What a pearler of a town

ANTHONY DENNIS
Last updated 05:00 09/12/2013
Guangzhou landscape
Anthony Dennis

SWEET STAY: Life along the Pearl River is as engaging by night as it is by day.

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There are those moments during your travels that cause you to pause and quietly ask yourself, "This is too good to be true - it must be a set-up".

Here is one of them. I'm strolling along the Pearl River, the waterway that flows through Guangzhou, China's third biggest city.

It's a warm, fine Saturday and, rarely for smog-bound Chinese cities, today it's actually possible to discern evidence of a blue sky. The congenial locals, most of whom are ever ready with a welcoming smile, are revelling in their sunny day off.

Shuttlecocks drift gracefully through the air between players dressed in street clothes; hacky sacks, sounding like airborne salt-shakers, fling skilfully from one foot to another in groups of four; and all manner of canines are walking their owners in the sunshine.

I've been to China on a number of occasions and rarely have I experienced such an agreeable urban atmosphere. Communism, Cantonese-style, never felt so appealing.

A bit further along, we come across a group, gathered in the shade. An elderly woman is pointing with a cane to a chart attached to a wall, conducting, with gusto, a choir of strangers of various ages seated on plastic stools and singing, as one, rousing Mao Zedong revolutionary songs.

It looks like the choir could be here for the duration since next to the conductor are two large bags full of other banners with lyrics for the impromptu choirs to follow.

It's a magical, if minor, moment, alone well worth this short visit to a city - home to some 13 million people and situated in the southeast province of Guangdong, which, it's true, can initially feel just a bit like Shanghai Lite.

I'm in Guangzhou, en route to London, on a recently introduced special 72-hour visa. Visas in this day and age are a nuisance and a disincentive for travellers so it's refreshing to see the Chinese are making it easier for foreigners like me to visit, bringing Guangzhou in line with Beijing and Shanghai, which also benefit from stopover visa programs.

By opting for this visa I'd saved myself the inconvenience and expense of applying for one at home.

All that was required was for me to alert my carrier, China Southern Airlines, and its check-in desk prior to departure that I wanted to travel on a stopover visa (available only to those who have an airline ticket to another non-Chinese destination).

Nine hours later, at the modern Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, I'm greeted as I emerge from my flight by a young uniformed woman who escorts me to passport control.

But it seems news of the new 72-hour visa system, introduced only this year, has travelled slowly as I appear to be the only passenger from my flight to have applied for one. I move through to baggage claim within minutes and am then off for the 45-minute drive to my hotel, Shangri-La, Guangzhou, by the banks of the Pearl River.

Back in Guangzhou, on my Saturday walkabout, I'm discovering that while Guangzhou is a sprawling city which can require much time tediously spent in traffic as you try to access its main sights, there's also the opportunity to walk and gain a sense of the not immediately obvious human scale of the place.

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Just like Shanghai in the north, Guangzhou has colonial trading post origins. In the 19th century, Shamian Island, bordered from the mainland by the Pearl River and a man-made canal, was divided into two concessions, designed to encourage foreign trade, that were awarded to the British and the French.

Nowadays, Shamian Island is a quiet historical and residential area, perfect for an extended stroll, with many of the handsome 19th-century European-style buildings preserved, including an old bank containing the most stylishly presented Starbucks I've encountered (hey, when in tea-obsessed China, coffee-loving tipplers can't be choosers).

Curiously, on many street-corners are young women, dolled up in chic frocks and heavy make-up, taking part in what seem to be private photo shoots using the olde world architecture as backdrops.

Not far away from here, back by the Pearl River, is Guangzhou's equivalent of Raffles, more or less, the riverside White Swan Hotel. It's been undergoing a major refurbishment, complete with a high-rise tower to accommodate more guests than its original incarnation.

Life along the Pearl River is as engaging by night as it is by day. A classic after-dark outing for any visitor is a banquet in a Cantonese restaurant, such as the tourist-friendly and multi-floored Hongxing Yidu Seafood Restaurant, followed by a slightly over-long cruise along the river. Before or after dinner be sure to allow time to inspect the street-front seafood market, part of the restaurant, and its strange assortment of marine delicacies.

Along the river, the local authorities have encouraged the use of neon on public and private buildings with the light show on the 600-metre-high Canton Tower the centrepiece attraction.

Even by night, the tower, designed by Dutch architect Mark Hemel, looks a little like an aggressively squeezed face-washer, albeit a technicoloured one. The poetic Chinese prefer to liken its shape to "a beautiful elegant lady with a slim figure" inspired by "the bones of the human hip joint".

Time ticks away on my stopover and, not waiting to overstay my visa (the Chinese don't indicate what happens if you stay 73 hours) it's time to head back to Baiyun. As my China Southern Boeing 787 Dreamliner lifts off over Guangzhou I feel like breaking out into song.

Not because I'm leaving, of course, but out of a kind of nostalgia for that delightful Saturday afternoon spent promenading along the Pearl.

Now, how do those catchy Mao revolutionary ditties go again?

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of China Southern Airlines and Shangri-La, Guangzhou.

STAYING THERE The five-star Shangri-La, Guangzhou is offering two-night stays in a premium riverview room (starting from 1260RMB, about $252 per night) with daily buffet breakfasts with 600RMB, until December 31.

 

MORE INFORMATION csair.com.au; shangri-la.com/guangzhou.

- FFX Aus