All journeys have discoveries which we, the traveller, are unaware of when we set off from home. For the inquisitive, China is certainly full of surprises. We hear much in the media and perhaps come up with preconceived notions – stories of a baby being flushed down a toilet made headlines around the world, as did the landslides killing thousands of locals, and business deals like Fonterra’s not going quite to plan. But travelling in China is a very different experience altogether, no matter how you plan your trip.
Flying from Australia, Southern Eastern China Airlines now has flights every day in their brand spanking new A380s. This is a good thing as past aircraft can only be described as “tired”. This influx from the Lucky Country is good for business in China, as they are keen to capture the Australian tourist dollar.
At the luxurious Sofitel Guangzhou, it seems strange arriving at a hotel in China where the staff greet you with “Bonjour”. To be honest, the hotel is much like any Sofitel anywhere in the world – large comfortable suites, understated quality and well thought-out food and beverage offerings. As you walk into the lobby you are greeted with a fragrance that could have just been released by Chanel in Paris.
Guangzhou the city, historically known as Canton, is located on the Pearl River and is a national transportation hub and trading port in one of China’s busiest manufacturing regions. It is the third largest city in China and the largest in Southern China.
A friend of mine travels several times a year to Guangzhou and has done so for the last 10 years, as he manufactures shoes for the Australian marketplace. His view is that the food is interesting, but the climate and pollution depending when you travel, “is crippling”.
Already first thing in the morning the humidity is hitting 80 per cent. As this is my first trip to the city I visit the Guangzhou Tower, the tallest structure in China and the fourth tallest freestanding structure in the world. It certainly feels like it when you are at the top looking down on this predominantly grey city. Hobbie, our guide, points out the Pearl River, like a ribbon swirling around the city below, and tells us his memories of swimming and catching fish as a child in what was once a clear river.
The indoor public observatory is 449m above the ground and takes the form of a terraced elliptical space roughly the size of a small city square. Opened in December 2011, the rooftop at 488m is the highest and largest outdoor observation deck in the world. Our guide points out key sites and where more manufacturing development will take place.
And that’s what China likes its tourists to experience: the tallest and the largest, all competing for the all-important tourist dollar. If you can’t find it you only need to ask, as they will design it, build it and deliver it in record time.
Dining out in Guangzhou is interesting, to say the least. Hong Xing Restaurant has giant jars filled with snakes and what looks like body parts from some mad cannibal’s kitchen. This neon-lit restaurant has a giant live seafood display of fish, crabs, shellfish, eels and lobsters, and you can buy and eat crocodile if your palate so wishes. I have never seen such an array of seafood from around the globe on offer anywhere in the world.
A menu with photos displaying the range of seafood dishes makes it easier and there are barbecued meats, sushi and sashimi on offer too. A plate of prawns baked in a hot pot in tea leaves and served with deep-fried crispy tea leaves with soy sauce was the stand-out dish and I would have quite liked the recipe to take home. The dish that had me stumped was a plate of barbecued duck tongues and roast pigeon. Never been a big fan of the alternative poultry cuts myself.
That night a visit to a local pigeon restaurant, had my fellow dining guests ooh-ing and aah-ing over plates of pigeon. I, however, ordered the beef, which really was a giant, thick slice of luncheon sausage swimming in oil. If all that seems a little crazy you can always dine at the Sofitel’s restaurant. Do try to experience the breakfast buffet – it is vast and the range will blow any diet, but as my father always said, “a good breakfast will set you up for the day”.
Lap of Yunnan luxury
Travelling to Xishuangbanna via Kunming in China’s Yunnan province is quite an experience. The new Kunming Changshui International Airport was opened in June 2012 and is both vast and impressive. A gateway to Southeast and South Asia, it is a hub for China Eastern Airlines and is expected to handle 38 million passengers per year by 2020.
With 66 air bridges it is China’s second largest airport terminal building, and having walked up and down it numerous times I can vouch for its size. Incredibly, it took just two years to build the new airport building.
Designed by local architects, it has a gold roof and ceilings with swirling gold ribbon constructs lining and holding the building’s structure. The terminal is also impressive from the air, as it looks like a giant gold Chinese calligraphy character lying among the runways. This new gateway will become important for China as provinces open up over the next few years with holiday destinations on offer for the local and international market.
