, and on the whole this was nothing but a perfection of presentation style. One could easily taste that careful attention had been made to the way the dried shrimp and scallops were surrounded by generous amounts of vermicelli. This dish was nicely accompanied with White Peony tea.
Before I was given the dessert, the chef presented a surprise Cantonese dish. A lovely dumpling accompanied with a healthy portion of fried-egg noodles shaped neatly into a pyramid was presented. I just adore dumplings, especially the ones with the shrimp and vegetables’ inside them. The Cantonese dumpling is perhaps the next best food in the far-east after the Japanese sushi. You can travel all around the world and try all the Chinese restaurants world-wide, but nothing beats the feeling of eating an authentic Cantonese dumpling in Guangzhou, the capital of Cantonese food, where people take their food exceedingly seriously.
The dessert consisted of a “Double- boiled pear flavoured with Osmanthus tea”. Even the dessert was accompanied with Osmanthus tea. The pear is a fruit considered of high esteem in Cantonese cuisine. Chef explained that this particular dish can be made according to the guests’ requirements. For example though normally the insides of the pear are taken out before the pear is served to the guests, however if the guests wish to have the pear to be filled with some other fruit then this can be arranged as well. It’s all part of the culinary experience offered at the Lai Heen. The pear is firstly boiled for almost 2 hours in the Osmanthus tea at a sustained temperature, and then served. The end result is that the guest is treated to a sweet, delicious and soft pear.
A walk around the back of the restaurant to experience the true sights and smells would bring along a perfect ending to a meal at the Lai Heen.
Prices start from 1180RMB per person plus 15% service charge (standard charge in China)
Book 3 days in advance to avoid disappointment
Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province in China, is getting well accustomed to accommodating plenty of five star international hotels. Located in the heart of Guangzhou’s latest high tech suburb, New Zhujiang Town, the beautiful Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou building with 351 luxurious rooms and suites is a marvel that stands out like a sore thumb. Unlike other hotels’ in this city, irrespective if they are of a five star or not, the beauty of The Ritz-Carlton in Guangzhou is that residents in this hotel are treated to the best views in town.
On one side you can see the beautiful Canton Tower and the Pearl River, while on the other side is the downtown Tianhe district of Guangzhou that is clearly visible even on a dull cloudy day. Within a short vicinity of the hotel, one can easily stroll to the Guangzhou Opera House and the exciting Guangdong museum.
The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou is the 72nd Ritz-Carlton property in the world and was one of the first in China that houses the luxurious Ritz-Carlton residences. The building is split into two parts; the hotels’ 351 rooms and suites are well placed from the 20th floor to the 38th floor, while the first 20 floors host 91 fully serviced luxurious private residences. Prices for the residences commence from around 20,000RMB per month (approx 2000GBP per month) for a one bedroom residence. The largest residence has four bedrooms’. First impressions count, and the first smell that one is greeted by is that of the Chinese bamboo. While in The Ritz-Carlton “bubble” where almost everything is of an international nature, it’s so easy to forget that you are in China. So it’s these priceless minor but important things, such as the bamboo ambience, that can remind the guest that “yes, you are in Guangzhou, China!”
Even though the hotel has the true five star quality modern touches, guests can still smell, feel, look and experience a truly Cantonese flavour to the place. Even before one sets their eyes on the reception, they are greeted by the sight of a fabulous fountain. In Chinese culture, the fountain is the perfect symbol of purity and of excellent Feng Shui because it is meant to bring good fortune to those where the fountain is placed. The architects and designers of The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou have certainly made an excellent choice by placing this marble wonder in the middle of the hotel.
Another speciality of The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou is its amazing suite. Unlike some of the other suites that are offered around the world, this one is much more spacious. The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou suite is one of a kind because it features a walk in cellar, a private GYM and two patios including an outdoor Jacuzzi and barbeque grill. Now, that is just what one would want to do on a hot and humid summer’s day in Guangzhou especially on the 38th floor where the air is just that little bit fresher!
One of the favourite aspects of residing at a five star hotel is that you can also experience some amazing food- some of it’s so amazing that it’s just out of this world. Just make sure you keep yourself hungry enough to absorb the culinary escapade because there is, of course, something that suit’s everyone’s tastes. For those that prefer the highlife and just while away their evening in the company of good friends or colleagues, then the Churchill Bar may be a suitable option. The views from the bar are truly magical because one gets a fascinating theatrical experience of the laser light show from the Pearl River and the Canton Tower in the distance. Whether you just want to play pool, smoke a cigar or drink the finest of malt whiskies, rest assured that you’ll be treated to an unforgettable atmosphere.
While at the Churchill Bar, just make sure that you don’t leave without meeting Bruce Deng - he has a special fondness of the place and he knows how to really enjoy a good wine and an authentic classic Romeo y Julieta Cigar. One of the best kept treasures in the Churchill Bar is the 1920s original HINE Cognac. This priceless bottle of HINE Cognac is proudly kept only by The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou. It’s so rare that even Bruce has his hands tied on the stuff!
Meanwhile for those that would prefer to experience what it must be like in a New York brassiere, they could always try a dish or two at the FOODS where an all day-dining gastronomical extravaganza awaits. It almost feels like as if you have walked in to a large market that serves nothing but luxury ready made food. It’s where all the six action packed live kitchens’ present a heaven for foodies!
