CHINA'S DEEP SOUTH
China's Deep South - Luxury Travel Magazine
China’s Deep South
|By: Timothy Morrell, Issue 49 Summer 2012|
|THE DYNAMIC COMMERCIAL HUB OF GUANGZHOU IN SOUTHERN CHINA IS ATTRACTING INCREASING NUMBERS OF FOREIGN BUSINESSPEOPLE, BUT TIMOTHY MORRELL DISCOVERED THAT THE CITY IS A GATEWAY TO MORE THAN A BOOMING ECONOMY.|
The narrow canals of old Lijiang, near Tibet, are lined with banks of chrysanthemums and traversed by ancient stone bridges. Tiny shops sell immense dried fungus, tea compressed into strange forms and an endless variety of pungent medicinal herbs. This would be the epitome of tranquil quaintness were it not for the roar of the locals singing in the canal-side taverns along Bar Street and hammering on the tables with specially provided blocks of wood to show how much fun they’re having. Welcome to China’s deep south, warmer in every way and more relaxed than the seriously political north.
One of the intriguing travel experiences in this part of the world is to find yourself surrounded by tourists – all of them Chinese. The newly prosperous middle classes are drawn to the south of their country by the climate and the dramatically beautiful mountain scenery. There are relentlessly picturesque old farming villages to photograph and spectacular Tibetan monasteries to visit, but from a social point of view the real attraction for foreign visitors to the southernmost reaches of the country is the chance to see the new China.
I was taken there by China Southern Airlines and was a guest of Accor Hotels. The tour began in Guangzhou, the country’s third largest city, which plays Chicago to Shanghai’s New York. It’s at the heart of China’s most upwardly mobile region. Now a modern supercity, Guangzhou may be more familiar to some as the old trading port of Canton (the European name, which is still used interchangeably). It doesn’t have the reputation for sly and glamorous intrigue that Shanghai acquired a century ago. Everything is more upfront here. This is where the revolutionary modernisation of China began nearly a hundred years ago, and today the city is the embodiment of Deng Xiaoping’s remark “it is glorious to be rich”.
Things are pretty glorious at the Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich Hotel, where the lobby is crowned by the biggest chandelier I’ve ever seen and the several-storey-high painting behind the registration desk appears to be sprinkled with diamond dust. This is new Chinese money à go-go, but as soon as you ascend to the upper realms of the accommodation floors a sense of serene restraint takes over. The French styling of the parent company is evident everywhere, from the gleaming dark wood-grained lacquer of the corridors to the restful, ivory coloured private dining rooms. The smart monochrome guest rooms are livened up by occasional splashes of Chinese good luck red, and there’s a deep freestanding tub with a comfy pillow in the bathroom.
Business is the main reason to visit Guangzhou, but hidden among the corporate towers there remain some old neighbourhoods. You can experience real Cantonese cuisine (there are more restaurants and teahouses here than any city in China), buy textiles and get clothes express-tailored, or wander through a maze of alleys examining extraordinary specimens of dried flora and fauna that would get you fined or possibly arrested if you tried to bring them into Australia. If the pace and scale of the city becomes overwhelming take refuge on Shamian Island, which was grabbed by foreigners in the 19th century and turned into their private enclave of splendid architecture and leafy promenades.
Dedicated seekers of peace might find it in the foothills of the Himalayas on the Tibetan edge of China. Ten years ago the main town in the northwest of Yunnan province changed its name to Shangri-la, with an eye to the tourist trade. Tibet, however, is not for sissies. The atmosphere of Shangrila is indeed breathtaking, but this is due as much to the scarcity of oxygen at 3,300 metres as it is to the beauty of the scenery. The landscape is
characterised by stark severity, not paradisaical lushness. While it replenishes your soul, this unforgettable environment can take its toll on your body.
The MGallery Songtsam Retreat is a fairly simple but lovely hotel and spa that goes a long way toward taking the rough edges off life in the mountains. General Manager Patrick Druet has a respectful sensitivity to the complex political, cultural and religious character of the people in this community. A mood of Buddhist calm pervades his hotel.
The property resembles a hillside cluster of stone farmhouses. On arrival in my room I was delighted to find, along with the little platter of amusebouche treats, a bottle of wine and a canister of oxygen. What more do you need? Guest rooms are big and sparsely furnished with traditional objects and textiles. The huge bathtub is made of wood and the bed is a down-filled mattress placed directly on the floor (it turned out to be one of the most comfortable I’ve slept in). The view from your room takes in fields, hayricks, grazing yaks and the gilded roofs of the great Songtsam monastery.
