You’ve probably heard of Guangzhou (GZ) as the computer screen you looking at will have been made or passed through somewhere near there.
It is the centre of what used to be known as Canton, i.e. the region where the Chinese food you eat in every Chinatown all around the world is from. Because it was one of China’s first major ports they were its first people to begin the disapora. However, the city itself is not exactly a tourist destination. Guidebooks and online are empty or inane but we thought all the better let’s go.
So to the food. This is where everything you immediately think of when you think of Chinese food descended from. There are no big name restaurants or draws so you just wander around and try to feel what you want.
We started with a type of liang pi or cold rice noodles with cucumber, vinegar, chilli oil, salt, mashed garlic in water and bean sprout from a stall off the street. It was quickly frankly fantastic. All the vinegar and chilli making the rice noodles ping in your mouth. It was 10 rmb or 90 pence.
Thereafter places just revealed themselves as we drifted through the city on our bikes. One particularly cool district was Haizhu which felt a bit like being in the more relaxed backstreets of Harajuku in Japan. There were an array of little shops and narrow winding alleys full of places to drink and eat in and for mosquitos to snack on you. We pulled up at one small restaurant which was spilling onto the street and started ordering. Despite having two Mandarin speakers with us it was once again a game of pointing at neighbouring tables. See the header picture for a glimpse at the scarily attentive service.
Despite being a game of pot luck the food was fantastic. Everything you expect from Cantonese food with a great whole steamed fish right at the centre of the meal. The restaurant also had the added character that came with us probably being the first non Chinese people to ever visit. This was replicated slightly throughout the whole trip. In two days of extensive cycling we saw about 10 white people in total which considering it is a mere 2 hours train ride from Hong Kong – one of the world’s major East meets West cities – is pretty amazing.
The rest of the trip was finished off by street food the most memorable of which was stinky tofu. We were cycling through a backstreet and I casually remarked a sewer must have broken (and I am not saying this for effect). Alex said it was stinky tofu which I had to try. Now I knew about stinky tofu but hadn’t tried it… and well… it smells like effluence. The taste is nothing that strong but a slight tinge of it remains. It is not something I will regularly return to but is nothing to fear if you haven’t had it.
One thing which none of us had ever tried before but we ate was steamed rice noodles cooked in metal drawers which was then scrapped back with a paint scrapper from a DIY shop and served in a wrinkled 5 layers with spring onion, char siu, soy, vinegear and spice. Again about 10 rmb and fantastic.
GZ as a city is big and relaxed and “cooler” than my experiences in Hong Kong. This was demonstrated in part by a great bar we went to called the Loft which is worth going to if you visit. In what looks like a derelict industrial block you climb up some ominious stairs and arrive in a bohemian industrial space. The men’s loos are lit by holes ripped out of the wall and each floor is covered with grafitti and seeming squats.
The trip to GZ also taught me something simple about Chinese cities. They are big. Really really big. The tourist destinations are not exactly apparent either. You go to Paris and you know what to expect and where to go. Throw in a few museums, some cafes and a wander in the Jardin des Tuileries. Chinese cities don’t have that. They have urbanisation.
So, as mentioned above, we cycled and actually took some fixed wheel bikes with us. We thought it was pretty much the only way to cover the distances and allow us to drift along and it worked.
GZ is where the 2010 Asian games are being held so this has given the GZ authorities the excuse to get a bunch of big name architects in and go crazy. The best of the bunch is Information Based Architecture’s television tower which you can see a couple of pictures above. Zaha Hadid’s cultural centre is initially impressive and from afar is alien and angular. Unfortunately once you get close it reveals the kind of workmanship that you might expect from a kindergarden kid if you gave them some concrete and a crane. Such sloppiness in execution that the beauty was destroyed.
All in all I love GZ even if there is no obvious draw to go there. As a city to drift around and easily immerse yourself in China it was great. This was my first experience of the “mainland” and I loved it.
PS a major thanks to my tour guides Drew and Alex who are also responsible for the photos above as they took the burden of cycling with the camera. Their blog is http://www.triplefiveshanghai.com/ which gives an insight into life in Shanghai.