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.