With two signature restaurants’ serving luxurious food, the authentic Italian restaurant “LIMONI”, and, “Lai Heen”, the authentic Cantonese choice, you cannot ask for more (really). In essence, the whole culinary adventure that can experience in every eatery and bar is a great tribute to the executive chef of The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou, Daniel Schmidt, who with his gastronomic magic can produce anything.
The Pearl lounge has the richest teas and evening cocktails. It’s perhaps the next best lounge after the hotel’s Club lounge. The key highlight of the Pearl lounge is the scrumptious selection of sophisticated Afternoon teas and cakes. Occasionally there are a selection of tempting offers from various The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou spa is host to 11 treatment rooms that have the latest technology to pamper you to the max! Though, I must say that the best view comes from the middle of the open air 25-meter swimming pool. It’s a sheer luxury to swim in luke warm waters’ while the outside temperature during the Guangzhou winter can be felt to be freezing (especially with the humidity in the air as well).
One of the most wonderful things about a new hotel is that all the furniture and infrastructure is brand new too. With each duvet having over 400-thread-count linens wrapping fine French down that provide a sleep that will make you feel as if you are in paradise. That means you’ll also be made sure that you are treated to the latest technology during your stay that includes electronic curtains, remote controlled lighting and in-room fresh ground coffee making machines are just some of the things that one can experience. One of the advantages of those staying in the club rooms is that you get complimentary arrival transfers from either the Guangzhou Baiyun airport or from the Guangzhou-East railway station.
Oh, and for sure you cannot escape without trying one of the different types of teas available in the rooms. This is all thought about carefully because Guangdong people are especially fond of tea. Here are just some of the beautiful teas available for you to try and those that are available in the room:
· Eight treasure Gongju tea (Orange packet)
· Imperial Pu-erh tea (Brown tea)
· Longjing tea (Green packet)
· Mint tea
· Earl Grey tea
· Jasmine Pearl Tea (Creamy colour)
It’s become well recognised that Guangzhou has shown to be an economic success story of southern China, and with the introduction of The Ritz-Carlton brand in Guangzhou it’s another success story for the country and the people that this city is indeed becoming more international, and will continue to do so in the years to come. The Ritz-Carlton, Guangzhou has also benefitted a lot from the city hosting the 16th Asian games in December 2010. Both the opening and closing ceremonies were held just minutes away from the hotel, and the whole spectacle could easily be seen from the rooms. People definitely now have a choice of a high quality five star hotel right bang in the middle of the best and cleanest part of the metropolis.
A few things that make Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province, stand out from other cities in China include the Music and Drama (Cantonese Opera is well known world-wide), the spirit and passion for Sport (The Guangzhou 2010 Asia Games and the 2010 Guangzhou Para Asia Games), the abundance of Shopping malls that throng the city, and the sheer delight of producing culinary delight (the renowned Cantonese cuisine). If anything it’s the latter that really distinguishes Guangzhou from all the other cities in China. Many people think that Cantonese cuisine derives from Hong Kong, however actually to many people’s surprise it comes from Guangzhou. Therefore, it goes without saying that Guangzhou is the gastronomical capital and the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine. Guangzhou has a long history and tradition of presenting world famous dishes such as Boat Porridge, Steamed Rice Balls, Shahe Rice Noodles and Yum-Cha. It would also be worth-while to try the Jade with Pineapple and Mint with Lotus.
While you are spending time in this city, then if you want to try authentic Cantonese cuisine, then pay a visit to the Beiyuan Cuisine Restaurant (北园酒家), located in the Xiaobei Lu area (in the Yuexiu District- not too far away from Yuexiu Park). This eatery is the perfect place to have a meal, especially if you have been to the Baiyun Park or the nearby Yuexiu Park. There is no better way to cool down your heels after a long tiring day than to relax and indulge in fabulous Cantonese cuisine at a marvelous restaurant in downtown Guangzhou, right?
Since its official opening in 1928, the Beiyuan Restaurant has firmly established itself as one of the three large Lingnan-Garden style restaurants in the city of Guangzhou. It seems hard to swallow that the atmosphere inside the restaurant and the surrounding buildings’ is rather relaxed compared to the sheer hustle and bustle of the traffic and other clamor outside. It would be a fair comment to make that despite the food showing its fabulous taste and colors, the customer service is disappointing and below par that one would expect from a five star quality restaurant. Now, its easy for us (i.e. foreigners!) to complain and say that it is in China- but hey, that should be no excuse whatsoever because there are a myriad of other restaurants around the country of a similar status that have a much better customer service. But the good thing is that the Beiyuan is one of those restaurants where you’ll find Dim Sum all day for your delight.
I commenced my culinary journey with a glass of fresh Watermelon Juice. Though, I could have easily opted for a glass of fine Chinese wine (Chuang Yu is one of the finest) had I not been planning an early start to the following day. The Beiyuan has a real Cantonese feel, both in the atmosphere of the place and with the luxurious décor that surrounds it (nothing comes close to one of the walls covered in nothing but gold plated leaves).
In Cantonese culture it is best to have plenty of dishes on the table, and plenty of noise in the restaurant to accompany that. So the saying goes that the louder the noise the better the expectation of the food in the restaurant. I went for three popular native Cantonese dishes. Starting off with the well-liked diced Roasted Chicken with salad, I slowly tucked away into each one with a spoonful. It is well advised to order a bowlful of freshly boiled white Rice. The Rice goes well with any dish in China because the bland taste of the rice adds a dry touch to food that may be otherwise oily or having a strong flavor.
