Friday, June 17, 2011

Majestic Guangzhou: Five Goats, A Thousand Charms

       With the help of a gift of five goats from the gods, merchants magically transformed Guangzhou from a destitute region into one of the most important commercial cities in the south of China. A pleasure boat floats tourists along the Pearl River, which flows through the middle of the city, whilst colourful flowers spread brightness over the green hills at the foot of Mount Yuexiu. Ariyanto, author of the book Sixteen Days in South China on Two Million Rupiah, shares some of his adventures.
         The rooftops of houses in Sakai are colorfully impressive.– Gathot SubrotoOf the various kinds of New Year recognised around the world, the one that the population of Guangzhou most look forward to is, of course, the Chinese New Year.
        As I strolled through town, the same rain that was falling in little droplets and gusts of wind that were blowing through my hair, were making the ten million citizens of Guangzhou fold their arms tightly across their chests and snuggle inside their thick coats. It was certainly cold, but things carry on as normal. Winter, which comes early in the year, doesn’t erase people’s smiles, in fact it makes them smile all the more as they await the Chinese New Year.
        The charms of Guangzhou are not diminished by falling temperatures. Rather than spend the days shut up indoors, its citizens like to be festive and outgoing when celebrating the turn of the year, as according to the Chinese calendar. This is also a time when, in keeping with their culture, family members sit around the dining table and children, mothers, fathers and relatives from all corners of the city gather in their homes. It’s a spiritual period during which millions of Guangzhou’s citizens also meet up and travel together.
      These days, Guangzhou is an industrial city packed with tall buildings, factories and large shopping centres. It’s not primarily a tourist destination, or at least that’s the assumption that tourists often make and not entirely without justification. However if one gets to know Guangzhou a little better, one will encounter a city covering 7,400 square kilometres that is truly able to charm any traveller.
     The story goes that, long before the skyscrapers appeared, Guangzhou, or Panyu as it was called at the time, was a poverty stricken region. Its soil was arid and its people were hungry. Fortunately though five gods descended from the heavens, riding on five goats, and gave the local people five wheat seeds. As it turned out, these gifts from the gods had a telling effect: poverty decreased and commerce grew. This legend lies behind the erection of the Statue of the Five Rams, which can be found down in Yuexiu Park.
       The rooftops of houses in Sakai are colorfully impressive.– Gathot SubrotoLeaving myths aside, several archaeological findings dating from the Tang Dynasty (618-609 BC) show that the city was a magnet for merchants from Arabia, India and Persia. This mercantile momentum heralded the development of Panyu as a business centre, while also corroborating the bequest of the gods, who sat astride their rams. During the sixteenth century, merchants from the West also began to feel the pull of trade in the city and eventually, in 1918, the name Panyu was officially changed to Guangzhou.
        What with the presence of its iconic statue, Guangzhou also boasts the title Wuyangcheng, or the City of Five Rams. It is also known as the City of Flowers, due to the beautiful blooms that can be found all over its surrounding districts.
      A visit to Guangzhou takes in modernity on one hand and the legacies of antiquity on the other. Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport, with its modern architecture, is the main gateway for foreign tourists. Travelling around the city is a breeze and buses and underground train run along routes that extend all over town. Fares typically cost between CNY 2 and CNY 12 (IDR 2,700-16,000). Guangzhou is also a key hub for travel to other cities in China, from Nanning in the south to Xinjiang in the north, and also acts as a regional hub for travel to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, India and Africa.
        Often referred to as Canton, the city has successfully exploited its position as a transit point and regional hub. All tourists’ needs are catered for, and this goes for first class travellers as well as for backpackers. A range of traditional and international menus, which include halal cuisine, are easily found and the tourist industry has expanded over the years in tandem with the city’s rapid development. Those who enjoy their package tours will feel pampered, whilst independent travellers will not feel neglected either. Tourism is flourishing in other words and foreign airlines are currently competing to open direct routes to Guangzhou.
       Although starred hotels predominate, cheap and clean accommodation at an affordable nightly rate of around the IDR 80,000 mark is still widely available. There’s no need to break the bank when it comes to eating either. In the Taojin district, for example, large portions of halal foods such as chicken rice and rice noodles will set you back only IDR 8,000, whilst roadside snacks such as baked sesame bread (IDR 2,700) are also very satisfying.
         As with any international city, cosmopolitan culture flourishes in Guangzhou and its citizens exhibit a high degree of tolerance. The city is home to 52 ethnic minorities and Muslims mingle freely with the Buddhist majority. Its long history trade with the Middle East has given also given rise to a small community of Arab Muslims.
        Shopping enthusiasts can truly immerse themselves in Guangzhou and all sorts of local products can be found alongside top international brands in the city’s many shopping centres. Local brands can be found in particular abundance down in the famous Beijing Lu shopping district, an impressive pedestrian precinct that is free of motor vehicles.
