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Jo's Tour of Southern China - Day 1

guangzhou Jo Wedlock
guangzhou markets Jo Wedlock
famous guangzhou markets - medicianal and animal Jo Wedlock
famous guangzhou markets 2 - medicianal and animal Jo Wedlock
scorpions in a bucket at the medicial guangzhou markets Jo Wedlock
famous dumpling restaurant in guangzhou Jo Wedlock
the canton tower by day Jo Wedlock
Guangzhou sights Jo Wedlock

Jo's Tour of Southern China - Day 1

story by: Jo Wedlock

Auckland & Guangzhou
Here I was at 10pm on a Friday night in Auckland airport ready to depart for Guangzhou, the first destination on the trip.  From there we were journeying south to Chengdu – home of the Giant Panda – before finishing up in Beijing.  While certainly not a comprehensive tour of this great land, it was but a taste of what I would hope to turn into follow up trips to the more popular North.

Having had mixed reports about the China Southern flights from travel industry friends I was excited to experience them for myself to see if they lived up to their reputation. While I’m always one of the biggest fans of Air New Zealand I’m also always keen to try something, or someone, new.  My veracity for exploring these new options paid off and I was pleasantly surprised.  The food was nice and fresh and had options for a Western Menu or a Chinese one, the service was good and the flight was pleasant.  The plane was a little old but I’m told we are coming home on the brand new plane, so I’ll be interested to see the comparison – overall, it was an experience that I would repeat again if given half the opportunity. While it certainly isn’t at the fantastic level of quality and service that Air New Zealand offer, at these cheap prices its worth it.

Arriving at 6am, it took us an hour to clear through customers and collect our bags before we emerge into a beautiful sunny morning.  Its already 32 degrees and only 7.30! The humidity is stifling, and there is quite a layer of smog, although our driver assures us this is actually a ‘clear’ day!  It makes me realise quite how spoilt we are with our pristine conditions in New Zealand.

After checking into our very lovely hotel – the WESTIN in Quangzhou, which incidentally is one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, we grabbed a quick shower and then regrouped in the lobby to plan what we would visit first. We have a local guide who speaks English, which is a great help and something I would definitely recommend if you want to experience more than mainstream Shanghai or Beijing and into regions like Quangzhou. It’s surprisingly cheap to organise these driver/guides and while you could get around on your visit to Shanghai or Beijing without one, the places you’ll want to visit in Quangzhou have not been westernised to the same extent.  For example most of the taxi drivers we encountered spoke NO English (not a single word) so you will struggle to get around without some serious planning. Hiring a guide is a great way to see the city with peace of mind.

Our guide, Tommy, is a great storyteller although I’m not convinced that all of what he is telling me is strictly the truth. Like any good ‘bard’, he makes the stories interesting and if that comes at the expense of a little truthfulness, well so be it!

After locking down the plan for the day, we head off to Panxi for lunch.  Panxi is an institution and one of the oldest Dim Sum restaurants in Quanzhou dating back to the HAN dynasty.  It’s beautiful and set in a traditional looking building with a pond of Koi running through the middle.  We haven’t booked a table as we want to experience the restaurant in the ‘main’ dining room, rather than some of the private rooms that you can hire.  We are lucky enough to get some great seats and out comes our Dim Sum, what a treat!  The chef came out to showcase his specialties (via an interpreter) and to give us an experience that shows why he is one of the most famous Dim Sum chefs in the region.  Mouth-watering little dumplings came in the shapes of pigs (complete with curly tail and little ears), sparrows and other creative objects – what a skill!  This is a good place for NZers travelling to Quangzhou to come and visit.  It’s got a reputation as the best Dim Sum place in the area and is the ‘go to’ place – Most of the restaurant staff speak some English also which is a help. I also couldn’t go past the opportunity to try the local delicacy by way of chickens’ feet!  These are fried up and look not unlike KFC, other than the little claws I can see sticking out the bottom - Not my favourite dish although the taste is actually ok if you can get past the feel of the little bones crunching – more mind over matter. 

After lunch we are off to the Qing Ping markets.  These are the largest herbal markets in all of China.  It is rumoured that this is the original source of SARS as back in the 80’s the animal markets used to stock all kinds of livestock for sale for food.  Cats, dogs, hedgehogs, deer and MonkJack were common.  Today this has been banned but there is still an animal section which is for pets I’m told and choose to believe (am I being naive?).  Either way it is enough to break your heart to see all these lovely fluffy puppies and kittens in this heat, on the side of the road in small cages! 
We turn the corner and I’m confronted with barrels of live scorpions.  They range in size from about a 5 cent coin, to bigger than my entire hand, and are just at ground level in big buckets.  Watching them makes my skin crawl and while I’m assured that they can’t climb the sides of the plastic tub they are running around in, I’m not sticking around to find out.

The markets are so crowded that just manoeuvring around is difficult but I’m fascinated by the medicinal section. This area is mostly herbal and I can smell wafts of herbs and the tangy earthy scent of some type of mushroom. There are all sorts of fascinating discoveries, such as bags of dried seahorse, and of course large bags of Deer Penis (dried but still recognisable!).  Apparently it is used to make tea to help male fertility!  Imagine trying to get that one through NZ customs...

A lesson I’ve learnt by the end of day one in China, is that any taxi driver or guide, when asked how long a trip will take – will answer “about 20 mins”.  This is true whether the trip will actually take you 5 minutes or a hour – the answer will always be “about 20 minutes”!  So it pays for visitors to check a map or ask at their hotel if they are on a tight time schedule.

Its 6pm by now and we have an hour to freshen up before meeting back in the lobby for dinner at the top of the Canton Tower.  I’m told this is a real treat and not to be late as it is a fairly formal place for a dinner.  The Canton tower is amazing.  Around 450metres and lit up like a Christmas tree, leaving the Sky Tower to shame!  In fact, from the top of the tower we can see that the entire city is encased in neon and there certainly is no shortage of power!

For all its hype, dinner at the Canton tower was a little underwhelming.  It’s a very costly experience - around 150pp NZD (600RMB) - and that is without any alcohol!  We are a tired and hot group and don’t want to drink anything but water and lemonade. While the meal was okay, I think that we are definitely are paying for the view.

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