The next dish was the dry rice noodle with Pork meat and green bean shoots (40RMB). The rice noodles were slightly salty and with a certain crispness that blended in neatly with the pork meat (minced) and the green bean shoots’. Diced Chicken with bean curd in a hot pot (Yi xiang Ji Li Do Fou Bou of around 45RMB) is highly recommended. The creamy bean curd goes very well with the scrumptious diced Chicken pieces. The final touch of sheer culinary delight came along with the fabulous Sautéed Squid and the rice (40RMB). I would not go as far as saying that these dishes are for the most adventurous person around because they did not contain any seriously exotic meat. But these dishes with excellent quality food are enough to fill you up- and the price is not bad either.
The dishes that I ordered are actually very common in Guangdong- and perhaps are the kind of dishes that may be consumed by those that are not really very adventurous with the other kinds of meat except the “normal” Chicken, Egg and Pork meats’. If you really want to try a seriously exotic dish than don’t stop your tongue from tucking into the Braised Sea Cucumber (880RMB per person), Stewed Chicken and Pork Skin Sauce (320RMB) and the Stewed Bloody Nest with Red Dates and Syrup (600RMB). The latter dish is very sweet, looks horribly red, but is good for your heart and brain. Nevertheless, in light of all of these the most expensive of the dishes at the Beiyuan is the 16 heads’ Japanese dried Abalone (980RMB per person).
The Beiyuan is no stranger to the likes of Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and other travel guides around the world. Though it’s the unique taste of the dishes and the true Cantonese feel of the place that makes every review unique. The food at the Beiyuan is so good that even after an hour of leaving the restaurant, I kept on paraphrasing the excellent quality of the three dishes (really).
Address: No. 202 Xiaobei Lu, Yuexiu District, Guangzhou.
Guangzhou Baiyun airport is a spacious, modern and very convenient international airport connecting millions to all corners of the globe. Nevertheless, this airport of the Pearl delta is perhaps not the best place to have a late lunch, dinner, or any meal for that matter. For some reason, some of the best eateries at Guangzhou Baiyun airport are located prior to security clearance. I happened to be around an hour and a half early for my departure time to Bangkok with Egyptair. I had already passed the security customs and was making my way to the international departure gates.
The international departure gates area at Guangzhou Baiyun airport is huge and spacious. It has almost everything that any other decent quality airport around the world would have- except good quality eateries. I was craving for a quick bite, but could not find anything decent. Normally I refrain from eating oily food prior to getting on a plane because it’s not good for your stomach at high altitude to have heavy oily food - rather a bland and simple food is OK. However, this time around I was exhausted and was open for suggestion for anything…even MacDonald’s. But guess what? I could not even find that.
Having such a large and long departure lounge has its drawbacks for passengers- especially if you already have walked around a mile to get to the international departure lounge from the check in desks’. I would dread to imagine what life would be like if I had been disabled and had to travel through Guangzhou Baiyun airport because they have very limited facilities for the disabled (i.e. no disabled toilets’ or wheelchair ramps’).
At one end of the departure gate area was a coffee shop that served ridiculously overpriced muffins’, coffee and other related food. Fancy a Coffee at 55RMB in China or a Muffin priced at around 50RMB? (both items in example approx. $8 USD!). They did serve a few hot Baps; however would you pay 70RMB for one in China? (Approx. $11USD!). Forget get, I thought.
I briskly walked further on for around another 100 meters to find a western style restaurant called “Jin Long Coffee”, situated opposite my departure gate from where I would take the Egyptair flight. I glanced at the menu and noticed how ridiculous the prices were. Anyway, hey, I was knackered, still had some valid time prior to take-off, and wanted to fill my stomach up with some good light food. I walked up to one of the window seats and rested my shoulder Camera bag and the laptop onto one of the neatly varnished wooden chairs’.
Just at the moment as I sat down to order my meal, a Thai Airways A330 aircraft had arrived at its gate. After all these years’, I still love looking at planes. Sometimes you just can’t help wonder how such a metal tube can carry so many passengers, rubbish, food, fuel and everything else- and just by running for around a mile it can take off into the sky. It has to be the world’s best wonders’. I was tempted to fly with Thai Airways, however I have flown with them before so I opted to try and see if Egyptair matched up to the expectation. But anyways, what better way to enjoy eating a snack prior to your flight than eating while plane spotting!
The staff at the “Jin Long Coffee” restaurant did not seem to be very much customer serviced oriented. Perhaps bored or perhaps just couldn’t be bothered to serve the customers at all- whatever it was I started to grow serious suspicious on the effectiveness of the staff at this eatery.
I opted for the Tuna Sandwich. In China, the concept of eating a sandwich is a new one. Not many people like eating it. Why? Because, 1. It contains fresh uncooked vegetables’ and Chinese people usually are not used to eating uncooked vegetables and 2. It is considered to be a difficult food to make- not many chefs know the exact way or have the right ingredients’ to make a proper western Sandwich.
After around 15 minutes of waiting, I was wondering why my food has not arrived. After all it was just a sandwich and not a proper hot meal, and time was running out because I only had around 40 minutes left in order to take my flight. So I decided to walk to the counter and ask what’s happening with my order. You would not believe what the response was. “Sandwich? Did you order one sir? When?” asked the waitress; and another waitress came to ask me in her limited English “Sir, are you OK, any matter with you”. I politely told them that I had ordered a sandwich but since no one knew what I was taking about so there was no need to bring it anymore.
