Shaoguan - was there

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October 9th 2019
Published: October 9th 2019
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Day 69 to 74 of 81

Journey by bullet train from Hangzhou to Shaoguan was smooth. Top speed was 310 kph, but you wouldn't know it. Whatever happened to the old clackerty-clack clackerty-clack of rail tracks of old?

Arriving at our hotel in Shaoguan what a pleasant surprise. Paul has booked a proper hotel 😊 A brand new-build Holiday Inn in fact. 4 storey atrium entry, 3 restaurants and a tea/cake lounge, proper clean carpets with a plush pile, CNN on the tele. But taking 500Y - £55! - as a 'security deposit' for a room that is already fully paid for feels very low rent though.

We spent 3 nights / 2 days in Shaoguan. What can we say about it.....Paul is reminded that in a Guardian review of an early Spice Girls' arena gig, in describing each 'girl's' performance the best it could say about Baby Spice was 'Baby Spice was ...... there!' Feels a bit like that for Shaoguan.

Paul's original reasoning for stopping here was choosing a 'small' place to stop for a final stay in China on our journey across from Hangzhou to Hong Kong whilst staying on the direct high speed rail link. Of course, our plans have now changed. Much for the better as it turns out, as we should be in Hong Kong right now, rather than Guangzhou. And HK doesn't look a great place to visit right now.

But we made the best of what we could of Shaoguan, though that wasn't helped by temps in the upper 30s again, and humidity around 90%.

Friday we walked, slowly, into town. At a small, river side square we came upon a memorial to civilians and children killed by a Japanese attack in September 1941, killing 100+ who were sheltering in a temple. Interesting to see that there was a large English explanation as well as Chinese.

The town centre was busy. It is still Golden Week after all. We walked the main street. Felt like a cross between Newton Abbot High Street x Wisbech Sunday Market, multiplied several times. That is not a compliment!

There was a very pleasant park at its Southern end, which had clearly seen some 70th Anniversary celebrations.

Saturday, weather still the same, we bimbled around the Furongshan National Mine Park, not far from the hotel. The museum was small, light on English, ie none, but heavy on chemical formulae for the rocks on display. But the lady attendant was lovely and told us some things via Translator on her phone.

Just along from the museum, at the base of some enormous blocks of flats, there was another delightful park. Whilst sitting, in the heat but under shade, with a cold drink and ice cream, Paul was fortunate enough to see a frog 'run' across the water.

So, to be fair, we didn't do much, but on a trip like this some occasional slow r & r is most welcome.

If the weather had been more amenable we would have made our way 45 km north to Danxia Park to see the 'suggestive' rock formations there, but we didn't. But we couldn't resist cutting and pasting in pictures we didn't get anyway 😊.

The train on Sunday to Guangzhou was full. In fact there were many people standing. Frank, our Explore guide, had told us that during Golden Week people will buy a ticket on a 'full' train even if it means standing for hours to the destination. So a bit like British railways then.

Guangzhou is the current name for what has previously been known as Canton. It is another Chinese mega-city. 15m in the city, 25m in the metropolitan area. It was the 4th Chinese city to have a metro system. It is regarded as one of the hubs of Chinese manufacturing and hosts China's largest international Trade Fair, the Canton Fair, twice a year.

Another decent hotel. 2 in a row. Paul must have upped his standards!

The bathroom even has a set of electronic scales. These show that Pip has lost 5kg and Paul 7kg. It's all the walking plus low fat/low carb diet, plus no cakes, cheese, cream, puddings.....

Having arrived in Guangzhou, the main aim for today was for Paul to try and buy tickets for Glastonbury 2020, on sale at 4 pm local time. He was in a group of 6 all trying through multiple devices. But it wasn't too be. That's 2 years running.

And Ginger Baker died today. Another 'great' gone. But on the plus side Wolves beat Man City at the Etihad Stadium, and are above Man Utd in the Premier League table.

Monday, a decent breakfast on offer, the first in weeks. Even some of the Chinese food looked great, especially the sliced duck breast. But still not for us for breakfast.

Across town by metro to the Museum of the Nanyue King of the Han Dynasty. This tomb, of the 2nd Nanyue King, Zhao Mo, dates back to 122 BC ish. It was discovered by accident when developers lopped 20m off the top of some innocuous hill, only to find the complete tomb and its contents below. It hadn't been previously discovered, and so hadn't been grave robbed, but it was severely damaged by waterlogging and subsidence.

The tomb is the earliest stone tomb with paintings in China and was full of both treasures and household goods, as well as the bodies of 15 concubines and servants who were entombed with the king to serve him in the afterlife. Who'd be a servant or concubine by choice, eh.

The king was covered in a jade suit, formed from over 2000 jade pieces held together by silk ribbon. The suit has been reassembled in the museum, the original silk having rotted away. There are also dozens of other majestic jade pieces, along with 1000+ artefacts. A large proportion of there are displayed in the museum.

Amongst these were dateable seals that prove precisely whom the tomb contained.

10 iron swords, including the largest Han Dynasty one known. The swords are pretty much corroded but their jade adornments are intact. Musical instruments including some wonderful sets of bells. One chariot, its existence only deduceable from the metal pieces left behind after the wood construction has rotted away.

A couple of pieces that were particularly fascinating were two pieces of jade that had been broken but then mended by gold fastenings. They must have been favoured pieces in that not only had they been mended but were also buried with the king.

The tomb itself is now empty but you can descend to it and walk inside where some photos and descriptions show what it was like on discovery. It has the highest rating amongst Chinese cultural listings, but is not, apparently, UNESCO listed, which seems a bit surprising.