        In several spots in Beijing Lu, old rocks and stones handed down from the era of the kingdoms can be seen. Fragments of stone, once used to make roads, are cluttered together and framed. Officially, the Beijing Lu district has existed since 1966, however its role as a trade centre dates all the way back to the Nanyue Kingdom (203-111 BC)
        From Beijing Lu, I made my way to the Pearl River, Guangzhou’s biggest waterway. The river’s name derives from the large, pearl-resembling rock that sits in its centre. The main attraction here is sailing up the river in a pleasure boat and taking in the views along its banks and the best time to do this is in the evening, when the lights on the bridges twinkle enticingly.
        I enjoyed a Pearl River cruise on a boat that was also decorated with lovely illuminations. It’s interesting to note that although the Pearl River does not possess clear waters, its surface is free of garbage and pollutants, such as detergents and other chemical substances. How is this possible when Guangzhou is a city crammed with factories spewing out waste day in day out?
        Local people revealed the secret to me. Every year, a traditional boat race is held on the river, as well as a swimming competition that takes place between the companies that are located along the river’s banks. The participants are all the management and staff of these companies. It stands to reason that if the riverbank factories pollute the river with waste, they will simply be poisoning their own workers. This seems like a very smart strategy for tackling pollution!
      The clean river sustains the livelihoods of the communities living along it and keeps the wheels of the economy turning. There are clubs and restaurants offering great dining along its banks, whilst superb river views can be seen everywhere and a veritable army of street artists all offer to immortalise tourists’ faces on canvas.
        Travelling around and exploring Guangzhou is perhaps most enjoyable during the autumn, when the air is relatively cool and which lasts from October to November. Another good time to visit is after the winter, in March or April, as spring blooms. If you want to experience the biggest celebration of the year first hand however, then why not come over for the Chinese New Year (which is this month!) whilst the city is still in the cold embrace of the chilly winter air?
       Whatever season one chooses to visit, Guangzhou’s air is always fresh, thanks to the presence of many forests and gardens within the city limit. On my trip, I also visited Yuexiu Park, a beautiful location in which the citizens of this industrial city like to picnic or hang out together. Visitors to the park can also admire the elegance of Mount Yuexiu, go boating on artificial lakes, hike or just enjoy the pretty flower gardens. And, if you fancy changing your Facebook profile picture to something really special, then the park also offers photo shoots during which you can don traditional, imperial era Chinese costumes.
       The park is 860 square metres in size and comprises an almost perfect blend of human creativity and natural riches. It contains three manmade lakes, Mount Yuexiu’s seven foothills, the city’s iconic Five Rams statue, the Zhenhai Tower, the site of the Ancient City Wall which is a legacy of the Ming Dynasty, and the Square Cannon site.
       Orchid fans can also indulge themselves at the Guangzhou Orchid Garden, which sits opposite the main gate to Yuexiu Park. The garden, which covers 3.9 hectares, is the result of the expansion of the Botanical Garden, which was rebuilt in 1957. Over 200 species of orchid thrive here and the complex can be easily be reached via the city’s subway system.
        I also took the subway to another popular tourist spot, the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, which is located on the southern slopes of Mount Yuexiu. The complex, which is spread over six hectares, was built in 1929 in honour of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, a leading Chinese democratic revolutionary. Designed by the renowned architect Lu Yanzhi, the complex houses a statue and a 12,000 square metre meeting hall. Many cities around the globe have nearby mountain ranges in which weary citizens can shake off their fatigue and refresh themselves.
         While Jakartans might take a break up in Puncak, the people of Guangzhou have their fun up at White Cloud Mountain, which lies around 17 kilometres from the city’s northern outskirts. The best time visit the mountain is in the spring, when the flowers bloom in a riot of colour.
        On my visit, I scaled the highest peak and drank in the amazing city panorama which lay before me. I could clearly make out the Pearl River splitting the metropolis neatly in two.
        Those who enjoy a little spiritual tourism should head to Guangzhou’s Buddhist temples. Of the four most impressive temples, the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees is the most famous.
          Located in Liurong Road, this temple is better known as Liurong Temple. It has a long history stretching back about 1,400 years, although its various buildings have been renovated and renamed several times. It was given the Six Banyan Trees name by Su Dongpo, an eminent scholar during the Song Dynasty. A pagoda on stilts and a statue of the Laughing Buddha comprise the main attractions here.
        As I made my way along Liurong Road, I came across a market complex where traditional, intricate Chinese souvenirs were being peddled, and this is well worth a look.. Those of the Muslim faith can also pay a visit to the Huaisheng Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in China, which stands witness to the seventh century spread of Islam to the Land of the Bamboo Curtain.
*) Tulisan ini dimuat dalam Garuda Inflight Magazine sebagai cover story, edisi Januari 2011.

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