Just as I was about to leave, one of the waitresses came in with a plate containing four small triangle sandwiches. The Tuna was not fresh. It seemed to have been taken straight from a preserved tin and slapped directly onto the bread. There were no other ingredients’ in store. No salad and no cream. The bread was soggy because of the tasteless tinned Tuna that had been slapped onto the dish. This dish was not even worth 10RMB let alone the 65RMB (Approx. $11USD) I paid for the sandwich.
Not being picky but for that amount of money in China, if you go to a place like “Garwon” or “Yong He Dou Jiang”, you can easily eat around 6 meals costing 10RMB each and they would taste much better than this below average quality sandwich which I had. It was an interesting experience to say the least and it left me with a bitter taste- so much so that I would seriously re-consider eating anything at the “Jin Long Coffee” restaurant in the international departures lounge of Guangzhou airport.
On the whole, people living in Asia are very superstitious. Go anywhere-from the narrow alleyways in India to the night markets of Taipei or Malaysia-and you are bound to come across hundreds of locals sticking out their hands or thumbs in the hope that the fortune teller will deliver them some good news regarding money, health or love.
It really does seem as if almost everyone is seeking some kind of miracle from these saints, whose role in society is deeply rooted in local religious beliefs, compelling people to set aside the doubts of modernity to abide by their proclamations. As you're about to find out, even I fell for the tricks of these wandering hermits. In all the years I have been in China, I have had my fair share of stories regarding random conversations with certain fortune tellers.
Try walking anywhere in China without bumping into one of them. Unless you are in the cushy surroundings of your own vehicle, chances are that you won't be able to avoid someone resembling a Buddhist Monk in your travels around the city. They are usually casually dressed in brown or orange-colored overalls and sporting a crew cut or a fully-shaved head covered with a plain clay-colored hat resembling one that a surgeon wears in the operating theater (this applies to the women too). The first thing that strikes you about these fortune tellers is that they will stop you before you even blink at them. It's almost as if they have the power to read your mind;even if you have not noticed them, somehow they end up noticing you.
In 2004, I fondly remember a sudden encounter with a Cantonese fortune eller on a muggy August evening in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. I happened to be walking back to my home after a long and tiring day at work. The weather was one of the reasons I was exhausted; I felt as if I had been to the gym in my business suit. All I wanted to do was retreat to the air conditioned surroundings of my home and drop dead on my bed. Just as I was about to turn right into the side road that led to my apartment, I stumbled across an elderly monk dressed in yellow pajamas, clutching a saggy-looking rucksack over his shoulder.
What happened next was just too strange to believe. The monk pointed his finger straight at my face and said in clear Mandarin: "ni....ni shi ying guo ren ma?" "You.... you are a British man, right?". Dumbstruck, I could not resist the curiosity to find out how on earth he knew my nationality. Maybe he was guessing, but if he was, his guess was too good-I actually look like I am from South Asia or perhaps the Middle East. The man could hardly communicate in English. Our conversation consisted of me trying to communicate with the elder monk in as much Chinese as I could muster. While I am not a huge fan of self-admiration I must say that I was able to understand almost everything he said. Both of us used a lot of hand gestures too.
When it got to the point of showing him the palm of my hand, his eyes opened wide. It's almost as if he was surprised. Surely it can't be that bad!? I thought to myself. Thoughts and questions gathered in my mind at the same time. My fears were allayed, however, when all he said was that I have a bright future and that I would live a healthy life. He then went onto to mention that the energy levels of my body were low. "Energy levels of my body are low? What's that supposed to mean? I asked him to clarify, but he could not explain this point clearly, even in Chinese. From some of my other experiences with clairvoyants, I have found myself used like a money machine, where I had to fork out the required amount of notes each time I wanted to find out more about my future.
Oddly, this elder asked for no money whatsoever. With a smile on his face and gesturing with two thumbs in the air, he handed me a small gold-colored "lucky charm," and walked casually away-quickly disappearing into the chaotic sea of Guangzhou's nightly traffic scene. From this, and other experiences, all I can say is that I am still in search of my future. Have any one of these predictions actually come true? It's a tricky question and I am not really sure of the answer.
So next time you are in China... enjoy your fortune being told. Irrespective of whether it's good or bad news, don't bother losing your sleep over it.
I had heard about Xiaozhou, a small village on the outskirts of Guangzhou city in Southern China, as being a popular re-treat for artists and poets. I was told that its quite, beautiful and clean. However, I am sorry to say, but I was rather disappointed when I finally got there. It was quite and beautiful- but certainly not clean (especially the river which seems never to have been cleaned- and gives off a horrible stench). The tourist map in my Hotel (The China Hotel by Marriott in Guangzhou) recommends its guests to visit this village, provided they have seen all the other tourist attractions in the city.
Xiaozhou Village features classical Cantonese community landscapes by water, including canals, well-kept ancient buildings, bridges and local folkways. The only major disappointment with Xiaozhou is that the river is not clean and gives off a horrible stench. So if someone comes to Xiaozhou in search of a beautiful river, they will be let down. Other than this, it is worth visiting.
Don’t get me wrong- Xiaozhou Village is not a museum, or an official tourist attraction, but people actually live there. Most of the residents are elderly folk who have maintained their ways of living for centuries. It’s almost as if time has stopped in Xiaozhou. While the rest of Guangzhou has moved on at a rapid pace, life in Xiaozhou is slow, and has a somewhat routine to it. Xiaozhou is a small and close-knit community.
