Taken in one go, it’s an arduous 600km journey east from Guangzhou to Xiamen in Fujian province, but there’s a wealth of interesting territory to explore on the way. Only three hours away, Huizhou’s (惠州, huìzhōu) watery parkland makes it an excellent weekend bolthole from Guangzhou, while over near the Fujian border, Chaozhou (潮州, cháozhōu) is famed for its own cooking style and Ming-era architecture. With enough time, you could spend a few days farther north in the hilly country around Meizhou (梅州, méizhōu), investigating ethnic Hakka culture in its heartland. Getting around is easy: expressways from Guangzhou or Shenzhen run via Huizhou along the coast to Shantou (汕头, shàntóu) and on into Fujian, while the rail line from Guangzhou’s East train station bends northeast from Huizhou to Meizhou – where an extension runs up to Yongding in Fujian – then down to Chaozhou and Shantou.
On the banks of the Han River, CHAOZHOU (潮州, cháozhōu) is one of Guangdong’s most culturally significant towns, yet manages to be overlooked by tourist itineraries and government projects alike – principally through having had its limelight stolen during the nineteenth century by its noisy southern sister, Shantou (汕头, shàntóu), just 40km away. In response, Chaozhou has become staunchly traditional, proudly preserving the architecture, superstitions and local character which Shantou, a recent, foreign creation, never had, making it a far nicer place to spend some time.
The city was founded back in antiquity, and by the time of the Ming dynasty had reached its zenith as a place of culture and refinement; the origins of many of the town’s monuments date back to this time. A spate of tragedies followed, however. After an anti-Manchu uprising in 1656, only Chaozhou’s monks and their temples were spared the imperial wrath – it’s said that the ashes of the 100,000 slaughtered citizens formed several fair-sized hills. The town managed to recover somehow, but was brought down again in the nineteenth century by famine and the Opium Wars, which culminated in Shantou’s foundation. Half a million desperately impoverished locals fled Chaozhou and eastern Guangdong through the new port, many of them emigrating to European colonies all over Southeast Asia, where their descendants comprise a large proportion of Chinese communities in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. Humiliatingly, Shantou’s rising importance saw Chaozhou placed under its administration until becoming an independent municipality in 1983, and real rivalry remains between the two.
For the visitor, Chaozhou is a splendid place. In addition to some of the most active and manageable street life in southern China, there are some fine historic monuments to tour, excellent shopping for local handicrafts, and a nostalgically dated small-town ambience to soak up. Chinese-speakers will find that Chaozhou’s language is related to Fujian’s minnan dialect, different from either Mandarin or Cantonese, though both of these are widely understood.