Halfway along Guangdong’s (广东, gŭangdōng) 800km coastline, rivers from all over the province and beyond disgorge themselves into the South China Sea, through the tropically fertile Pearl River Delta, one of China’s most densely cultivated and developed areas. Perched right at the delta’s northern apex and adjacent to both Hong Kong and Macau, the provincial capital Guangzhou (广州, guăngzhōu) provides many travellers with their first taste of mainland China. It’s not everyone’s favourite city, but once you’ve found your bearings among the busy roads and packed shopping districts, Guangzhou’s world-famous food merits a stop, as does an assortment of museums, parks and monuments. The Pearl River Delta has a few patches of green and some history to pick up in passing, but it would be futile to pretend the area’s focus is anything other than industry and commerce – as demonstrated by the city of Shenzhen (深圳, shēnzhèn) where China’s “economic miracle” took its first baby steps.
Farther afield, the rest of the province is more picturesque. There are Buddhist temples and Stone Age relics around Shaoguan (韶关, sháoguān), up north by the Hunan and Jiangxi borders. Over in the east near Fujian, the ancient town of Chaozhou (潮州, cháozhōu) has well-preserved Ming architecture peppered amongst a warren of narrow streets, while nearby Meizhou (梅州, méizhōu) is a useful stepping stone to the ethnic Hakka heartland, set in the surrounding hills. The highlight of the region, though, lies to the east in the form of the fantastical towers around the town of Kaiping (开平, kāipíng), recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Not far away, Zhaoqing (肇庆, zhàoqìng) sports pleasant, formalized lakes and hilly landscapes, while those heading towards Hainan need to aim for the ferry port of Hai’an (海安, hăi’ān), down in Guangdong’s southwestern extremities.
Guangdong has a generous quantity of rail and road traffic, and getting around is none too difficult, though often requires some advance preparation. Rail lines run north through Shaoguan and up into Hunan and central China, east to Meizhou, Shantou and Fujian, and west through Zhaoqing to Zhanjiang and Guangxi. River travel was, until recently, a highlight of the province, though the only easy excursions left are the fast hydrofoils between the Pearl River Delta towns and Hong Kong, and a day-cruise from the northern town of Qingyuan to some riverside temples. As for the climate, summers can be sweltering across the province, with typhoons along the coast, while winter temperatures get decidedly nippy up in the northern ranges – though it’s more likely to be miserably wet than to snow, except around the highest mountain peaks.Read More
The Pearl River Delta
The Pearl River Delta
At a glance, the Pearl River Delta (珠江三角洲, zhūjīangsānjĭaozhōu) seems entirely a product of the modern age, dominated by industrial complexes and the glossy, high-profile cities of Shenzhen (深圳, shēnzhèn), east on the crossing to Hong Kong, and westerly Zhuhai (珠海, zhūhăi), on the Macau border. Back in the 1980s these were marvels of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, rigidly contained Special Economic Zones of officially sanctioned free-market activities, previously anathema to Communist ideologies. Their success kickstarted a commercial invasion of the delta, obscuring an economic history dating back to the time of Song engineers who constructed irrigation canals through the delta’s five counties – Nanhai, Panyu, Shunde, Dongguan and Zhongshan. From the Ming dynasty, local crafts and surplus food were exported across Guangdong, artisans flourished and funded elaborate guild temples, while gentlemen of leisure built gardens in which to wander and write poetry.
A planned high-speed rail link from Hong Kong to Guangzhou will cut through the delta in under an hour, and could easily cause you to overlook everything but the large urban agglomeration. But spend a little longer on your journey, or dip into the region on short trips from Guangzhou, and you’ll find a good deal to discover beyond the factories, power stations and freeways. Don’t miss Foshan’s (佛山, fóshān) splendid Ancestral Temple, or Lianhua Shan, a landscaped ancient quarry; historians might also wish to visit Humen (虎门, hŭmén), where the destruction of British opium in 1839 ignited the first Opium War, and Cuiheng (翠亨村, cùihēng cūn), home village of China’s revered revolutionary elder statesman, Sun Yatsen.