Everyone knows each other, and gossip travels fast amongst the old folk. Being a small and quite village also means that you can hear people arguing or shouting in another part of the neighbourhood. For example you may be in one part of the village and can still hear someone practicing Cantonese Opera loudly in another household!! If you ever want to taste what living in China must have been like, say, in the 1980s, then take a short trip to Xiaozhou!
I took Line 3 Metro to Kecun station, and then bus 252 to Xiaozhou (it is 11 stops to Xiaozhou Village from Kecun, and costs 2RMB). The hour long bus journey from Kecun station to Xiaozhou village snakes its way between some of the most deprived areas of Guangzhou. Most people who got onto the bus at some of the stops on the way would look at me in curiosity as they most probably have never come across a non-Chinese person before. It just makes you wonder about the stark contrast between the high rise life of the city centre and the village life on the outskirts, where a family of four can survive on a salary of around 200RMB a month (compare this with a average monthly salary of around 4000RMB for a white collar worker).
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a photo shoot of the new five-seater MG 6, which was briefly being showcased at the Grand View Mall in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou earlier this month. The MG 6 fastback was first shown at the Guangzhou Auto Show in mid-November 2009. Based around the architecture of the Roewe 550 sedan, which in turn is based on a similar status on the late 1990s’ Rover 75, the production version of the MG 6 is powered by the same 1·8-litre engine, and the range-topper is a turbocharged model. The fastback neatly ties in to the British image which was firmly established for the brand by NAC, MG’s original Chinese purchaser, and SAIC, which took over NAC. Within the first day of being showcased, MG confirmed around 200 potential buyers (would you believe it, those 200 buyers are just regular shoppers who happened to walk by and thought "Hmm...I would not mind taking a MG home today!"). China is set to have the largest number of cars on its roads than any other country. According to Xinhua News Agency, more than 13.5 Million cars were sold in China in 2009, compared to just under 10.4m in the US. As an example, in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, there are on average around 80,000 new cars every month- although the big growth is actually in the smaller cities due to the tax breaks on smaller and cheaper cars. You'd be amazed what you can get in China!
The model is Miss. Jiang Li. With Miss Li’s, and MG's permission, I have the pleasure of sharing some photos with you. Enjoy!
To the rest of the world most probably it is just another ordinary day, but in China and most SE Asian countries where Chinese festivals are celebrated, today, the "26th of August 2009" is the Chinese equivalent of St Valentine’s day. More formally it is known in Mandarin as the Qi Xi Festival (translated into "The Night of Sevens"), and falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar; hence its name. Always on a different day every year.
There is no official holiday in China, but let it be known that most restaurants are fully booked well in advance, and all couples (especially the males!) have to make it a commitment for a romantic date, either at home for dinner or outside at a restaurant. State media also have special television shows dedicated with the theme of romance. CCTV1, the national television channel (as well as many local provincial channels as well), air a special Blind date show for young viewers. If you are in China for the first time and are confused at the sight of a large number of couples holding roses in the middle of August, usually red or white; and also if you are unable to get a seat at most good restaurants, then at least I hope now you know the reason why! There are many stories which explain the meaning for this day.
Fond memories of Guangzhou as well, on the banks of the Pearl River where many young (and sadly poor) children roam around with bunches of small Roses in their hands, eagerly looking for any couples to whom they can sell the Rose flowers to. Festivals such as the QiXi are the perfect occasion for these children to make as much profit as possible. As soon as they see any couple approaching, some of the children can even climb onto the people's legs, determined to hold on as tightly as possible until the person buys the flowers from them. It can be a shocking experience for anyone who would not imagine that a young child (maybe under the age of 10) would be so desperate to sell a Rose flower worth only 3RMB (Approx £0.20 pence), that they would not let go of your leg until you pay them money or purchase the flower. It's not nice to see and experience. These children must be under great pressure to make as much money as possible, and maybe they don't even get to keep that money. It's so ironic that on such a day of love and laughter, that one has to come across this scene on the banks of a romantic river. You just wish there is no poverty in this world....anyways coming back to the main subject...
I remember being told that in some parts of Guangxi Province, young women offered fruit and cakes to pray for a alert mind. While in other provinces there are girls who would do weaving and handcrafts. Overall it’s a great day to enjoy good Chinese food!
2002年我的第一次旅行向中国….并且如此开始的旅途 (My first trip to CHINA in 2002- including Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai)
On the afternoon of Friday the 23rd of February 2002 (it was also my sisters birthday), I left Loughborough for Heathrow giving myself of what I thought would be ample time, in the hope that I would be able to join my parents and sister for a short dinner at the airport terminal before leaving on the 13 hour evening flight with British Airways to Hong Kong. It just so happened that I arrived late (as always I do for my flights!), had no time to think about any long good-byes let alone a dinner; and ended up running for the departure gate (as always). Its a bad habit of mine, running at airports to catch my flight at the last minute, irrespective if I am on a business or pleasure trip...however, remarkably I have never missed a flight (YET).
Perhaps the greatest trip of my life so far because I had done so much preparation to understand the culture, the language (although I could not even say "Hello" in Chinese) and the food...but I am not exaggerating. In actual fact the whole week seemed like a long dream because everything happened so quickly. I completed my final exam in the morning in the (annoyingly) wet and windy Loughborough; and 24 hours later I was on a night cruise on the Pearl River in the middle of Guangzhou, and it was like, I have to make the most of this trip because I am only here for seven days. When you are so far away for such a short time, not knowing if you will ever go back to the place again in the future, then there should be a second wasted. So effectively everyday seemed like a great dream because I saw so many things in such a small amount of time. It was amazing.