The museum has been built just to the side of the tomb, and contains a couple of additional 'special exhibition' halls. One of these currently holds a collection of 'stone pillows', around 1000 of them. These are mostly the collection of one person, and many date back to the 9th and 10th century.

There is some wonderful pottery and art amongst them; wonderful artistry and design. But. ....they look really, bloody uncomfortable.

A small sojourn to the Canton Orchid Garden next. 'Orchid Garden' is stretching the description somewhat, as that part consisted of only a couple of dozen or so specimens in a central building. But the garden overall was very lush and fully grown, with tight paths going in all directions, and meandering streams, water and bridges.

Across the road to Yuexiu Park, and a conclusion that Golden Week must be an exact October 1st to October 7th thing because, although it was Monday, the place was heaving with families and children.

The park is particularly famed for its 5 Rams statue, which we reached by electric buggy for a change. Built in 1960 from more than 130 pieces of granite it's one of the city's emblems as a symbol of good luck. The rams represent gratitude, kindness, diligence, cooperation and bravery, the spirit of the Guangzhou people! And it seemed like everyone in the park was making a pilgrimage up to the statue.

In total the statue refers to a 2000 year legend, back to when Guangzhou was a barren land, with people who, despite working hard, were suffering a famine. 5 Immortals came riding in on 5 rams, with ears of rice in their mouths. They left the rice, gave blessing and left. The rams turned into stone and the city became rich.

Just south of the park is the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, built 1928-31. Sun Yat-sen is a big deal in China, and these parts especially. He is seen as the forerunner to the Chinese Revolution, and is often referred to as the Father of the Nation due to his role in the overthrow of the last Emperor in 1911. Unique amongst 20th C Chinese leaders he is revered on both mainland China and Taiwan. He was the first President after the Emperor, and the third! There was some falling out and argy-bargy in between.

The hall mixes Chinese and Western architecture. It is a 'concert' hall in Western terms, being a leading venue for conventions, performances and concerts.

Across to the Canton Tower. 2nd highest building in the world when built now the 8th. Lots of things to do including:
World's highest open air observation platform at 488 m.
World's highest thrill ride, a pair of vertical drop rides at 485 to 455m.
World's highest 'ferris wheel' at 480m, but that's a cheat as it's really bubble cars on an inclined track, not a 'ferris wheel' as we would understand it.

But at ~£20 to get to a level below the open observation deck, plus, plus, plus, you're looking towards £45 each to get the full experience. Too rich on the cost/value scale for us. We took in the lights across the river in the commercial high rise buildings, but they weren't Shanghai.

Tuesday's first stop was Temple of the Six Banyan Trees - Pip 'Yippee 😕 another temple!' - origin in 537 to enshrine relics brought over from India. The current name was given by the poet Su Dongbo, he of the Su Causeway at West Lake, Hangzhou. He waxed lyrical in 1099 over the banyans in the courtyard. No banyans now but some fine ficus.

Whilst there it was clear that vegetarian food was being served, for a donation. Many people were eating from plastic boxes and it looked good. An elderly lady tried to persuade us to buy but it was only 10.30 am, far too early for us.

A walk through some back streets - washing, workshops - to Guangxiao Temple - Pip '..... you can fill in the rest yourselves.

The oldest temple in Guangzhou, dating back to 4th C, it was well established by the Tang Dynasty as the centre of Buddhist learning in S China. Bodhidharma, founder of Zen Buddhism, taught here. The current buildings though mostly date to the 19th C.

For the afternoon it was across to the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall. Completed 1893 it was built with monies donated by Chens from across the province, and was a no-expense-spared type of building. It served as short-term accommodation for Chen members coming to Guangzhou to sit imperial exams, on their way to postings, to pay tax or conduct business.

It is stuffed with magnificently decorated, carved, painted, enamelled surfaces throughout. The level of detail is astounding. There are 19 units, interconnected by long corridors, pavilions, and courtyards but in such a way as to encourage the rising hot air to drag in cooling air at a lower level.

With the stupendous amount of decorative arts on display in the building they have now established within its pavilions a folk art complex showcasing skills within the region eg ceramics, paper cutting, olive stone carving, jade, lacquer work, .... Under the Canton System of 1757 -1840 Guangzhou / Canton became the hub of trade between China and the world. That stimulated the development of Guangzhou handicrafts. New industries emerged all exporting to 'the West' - ivory carving, embroidery, silverware, seashell carvings, jade, etc...

Ivory carving declined as a result of CITES ban on trade in 1989. But that didn't stop China putting ivory carving on their First National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in May 2006. The craft continued by using stored ivory, ox bones and mammoth ivory - we have seen some of this on sale in the city - but then a total ban came in in 2018. Whither the craft now?

On our way to Shamian Island we spent some time in a ginormous jade market. There were hundreds of stalls, some general, some very specific eg one area had stall after stall selling only loose jade beads, another only bracelets. Pip looked for and tried a few bracelets but the stall holders each tried to force onto her wrist ones which were far, far too tight.

A quick dip through a local market bought us our first ever experience of live scorpions for sale. We didn't handle the merchandise. Along with frogs, snakes, eels and a live bird hanging, tightly, in a net.

Shamian Island is only an island because the British dug a channel separating the land from the mainland. The land was acquired as a foreign concession by France and Britain in 1859 after the Opium Wars. Only in 1946 did the Chinese finally take the land back. It had 10 overseas consulates, foreign banks and firms by the dozen, and lots of wonderful buildings, almost 'colonial' in style. Even Starbucks looked as if it could be in the 'deep south" of the USA.

After eating on the island, where Pip had some of the best fish and chips she's ever had, that was it for Tuesday. ... and for this blog.

Less than a week left now.

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