Guidebook author Thomas Bird reveals an auspicious list of the Pearl River in China's best kept secrets
Situated just north of Hong Kong, the Pearl River Delta may be known as the “workshop of the world” but there are still many reasons to visit China’s southern megalopolis. Despite the industrial build-up of the last three decades, there remain many cultural attractions and conserved natural spaces nestled among some of the world’s most dynamic cities.
This region is the Cantonese heartland, a place that has played a significant role in shaping China since it was absorbed into the Empire during the Han dynasty. Here we find remnants of the naval Silk Road that shipped Chinese made goods to the world. One can explore Taoist and Buddhist temples, classical gardens and even European colonial settlements – all remnants of the changing fortunes and different epochs this swampy, humid delta has endured.
Here is an auspicious list of eight places any visitor to the PRD cannot afford to miss.
On the tip of Dapeng Peninsula, east of central Shenzhen, you’ll discover the two pearls of the delta. Xichong and Dongchong are two strikingly picturesque, palm tree lined beaches, boasting some of the best waves in China. Both beaches have attracted a pioneering community of surfers with Secret Spot and Blue Surfers catering to adrenaline junkies on their respective beaches. There’s also some great hiking between the two bays and for those of equestrian tendencies, Wrangler Heights offers riders the chance to gallop across the Xichong’s white sands.
Located a stone-throw from the Hong Kong border, Wutong Mountain is a protected national park and popular hiking destination. The hiking area can be reached via a regular bus service or by cycling up the greenway that connects the mountain with Donghu Park. In recent years, the village at the foot of hill has attracted a community of artists who take advantage of the low cost of living and breath-taking natural scenery. As a result, a profusion of galleries and artsy cafés have set-up shop. The clean air has also lured a small Buddhist community, making Wutong Mountain a fantastic place to enjoy a nutritious vegetarian meal.
The city of Zhuhai, which sits just opposite the ex-Portuguese colony of Macau, was until recently, a bit of a culture desert. All of that changed when brothers Simone and Justin Xue acquired an old, rundown Qing dynasty temple complex and set about renovating it. Tastefully restored, Beishan is now home to a fabulous contemporary art gallery and Mao-era theatre that hosts two music festivals a year as well as regular gigs and cultural performances.
Beijing might be the city most readily associated with alternative rock but Guangzhou has its own thriving indie scene, attracting some of the best fresh talent from southern China. Musicians generally congregate in C:union, a rock 'n' roll dive operated by veteran drummer Xiao Dao. Bands like Toy Captain and Rice Noodle can be seen nightly, often jamming into the early hours with whomever wants to share the stage. It’s a popular student haunt and, as a result, drinks are very reasonably priced.
Zhuhai administers 146 offshore outcroppings, most of which are either uninhabited or used as small fishing bases. However, the picturesque Wanshan Islands: Wailingding, Dong’ao, He Bao and Guishan, have been opened-up to tourism, offering visitors to Zhuhai an exotic South China Sea adventure. Wailingding is particularly popular, with a choice of guesthouses and seafood restaurants as well as walkways and beaches.
Located on the Pearl River itself, the British and French annexed this strategic axis point after the second Opium War. The Europeans built stunning commercial properties on Shamian, creating Guangzhou’s preeminent foreign quarter. Modernity has arrived on the island in the form of Starbucks and Subway. However, the relaxed atmosphere in Shamian Park – where old folk meet to sing, dance and exercise – combined with the remarkable colonial architectural heritage, helps maintain Shamian’s status as the most charming quarter of Guangzhou.
Opened in 2009 by Canadian expat David Seymour, La Casa was one of the first bars to become popular in the now thriving Coco Park bar area. Shenzhen may have a surplus of nightspots, but while bars open and close with alarming frequency, Seymour’s combination of simple home cooked food, good beer and a relaxed ambience keeps customers coming back for more. It’s a great place to prop-up the bar and meet fellow travellers, delta expats or locals keen to practise their English. There’s a book exchange, should you be short of some reading material, and every Sunday the place goes wild during the now legendary open-mic night.
The Museum and Mausoleum of the Nanyue King tells a far older story than most in Guangzhou. Nanyue was an ancient empire that stretched all the way to present day Vietnam. The museum tells this old, forgotten tale. It is home to the tomb where the Kingdom of Nanyue’s second king Zhao Mo was buried in 122BC. Over a 1,000 burial artefacts were discovered along with Emperor Wen (as he was known). Many of these stunning relics are on display in the adjoining museum. The remains of Zuo Furen, one of the emperor’s concubines, are housed in a glass case in the tomb itself.
Thomas Bird is the author of Hong Kong's Back Yard: Explore The Pearl River Delta. For more information about the title, visit the publisher's website.