First impressions of China?
China is a very beautiful country, one which has so much to offer but does not normally get the chance to show off its true inner self to the outside world- what do I mean by this? Well, there are those who question if it is still a friend or foe, there are also lots of biased points against (and some, of course, for) China’s policies. Media can be a wrong source for digesting a destination’s good and bad points because not all media is full of positive points. For example, the coverage of the Beijing Olympics (as an example), I believe was not covered in a well balanced way. I use factual data to take wherever I go (like for example from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Website). Of course, one does not expect a simple and smooth approach to life from a country which is still considered by some hard-line economists as a sleeping dragon that is too ambitious...the obvious answer to this statement would be that even Rome was not built in one day.
It goes without saying that the cultural differences do not hit you when you land in Hong Kong (as most of its’ colonial British feel is somewhat fading away at a slow pace- for many it’s still a home away from home). There used to be a saying among the English, “If you cannot make it in London, then go to Hong Kong”, however, even though Hong Kong has a “International” feel to it, that statement would no longer stand as the former colony is now, of course, part of China. Nevertheless, the real culture shock would hit anyone once they cross the border into the mainland. Shenzhen is the city that borders Hong Kong and at that time had only 2 border crossing, one at Huanggang and the other at LoWu.
From Hong Kong, once I crossed the border I took the Guang-Shen train straight to the capital of Guangdong Province, Guangzhou. If I just say that “China is amazing and full of so many surprises that one cannot just sum up the whole picture in one go”, that would be a common statement these days because so many people have experienced the country, but then in 2002, for me, those were the first words that came out of my mouth. China has of course a lot of similarities with its neighbours (namely Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, India etc), and like any Asian country which is moving from the developing stage into a newly industrialised stage, it has the good points, the bad points and the unmentionable ones- and that’s not too difficult to observe.
A short ride on one of the many local buses will open your eyes immediately; you may be travelling in a very affluent area at one point, and then suddenly you may come across a highly deprived neighbourhood. An extreme example as it may seem, but just imagine you are driving through the suburbs of a busy western city like London one minute and then suddenly you are travelling through the shanty towns of, say an economically deprived rural village, and a minute later you are suddenly back into the affluent area (vice-versa). There may be many places in the world where such contrasts exist, but to see it in the flash and blood is a unique experience. Watching something on the television or reading about it on the internet is not quite the same as experiencing it in real life.
Then there are also the minor but important downsides from living in the world’s fastest growing economy: China is also a VERY noisy country, especially in the big cities (Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai), for example it is considered normal to use the drill or do heavy construction at 2am in the morning or even all night! If you are in London and you have noisy neighbours, I bet nothing is more annoying than having a drill go off almost all night long.
China is also the world's largest consumer of alcohol so it is no surprise that if your neighbours (irrespective if it is a hotel or home) are heavy drinkers, then they will sure keep you awake all night with loud shouting and arguing over Mah-jong or any card games which they be playing. It may be quite and then suddenly you hear a loud “Arrrgggg” (of course, indicating that someone has won the Mah-Jong equivalent of the national lottery!).
China is also the worlds largest market for tobacco, therefore it is no surprise that you will be exposed to smoke everywhere because people smoke in Internet cafes, restaurants, cafes, buses...and if you don't smoke (like myself) then you are going to find it just that little bit challenging!
If you are in the workplace (corporate culture defines a very different meaning in China as compared to say a more "International" environment such as London, Hong Kong), then you will be exposed to things such as the "normality" of answering you mobile phone in the middle of a corporate meeting/presentation and even a formal Interview!
What about the culture, the people and those Famous Chinese Restaurants?
While it is quite difficult for a lone western tourist to get around and speak English with the locals, the people are very friendly and assisting. Over in the border in Hong Kong it is more of a relaxed approach towards foreigners because of the reason that Hong Kong is multicultural (and maybe because there are too many people), however that is not the case in the mainland. You do get a lot of respect and VIP treatment as a foreigner in China.
To some extent it's an advantage to be a foreigner in the mainland because you get treated in a much better way. I mean as an example I remember popping into a local sweet shop (nothing more different then a newsagent in the UK), and as soon as they saw me entering the shop, they were so eager (not pushy or anything) to lend a hand or get me to buy anything. Now I can imagine that kind of hospitality would seldom be seen towards a tourist in the UK- of course there are good places and bad places everywhere. That’s just one simple example, and also another one is that people are most willing to learn English.
The Chinese food you get in your local takeaways’ in the UK is nothing compared to what you get over there in China, of course that’s the same with all other foreign foods I hear you say, but the experience is totally different. You simply have to taste it to believe it. The most wonderful thing about seafood in Chinese restaurants is that it’s FRESH and you can choose what to eat straight from the fish tanks!
Food, especially when it comes to eating out at Dinner time, is a very important part of the Chinese lifestyle- and even more "fashionable" in Guangzhou because of the variety of seafood available here.
Restaurants in general within the UK are nothing compared to what you will see in Guangzhou or for that matter the whole of China, it brings out a whole new meaning to eating out. The competition can be so fierce in some cases that some of the best seafood restaurants in Guangzhou are similar in size to four story buildings, which usually tend to have their own Karaoke Bars (a must to try even if you do not speak the language and a popular pastime of the locals).
Chinese tea...and did I hear someone say night zoo?