Epic natural grandeur is only a day trip away from this quiet valley. The Three Parallel Rivers National Park in Yunnan province is on the UNESCO Word Heritage List. It includes the exquisite Bita Lake, which is surrounded by forests that in autumn, when I was there, change colour with fluoro brilliance. For jaw-dropping splendour the main attraction is the power of the water that cascades down the almost vertically sided Tiger Leaping Gorge, between craggy peaks up to 6,000 metres high.
Yunnan province borders Burma, Laos and Vietnam and is one of China’s most culturally diverse areas. Traditionally dressed women in the city of Lijiang resemble the mountain peoples of those neighbouring countries, and are as exotic and fascinating to the Han Chinese as they are to foreign tourists. Also UNESCO listed, the old town may be too
authentic for comfort by the standards of some visitors. If you want to combine local character with blissful luxury, this is possible at the Pullman Lijiang Resort and Spa. It’s less than ten minutes away by car from the city’s ancient heart, yet it seems like a traditional Chinese country village, complete with mountain views, a lake and pagoda (and superb French haute cuisine and private Jacuzzis). Manager Anthony Myers is Australian and has introduced barbecues into the cultural mix.
There are conventional hotel rooms as well as villas arranged along the narrow cobbled laneways that give this resort its distinctive character. The interior of the villas is a coolly sophisticated blend of a Chinese scholar’s study and a minimalist Manhattan apartment, with exceptionally elegant use of natural grey stone on some of the floors and walls. Rooms are arranged around a stone-paved courtyard with a reflecting pool and, in acknowledgment of the Naxi people who are the traditional ethnic group of the area, a Naxi pear tree.
The revered Jade Dragon Snow Mountain provides magnificent alpine scenery on good days and is a magnet for precipitation on others. You can hire a cosy snow suit and ascend the mountain in a cable car, but don’t forget to take your oxygen. In the foothills of the mountain is a football-stadium-sized auditorium where about 600 men, women and horses sing, dance and trot through a folkloric tribute to the area.
See it, even if like me you can’t abide this sort of thing, and especially if it’s raining, as it was when I went. The efficiency with which thousands of people are herded into their seats and given cheery red, blue and yellow wet weather gear is truly astonishing and creates a spectacle in itself. This is as close as you’ll get to participating in an old style mass propaganda rally. At the end of the show we were exhorted by the cast to remove our waterproofs and feel the cleansing rain. And in unison, we did.
|Where to stay|
|Sofitel Guangzhou Sunrich Hotel|
Rates: A Superior Room starts from A$177 per night, a Luxury Room from A$283 per night, a Junior Suite from A$389 per night and a Prestige Suite from A$566 per night. Sofitel.com/gb/hotel-6318-sofitel-guangzhou-sunrich/
|MGallery Songtsam Retreat|
Rates: A Superior Room starts from A$126 per night and a Superior Suite from A$232 per night. Mgallery.com/gb/hotel-7078-songtsam-retreat-at-shangri-la-mgallery-collection
|Pullman Lijiang Resort and Spa|
Rates: A Deluxe Room starts from $223 per night, a Villa from A$414 per night and a two-bedroom Deluxe Villa from A$955 per night. Pullmanhotels.com/gb/hotel-7231-pullman-lijiang-resort-and-spa/
|Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines (code CZ) has operated into Australia for more than 10 years. It now flies twice daily between Sydney and Guangzhou, twice daily from Melbourne, four times a week from Brisbane and three times a week from Perth.|
China Southern flies direct from Guangzhou to Shangri La (Diqing) twice a week on Monday and Friday mornings at 9.15am. The new route began in August, 2011. Return economy fares to Shangri La via Guangzhou start from $790 and return business class fares start from $3,440 (ex Perth).
China Southern flies direct from Guangzhou to Lijiang daily at 11.40am.
Return economy fares from Perth to Lijiang via Guangzhou start from $790, business class fares start from $3,440 (ex Perth).
China Southern also offers daily direct services from Guangzhou to Auckland. China Southern operates the largest airline fleet in Asia and with more than 80 million passengers carried in 2011 it is the third largest carrier in the world. flychinasouthern.com
|When to go|
|The best time to visit is during the Spring (late-February to mid-May) and Autumn (November to mid-December) seasons. The times to avoid the southern regions are between May and October (summer, and the wettest period) and winter because it can get quite cold.|