Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Let the games begin

Dragon boating in the recently cleaned-up area of Lizhiwan in Guangzhou. Photos: CFP
By Matt Horn
The capital of southern China's Guangdong Province and a city often overlooked by tourists, Guangzhou is about to become the hottest destination in the country, at least for a couple of weeks. The city will host the 16th Asian Games from November 12-27 and is promising treats galore for first time visitors and not just for sports fans.
Guangzhou is an inviting combination of the best of the new, vibrant China, while never losing its cultural and historical heart. It is home to some of the finest modern buildings on the continent, without depriving visitors the opportunity to enjoy a taste of an older, fascinating China.
Ushering in the new
Ever since the Asian Games was awarded to Guangzhou in 2003, the city has undergone a massive facelift, something that has been a far-from-beautiful experience for locals. Dirt, dust, noise and traffic chaos have provided daily headaches as the infrastructure has been revamped, but the addition of new metro lines and fast bus routes suggest the pain will end in gain, easing the task of traveling around the city.
It is not only the infrastructure that is unrecognizable, the skyline has totally altered. Zhujiang Xincheng has emerged almost overnight and is home to the iconic new symbol of the city, Canton Tower. Designed by Dutch architect Mark Hemel, she (and the tower is most definitely a she) is a beautiful addition to the city's horizon. She stands 610 meters tall and offers stunning views across the city and beyond.
Her neighbor is the new Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid, another symbol of the new Guangzhou. It is a striking structure and has proved a popular venue since opening earlier this year.
The construction of a number of top-brand hotels, office blocks, residential apartments and of course many sports venues, ensures that those of us living here have had to get to grips with the ever changing face of the city. It has come at a price, with the loss of many interesting examples of old Chinese architecture. The good news is all is not lost.
Keeping some of the old
Guangzhou boasts a proud history of more than 2,000 years and for those wanting to travel back in time there is much to enjoy. The Chen Clan Academy offers a variety of exhibitions of traditional crafts including embroidery, ivory carvings and painted porcelain. The Tomb of the Nanyue King is another must see for history lovers, an ancient tomb and its contents lovingly presented in a visitor friendly museum.
Down on the Pearl River, Shamian Dao is an oasis of calm, cocooned from frantic downtown. The former colonial concession offers an interesting contrast in architectural style from the rest of the city. The river has been cleaned up ahead of the Games, but pollution has never deterred some locals from their daily dip. You may prefer to stick to a hotel pool!
Adventurous travelers should head north from Shamian to the home of the Qing Ping herbal medicine market, an amazing place to wander around and try to work out exactly what you are looking at.
Continue north and within minutes you are heading into the wibbly, wobbly back streets close to Liwan Plaza off Kangwang Lu. This is a real taste of an older China, with hand pulled wooden carts the only practical way of moving goods from one place to another. Antiques and curios are in abundant supply, while the area is also home to both the pearl and jade markets, although if you are interested in buying it helps to know someone who can recommend a seller.
Shangxiajiu Jie is a famous shopping street in the same area, featuring traditional Qilou architecture, arcade style structures offering shelter from both sun and rain, with some great stained glass windows high above. Serious shoppers and most locals seem to be, must visit Beijing Lu, although this is not for the faint hearted.
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