One of the highlights of my trip was going to see a zoo at night (yes.. a night zoo). A unique experience which is seldom seen in the west..with all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures. Not only a zoo but mix that with a night circus, a laser disco show, and a whole load of water acrobats show which consisted of the Chinese water sports Olympic team...so it was more like a huge funfair but at nighttime..quite impressive actually. Sounds too good to believe.
Moving on from night zoos...lets talk about something which is a bit more of a common thing in China...Tea! Apart from India and Sri Lanka, China is the world largest exporter of the stuff...and its pretty much quite hard to avoid...leaving China without trying at least 4 or 5 different types of tea would be a comparable to leaving Scotland without trying whiskey. If its your first time drinking Chinese tea, you would be immensely surprised to know that it has no taste just sweet smell, nevertheless after a week of trying the stuff- day in day out, it felt soo good that I got put off drinking English tea altogether!
This one week’s trip was my first trip to China and just about when I thought that maybe this would be also my last time to go there, I was fortunate enough to have been offered a contract position as a Graduate Sales Engineer with Philips Semiconductors in Shenzhen, China. This was indeed an exciting opportunity, so much for my fate that I have been in China ever since and never looked back.
It was just coming towards the end of September 2004 and I had been in China for just over a month. The Chinese Mid-autumn festival (Moon Cake Festival) was approaching and all of my colleagues were going on vacation during that week. I had so many choices ranging from Thailand, India, Singapore and cities within China. Nevertheless in the end I chose to visit the capital city, Beijing. This was my first trip to a Chinese city outside of Guangzhou and I couldn’t wait to get going. Booking flights and accommodation was bit of an experience for me for a number of reasons; firstly I could not speak Chinese so I could not join a tour and secondly most places were fully booked because of the peak holiday season…I also felt a bit guilty that I had always relied upon friends and colleagues to translate for me and that’s when I also started making a serious effort at learning Mandarin.
In the end I decided that I was going with a tour group however I was only to stay at the same hotel as them, everything else I decided to do it myself as I am a fond tourist and quite an adventurer anyways.
I remember that even though it was the first week of October, the air in Guangzhou was still quite warm and humid on the morning of my departure date. Hurrying to the airport in a rush I finally managed to find my tourist group, who, like most tour groups in China, were carrying bright saffron coloured triangular flags. After the three hour morning flight on a China Southern Airlines Boeing 757-200 aircraft, I finally arrived at Beijing Capital Airport where the temperature was almost freezing and the air was dry with little humidity, which was much fresher than the highly humid and sticky Guangzhou that I had left nearly 4 hours behind me in the south- suddenly it seemed as if I had come to a different country! However, the truth was that for the next five days every experience, every sound and every smell and every taste would echo loudly in my ear that I’ve arrived somewhere magical, somewhere special…and even the cold temperatures didn’t deter me from enjoy moment of it.
This is the beauty of being in China I suppose that because it’s such a massive country that you are bound to come across not just different cultures however different climates as well considering if you travel from east to west or from north to south; and vice versa. Of course as a first time visitor to a country or a city so far away, like most tourists, I found Beijing to be a great place to be in, and I wished I could stay there forever...rather see it with my eyes than keep it in my heart I’d say.
Whenever I’m in Beijing I feel like I am in the real ancient China because you are always surrounded by a bit of history which ever street or building you are in, and amazingly unlike the rest of China, even though Beijing is becoming more modernized, nevertheless it still treasures a rich past; one which is to be proud of. The people are nice, the food is scrumptious and the sights are truly more than just breathtaking…from my personal experience no visit to China is complete without paying a visit to this ancient seat of power and tradition!
Before arriving here my knowledge of this splendid city was quite poor, indeed I had heard and seen the Great Wall of China and TiananmenSquare on various media coverage in the UK and I suppose this made me want to discover those places of interest even more than before. I had five days and four nights to explore the place where thousands of years of history were waiting to be absorbed.
After checking into the splendid Renaissance Beijing Hotel in the Yanshan area (Chaoyang District), I headed off with the tour group to Beihai Park for a brief one hour visit before attending dinner at the world famous Quan Ju De Roast Duck (Beijing Duck) Restaurant on 32 Qianmen St (of course not only the oldest restaurant which has been visited by worldwide diplomats and dignitaries, however also very special because of the unique taste of the Beijing Duck that it has); more often than not it’s renowned to be the mother of all Duck restaurants in China! With this in mind it wasn’t at all surprising to observe that it was busy indeed; luck was on my side when the waitress, dressed in an elegant Chinese Traditional costume (Qí Páo, 旗袍), lead us to our reserved room. The chef brought the freshly roasted duck and served it in front of us…and I must say there is nothing quite like it! That crispy taste mixed with bamboo shoots and soy sauce is a sheer luxury and the art of real Chinese cuisine.
After the scrumptious meal we gently strolled across to the fascinating TiananmenSquare, to witness the largest square in the world. For me it was like a dream come true, I had seen it on television many times but I never imagined it would be as big as it is. The famous portrait of the great Chairman Mao still looks on from the front gate of the Forbidden City. It was an amazing moment; just standing in the middle of the square makes you feel and think that this is something really special. Be it day or night, it’s probably not only the largest but also one of the most beautiful and romantic squares in the world.