The delta’s western side is covered by a mesh of roads, and light-rail lines, either of which you’ll be able to follow more or less directly south between sights to Zhuhai, 155km from Guangzhou. To the southeast, Dongguan (东莞, dōng guăn) is easily reachable by bus while trains shuttle between Guangzhou and Shenzhen in just minutes.
- Eastern Guangdong
- Western Guangdong
Guangdong cooking is one of China’s four major regional styles and, despite northern critics decrying it as too uncomplicated to warrant the term “cuisine”, it’s unmatched in the clarity of its flavours and its appealing presentation. The style subdivides into Cantonese, emanating from the Pearl River Delta region; Chaozhou, from the city of the same name in the far east of Guangdong; and Hakka, from the northeastern border with Fujian, named after the Han subgroup with whom it originated. Though certain Chaozhou and Hakka recipes have been incorporated into the main body of Guangdong cooking – sweet-and-sour pork with fruit, and salt-baked chicken, for instance – it’s Cantonese food that has come to epitomize its principles. With many Chinese emigrants leaving through Guangzhou, it’s also the most familiar to overseas visitors, though peruse a menu here and you’ll soon realize that most dishes served abroad as “Cantonese” would be unrecognizable to a local.
Spoiled by good soil and a year-round growing season, the Cantonese demand absolutely fresh ingredients, kept alive and kicking in cages, tanks or buckets at the front of the restaurant for diners to select themselves. Westerners can be repulsed by this collection of wildlife, and even other Chinese comment that the Cantonese will eat anything with legs that isn’t a piece of furniture, and anything with wings that isn’t an aeroplane. The cooking itself is designed to keep textures distinct and flavours as close to the original as possible, using a minimum amount of mild and complementary seasoning to prevent dishes from being bland. Fast stir-frying in a wok is the best known of these procedures, but slow-simmering in soy sauce and wine and roasting are other methods of teasing out the essential characteristics of the food.
No full meal is really complete without a simple plate of rich green and bitter choi sam (cai xin in Mandarin), Chinese broccoli, blanched and dressed with oyster sauce. Also famous is fish and seafood, often simply steamed with ginger and spring onions – hairy crabs are a winter treat, sold everywhere – and nobody cooks fowl better than the Cantonese, always juicy and flavoursome, whether served crisp-skinned and roasted or fragrantly casseroled. Guangzhou’s citizens are also compulsive snackers, and outside canteens you’ll see roast meats, such as whole goose or strips of cha siu pork, waiting to be cut up and served with rice for a light lunch, or burners stacked with sandpots (sai bo), a one-person dish of steamed rice served in the cooking vessel with vegetables and slices of sweet lap cheung sausage. Cake shops selling heavy Chinese pastries and filled buns are found everywhere across the region. Some items like custard tartlets are derived from foreign sources, while roast-pork buns and flaky-skinned mooncakes stuffed with sweet lotus seed paste are of domestic origin.
Perhaps it’s this delight in little delicacies that led the tradition of dim sum (dian xin in Mandarin) to blossom in Guangdong, where it’s become an elaborate form of breakfast most popular on Sundays, when entire households pack out restaurants. Also known in Cantonese as yum cha – literally, “drink tea” – dim sum involves little dishes of fried, boiled and steamed snacks being stuffed inside bamboo steamers or displayed on plates, then wheeled around the restaurant on trolleys, which you stop for inspection as they pass your table. On being seated, you’re given a pot of tea, which is constantly topped up, and a card, which is marked for each dish you select and which is later surrendered to the cashier. Try juk (rice porridge), spring rolls, buns, cakes and plates of thinly sliced roast meats, and small servings of restaurant dishes like spareribs, stuffed capsicum, or squid with black beans. Save most room, however, for the myriad types of little fried and steamed dumplings which are the hallmark of a dim sum meal, such as har gau, juicy minced prawns wrapped in transparent rice-flour skins, and siu mai, a generic name for a host of delicately flavoured, open-topped packets.