John and I have just returned from a brilliant weekend in Guangzhou to celebrate New Year. We stayed at the Victory Hotel on Shamian Island. Shamian Island is the old British/ French quarter of Guangzhou. Most of the buildings are in a European style and more than 100 years old. Shamian Island feels like a calm oasis in the middle of one of the biggest industrial cities in the world. Walking around the streets you can really feel what it would have been like all those years ago.
We had arranged an airport pick up with the hotel and by the time we got there, through the Friday afternoon rush hour, it was tea-time, so we set out to explore. We ended up at the Orient Express, a French style restaurant with some tables in old train carriages. The food was pretty good (I think John made the best choice with steak and chips, but my salade lyonnaise was also tasty). After dinner we walked to the Voyage 12 wine bar and had beer and cocktails. The weather was still so pleasant, we were able to drink them outside.
We had a good nights sleep in our nice, comfy hotel bed. It was so good to have a soft mattress. In China, mattresses tend to range from rock-hard to punishment-hard. You can even buy bamboo mattress toppers in case you a worried about too much comfort. Therefore a Western style mattress was a proper luxury. We followed this up with even more luxury – bacon for breakfast from the extensive buffet.
Now, we were all ready for some climbing. Guangzhou is currently home to the tallest man-made structure in China, the Canton Tower. I say currently, because it only opened in 2010 and other cities in China will no doubt see this as a challenge. We took the elevator all the way to the bubble tram at 450m (we decided against the stairs). The bubble tram is a bit like a Ferris wheel on its side circling the edge of the observation deck. There are the most amazing views of Guangzhou, although a bit hazy from the air pollution. The air quality in Guangzhou is pretty bad from all the factories and traffic.
After all this climbing, we were ready for lunch. We took a taxi back to the centre of the city and after a few false leads, ended up on the second floor of the Da Tong restaurant. At nearly 2pm, it was late for lunch, by Chinese standards, but the restaurant was still quite busy – always a good sign. We were delighted when they said they had an English menu, but when we came to order most of the dishes listed weren’t available, it seems the translated menu was a bit out of date. Never mind, through a combination of our limited Chinese and good luck we managed to order some delicious dim sum and pot of tea for two.
The tea was some of the best I have had in China. It was green tea with a real depth of flavour. I am sure this was enhanced by the special way the tea was brewed. Each tea served in the restaurant seemed to have its own style of china pot. Our
waitress brought it to us on a tray sitting over a bowl to catch any drips or overflow. On the tray was the tiny tea pot with tea leaves in it, a china jug and two tiny drinking cups. The waitress poured boiling water into the tea pot until it overflowed, then put the lid on, gave it a bit of a shake then poured it through a strainer into the jug which she used to the serve the tea. She left us with a kettle of boiling water so we could refill our jug as needed, but she seemed to take pride in making sure she always kept the jug filled herself.
After lunch we walked back to Shamian Island where we wandered around in the afternoon sunshine and had some fruit juice sitting outside the Rose Garden cafe. There were lots of people out and about enjoying the weather. After being in Wuxi for so long, it was strange to see so many foreigners everywhere. However, it is also really popular with local people. The surroundings are so lovely they often get used as a backdrop for wedding photos, so we saw quite a few young couples in full wedding gear being posed by photographers.
In the evening, we had booked to go on a cruise on the Pearl River. We bought the cheapest tickets (no dinner or anything included) and at first we were a bit disappointed when we saw our seats were in the middle of the room. However, we were able to leave our seats and stand on the deck outside. The view of the buildings against the night sky was amazing. The cruise took us as far as the Canton Tower which was lit with constantly changing colours. It was a spectacular sight and well worth the trip.
It was about 8.30pm when we left the boat, so time for tea (isn’t it always nearly some mealtime or other). On the way to the pier we had noticed a restaurant called Hong Xing, so we decided to walk
back there to eat. The restaurant specialised in seafood, Guangzhou style. The entrance was full of fish tanks containing every kind of fish or shellfish you can think of. There were oysters as big as your head and lobsters bigger than a cat. To order, your waitress walked around the tanks and noted down your preference. We were a bit restrained and decided to order the conventional way, which means we did miss out on the water beetles and snakes. However, we did get some excellent food, in a similar style to Chinese food at home, but 10 times better.
The goose with yellow plum sauce had obviously been roasted for a long time and was really juicy, my favourite though was a dish of green beans, beef and salmon. The beef was really tender, but the beans were crunchy and had soaked up the sauce – mmm. I must stop writing about food, I end up drooling on my keyboard. The meal was washed down with some more tea and came to £10 per head altogether. What a bargain.
Some more walking was needed after dinner, so we set off along the river bank towards our hotel; a walk of about a mile and a half. Lots of people were out and about and the riverbank felt a bit like a seaside promenade. Roller skates are available to hire and we were amused to see groups of young people zooming about in trains. Some were obviously more used to skating than others.
Back on the Island (which by now felt like home), we thought we had better go to a bar as it was New Year’s Eve and all. However, after one beer we realised there was still a long way to go until midnight and we would rather be tucked up in our comfy bed. So we went back to our hotel and watched the celebrations on the telly. New Years Eve isn’t really a big deal in China as the Spring Festival is just around the corner, so the fireworks were a bit muted. I think in a couple of weeks we will find out what fireworks can sound like.
The next morning we were up early for breakfast (a light one for me this time) and then to catch our flight back to Wuxi. Wuxi certainly feels chilly after Guangzhou.