From day two onwards I was going to travel on my own without the tour party. I had an early breakfast, naturally Chinese, with fresh warm Soybean milk (Dòu jiāng, 豆浆), a white bun made with Cow’s milk along with a sweet egg yolk mixture inside it (奶黄包, Nǎi Huáng Bāo) and a long bread stick with butter (Yóu tiáo,油条). I had pre-arranged to meet one of my Chinese friends who had been kind enough to accompany me to the Forbidden City where 24 Chinese emperors ruled China for over 600 years.
Being in the forbidden city makes you feel as you have step back in time, the remarkable feeling is that I was walking on the same piece of ground that those emperors had been walking on…of course some parts are still the same and some have been renovated. We strolled through the main gates and into TiananmenSquare itself. During the day time it is quite beautiful. I felt lucky to have met Chairman Mao in his Mausoleum; however, we did not talk much (!). I also got the chance to observe the stunning Arts Museum in the square.
The afternoon was spent shopping at the long Wangfujing Dajie for souvenirs before departing to a Beijing bazaar to do window shopping as well have dinner in one of the many local eateries!
Day three: I was going to spend time at the Great Wall (Badaling) in the morning and then the Ming Tombs in the afternoon. The cost of the transportation and tour guide (Chinese Speaking) for the whole day was only 50RMB, this included traveling from Qianmen Gate in the centre of Beijing to Badaling Great Wall, about 2 hours drive in the north of the capital; then to the Ming Tombs, visiting a Beijing Duck factory and a handicraft factory on the way from Great wall to the Ming Tombs and finally visiting a traditional Chinese herbal medicine clinic/museum on the way back to the city centre in the evening.
After weeks of planning I finally arrived at the Great Wall of China. Snaking its way through the lush green mountain tops, it was just like a dream come true for me to even step foot on this speculate of the humankind. Just looking at it makes you wonder how much hard work must have gone into constructing such a marvel. No matter how differently I want to describe the Great Wall before the millions who have before me, I cannot think of any other words except that it simply is a “Magical place”.
Two hours was not enough to absorb the exquisiteness of the place. We made our way to one of the 13 grand Ming Tombs and on the way paid a visit to a Duck factory, where on one side of the factory you see the alive ducks, while on the other side of the factory you see the roasted ones…quite attention-grabbing indeed…each prepared to sheer perfection. Here you can get your hands on all things to do with a Beijing Duck; everything ranging from duck meat sweets (!) to preserved duck food and soups…ironically the only thing you cannot purchase is an alive duck itself!
Then we arrived at the Ming Tombs themselves. Situated here are the tombs of 13 of the 16 Ming Dynasty emperors. Dragon Hill lies to the east and Crouching Tiger Hill to the west. The first emperor to be buried here was Yongle who died in 1424. His tomb, Chang Ling, and that of Emperor Zhu Yijun, Ding Ling, who died in 1620, are the only two opened to visitors today. One of the more impressive sights at the Ming Tombs is the Sacred Way. The Sacred Way runs for about a kilometre and is flanked on both sides by carvings of human and animal figures. There are 12 large stone human figures and 24 of animals, all carved from single blocks of granite in 1435 during the 10th year of the reign of Emperor Xuan De. I spent the evening enjoying the renowned Peking Hot Pot dinner in the city centre.
Day four: I went to the Temple of Heaven in the morning, while the rest of the day was spent looking at the Summer Palace (and you need more than half a day for this!). Words are not enough to describe the exquisiteness and peaceful ambiance of this nature’s gift. Vogue Greece happened to be carrying out a photo shoot in front of the main Lake, much to the unwanted attention from the large crowd which had gathered as the word quickly spread around.
As the evening drew closer I made my way towards a park in the middle of the city centre where there was to be a spectacular fireworks display along with a musical Peking Opera show in the middle of the lake in celebration of the Mid Autumn Festival. This park also accommodates a small zoo at the park with a small number of monkeys and Peacocks as well as other smaller animals, all of whom you can touch without worrying. The opera show was nice with the brightly lit and colourful boat making its way slowly around the lake while the people dressed in traditional costumes told folk Chinese stories through Peking opera. A pleasant ending to a long day.
Day 5: The concluding day of my short trip had arrived quicker than I could say “TiananmenSquare”. I had a late evening flight back to Guangzhou; so subsequently I spent the morning going to Beihai Park again, this time to enjoy a peaceful walk and taking a few last photos. The afternoon was spent walking around the Hutongs that are within the main area around Wangfujing Dajie.
In these walled hutongs you'll find individual residences and courtyards where thousands of Beijingers still live, many astonishingly without modern conveniences of which we take granted for in our lives, such as a fridge, television, an electric cooker or even hot water. Many have opted to move into the more modern apartment buildings, but many still prefer the community style living of the hutong. Like many other Asian countries (India, Thailand etc) there are quite a lot of Rickshaws (3 wheeled cycles powered by a human) and I could not resist but taking a small ride around town.
I took the last flight of the day with China Southern Airlines, this time with a smaller Airbus A318 aircraft which gently flared its way towards a warm and humid Guangzhou at midnight. On the taxi back to my home from the airport, my mind was still fresh with the sights and smells of the past five days and again I had the feeling that I just experienced a long dream, where I ventured in another country and then the reality hit that maybe I may never get the chance to go back again.
However to my delight I surprised myself, after this trip I have had the chance to go to Beijing many more times.
On business trip, I have been lucky to go to Beijing more than five times, and after that I have also had the chance to live in the city for over a year (in the “Shangdi” and “Qi Er Xi” area). It’s a city which does not bore me at all. Every time I go to Beijing, it seems to get more attractive!
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