From Silk Road to tai chic

After a stretch, Fran Stephenson takes in Guangzhou's colonial past.

AN ELDERLY man walks towards me slapping his bald head with his hands. Another old man nearby is rhythmically thumping his chest with his fists. Alongside, a grey-haired woman talks to him in gibberish as she punches the air above her head. Two women stand facing each other, rubbing their tummies in a circular motion with their hands.

These elderly, local people are all around me - gyrating their hips, rotating their heads, slapping their bodies and patting outstretched legs up and down. It's the early-morning ritual played out all over China when the people come out of their homes to exercise, socialise and embrace the new day.

I'm beside the Pearl River in the city of Guangzhou in southern China. The air-punching lady gives me a friendly little smile. I don't feel at all out of place; indeed, I feel quite welcome and join in doing my own exercise regime. A distinguished elderly gent walks his poodle past the women skilfully kicking a shuttlecock backwards and forwards and the occasional younger jogger flashes by.

What a tranquil and uplifting way to start a day in this very chaotic part of the world.

Guangzhou is the old Canton - an ancient city with a history of 2000 years of open trade. It was the starting sea port of the Chinese Silk Road and since the opening-up of China, the city has experienced vigorous economic growth. It is now an important manufacturing base.

As the capital of the Guangdong province, Guangzhou is China's third-largest city. It has an abundance of trees, parks and gardens earning it the title of the "garden city of China", a name that, when battling the daily chaos, seems somewhat generous. Alternatively, its other title of the "marketplace of the south" is much more befitting of this busy, bustling, business-oriented city, with heavy traffic and high pollution. But here, beside the river on Shamian Island, I feel like I am in an oasis.

Shamian Island is the most charming part of Guangzhou. Only 300 metres wide and 900 metres long, it is far from being the "real" China. However, if it's traditional China you seek, all that hustle and bustle is only a short walk away as three bridges link the island to the shore and provide easy access to various parts of the city.

In 1861, during the Qing Dynasty, Shamian was the first territory to be ceded to Britain, with a small concession also granted to France.

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For several centuries it was the only place where foreigners could live in China and in the early 1900s, it became the consulate area. Trading companies from Britain, the US, France, Holland, Italy, Germany, Portugal and Japan built stone mansions along the waterfront.

They remain today and reflect the area's history and enhance its special charm. To wander along the quiet pedestrian avenues and read the brass plaques on these grand old buildings is an unexpected trip of discovery into a more glorious era.

Along the river's edge are beautifully laid-out gardens and streets lined with flower beds. Traditional red paper lanterns hang from the hairy limbs of the giant 200- to 300-year-old banyan trees, which shade the island. Life-sized bronze sculptures with knees, hands and tips of shoes, brightly polished by many years of touching, add another dimension as they retell the stories of the changing life on the island during the colonial days.

My base on Shamian Island is the White Swan, reputedly China's first five-star hotel. Today, it's a member of the 450-strong, Leading Hotels of the World group and offers all the luxury one would expect. The foyer is dominated by a huge waterfall so realistic I wonder if it was here first and the hotel built around it. The rooms are stylish with bathrooms typical of its era, in black-and-white marble with brass fittings. Surprisingly, this grand old hotel has a plain exterior, which does nothing to reflect its inner elegance; however its huge wall of neon daisies is a welcoming sight as you battle the relentless traffic.

In the evening, I wander the streets and browse in art galleries and shops selling clothing, antiques and traditional arts and crafts. I'm curious when the assistant in a shop called A Gift from China asks me if I'm here to adopt. Pointing to a huge clear plastic box containing masses of money donated by customers, she explains that it's a charity shop and 10 per cent of their takings go to local orphanages. I soon find out that US couples with newly adopted Chinese babies are not an unusual sight around here.

The US embassy is close to the White Swan and the hotel is included in the package tours of many US adoption agencies.

The young assistant speaks excellent English as she excels at selling her wares. She shows me ancient fabrics and statues from the Qing Dynasty and introduces me to a traditional and charming style of Chinese art - farmers' art - and produces a certificate with a signature and fingerprint to verify the farmer's work.

The variety of cafes and restaurants on the island reflects its multicultural past and present. Where the tai chi practitioners exercised in the morning, at night becomes Lucy's, a busy American-style diner where we were served good Western meals by waitresses in jeans, windcheaters and baseball caps.

A further stroll along the waterfront, at the French end of the island, is an Italian restaurant, La Dolce Vita, run by Italians. It's in a grand old multistorey building, which once housed the French police who guarded the bridge opposite. Next door is a French restaurant and also on the island are Thai and German restaurants and even Starbucks and Subway.

However, when in the food capital of China, why not partake of the traditional cuisine? There are many good Cantonese restaurants and street cafes nearby.

For early-morning yum cha, the locals eat at the old Victory Hotel where the food is cheap and exotic and the dim sum's reputed to be the best around. The waitresses don't speak English so point and be adventurous - sometimes it's better not to know.

Next morning, I hear the recorded music as I head to the gardens beside the river. I stand at the back of a group of 10 elderly people practising tai chi. A lady indicates with a nod that I should put my bag with others at the front of the group and join in.

Their movements are slow and controlled - they look like swans. I try to emulate their elegance but instead feel conspicuous, like a clumsy elephant. I retrieve my bag and move on to join the air-punching, head-slapping, chest-beating group. Tai chi is not as easy as it looks.

Trip notes

Getting there

Several airlines fly directly from Sydney to Guangzhou including Qantas, Cathay Pacific and China Southern Airlines.

Fast trains, buses and ferries operate between Hong Kong and Guangzhou many times each day.

Staying there

Guangzhou has a number of huge exhibition centres and hosts many international trade fairs regularly throughout the year, so accommodation prices fluctuate accordingly.

White Swan Hotel, 1 Shamian South Street, +86 20 8188 6968, whiteswanhotel.com. Nightly rates start at 670 yuan ($115) for a standard room.

Victory Hotel, 53 Shamian North Street, +86 20 8121 6688, vhotel.com. Prices from 350 yuan for a standard queen room.

Dining there

Lucy's, 3 Shamian South Street, +86 20 8121 5106; good food at cheap prices.

La Dolce Vita, 1 Shamian Lu, +86 20 8121 5407; upmarket Italian cuisine.

Three other things to do

Within a short walk from Shamian Island are the traditional Qingping Markets. Also within four kilometres is the ancient Six Banyan Tree Temple and Flower Pagoda and Museum and Tomb of the Southern Yue Kings; or hike up White Cloud Mountain for views of the city.

Guangzhou has an excellent zoo, Xiangjiang Safari Park, where animals are displayed in areas on the huge grounds that are as near as possible to their native habitats. The zoo is in the Panyu district, which also has the world's largest permanent circus and water park, Chimelong.

Just a cheap taxi ride to Beijing Road shopping district will reveal just how Westernised China has become. Shops from around the world sell the latest trendy gear alongside market stalls and street vendors. Ancient remnants of the road are displayed under glass.

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