There’s something very self-contained about the provinces of Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan Island, which occupy 1200km or so of China’s convoluted southern seaboard. Though occasionally taking centre stage in the country’s history, the provinces share a sense of being generally isolated from mainstream events by the mountain ranges surrounding Fujian and Guangdong, physically cutting them off from the rest of the empire. Forced to look seawards, the coastal regions have a long history of contact with the outside world: this is where Islam entered China, and porcelain and tea left it along the Maritime Silk Road; where the mid-nineteenth-century theatricals of the Opium Wars, colonialism, the Taiping Uprising and the mass overseas exodus of southern Chinese were played out; and where today you’ll find some of China’s most Westernized cities. Conversely, the interior mountains enclose some of the country’s wildest, most remote corners, parts of which were virtually in the Stone Age a century ago.
Possibly because its attractions are thinly spread, the region receives scant attention from foreign visitors, except those transiting between the mainland and Hong Kong or Macau. And it must be admitted that a superficial skim through the region – especially the enormous industrial sprawl surrounding the Guangdong capital, Guangzhou – can leave a gloomy impression of uncontrolled development and its attendant ills. Yet below the surface, even Guangzhou has some antique architecture and a strangely compelling, lively atmosphere, while smaller cities – including the Fujian port of Xiamen, and Chaozhou in eastern Guangdong – seem partially frozen in time, staunchly preserving their traditions in the face of the modern world. Scenically, the Wuyi Shan range in northeastern Fujian contains the region’s lushest, most picturesque mountain forests; while way down south on Hainan Island lie the country’s best and busiest beaches where you can also surf and scuba dive.
As one of the longest-developed areas of the mainland, getting around the region is seldom problematic, though accommodation can be expensive and suffers huge seasonal fluctuations in price. The weather is nicest in spring and autumn, as summer storms from June to August bring sweltering heat and humidity, thunder, downpours and floods. In contrast, the higher reaches of the Guangdong-Fujian border can get very cold in winter.