The southern part of China has been heavily invested in as an alternative holiday destination to the tourist-friendly cities of Shanghai and Beijing. Already popular with the local Chinese, the Yunnan province has, over a very short period of time, built new roads, bridges, tunnels and airports that access this mountainous region. Linking to neighbouring Laos and Thailand, it offers a distinctively different China that looks and feels more Southeast Asian than Chinese.
That influence plays out in local festivals, like the water splash festival that is only celebrated in this part of China and yet is enormously popular in Thailand. The local people are very friendly and are happy to approach Western tourists to practise their English. This is in stark contrast to the bustling cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai.
China’s Xishuangbanna region, with its low-hanging clouds that float around the top of the mountain range, like some ancient Chinese painting, and its rich, dense forest of rubber trees running the length of the terrain, feels like some mystical land as you are flying into the area. The newly opened Xishuangbanna Anantara Resort sits on the Luosuo River, a tributary of the Mekong.
Surrounded by lush mountains covered in rubber plants, which is home to golden monkeys, peacocks and the last remaining Chinese elephants (more about the elephants later), this stunning setting is the second property for the Anantara group in China. The first Anantara Resort is further south on the coast of the South China Sea, in Sanya, the “Hawaii of China”. With five more resorts planned – another will open by the end of 2013 – this hotel brand, with its philosophy based on relaxation, is sure to prove popular with locals and international guests.
Staying in one of the 23 pool villas, there are also deluxe king and twin rooms available. I’m looking out over a central subtropical garden that is lush and feels like it has been there some time. The villa has free and instant high speed internet access, an iPad dock and, my favourite, a rain shower in the bathroom that, as one of my fellow travellers points out, is larger than her entire apartment back in Sydney. The bathroom is impressive, with a stand-alone giant bath, separate shower and toilet, enormous vanity and a huge central ottoman. Three of the walls have floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to gardens and a surrounding pond. This is pure luxury.
In search of elephants
Cultural aspects of the local tribes, including the Dai, Jinuo and Hani people, feature within the resort’s design and also in its culinary concepts. The resort’s indigenous guest experiences are enhanced with visits to the many ethnic tribes in the area, including a tea-picking journey with China’s last minority group to be recognised – the Jinuo tribe. They guide you through 1800-year-old tea plantations in the mountains, where you can pick tea in the traditional way before heading back to roast the leaves as they have done for centuries. The resort offers cooking classes, which are both fun and informative.
The promise of actually finding one of the last remaining Chinese elephants – only 300 wild elephants still exist in southern China – made for a fun afternoon, as two cars full of crazy journalists went in search of this elusive species. We thought we were on to something but it turned out to be a rather heavy-set smoky grey-coloured large cow. One local was more than happy to drive off in front of the cars to ask local villagers if they had seen any elephants recently. Apparently a pack of them had been seen down in the low lands eating crops and had since headed back up into the mountainous region. To go down into the villages and meet the people who live with elephants, you’re unlikely (though it is possible) to actually see an elephant, but what you do see is a part of rural China among tropical forests that most people never see. The locals can always take you for a walk through the fields to the place where the elephants last came out, show you the crop damage and talk to you about their lives with the elephants. It is a truly unique experience.
Not wanting to talk too loudly about the elephant in the room, or the lack of it, John Roberts, who is the elephant director for Anantara, and who has worked for Anantara resorts for 10 years, would like to think that Thailand’s Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp is one of the main reasons guests visit that hotel. “The Foundation we set up in 2006 has taken things to a new level and hopefully shows that a hotel can spawn a serious, scientific conservation organisation – which I think we are – and in that way the elephant work is very important, as it can set a blueprint for the group, sustainably helping not just elephants but people in need, turtles and ecosystems, to name just the projects we’re working on now.”
Wild elephants lived as far north as Beijing during recorded history, which goes back a long way in China, and there was a trained elephant retinue in some Emperors’ courts. But the history of most of China has been a battle of agriculture against nature. “In Xishuangbanna,” says Roberts, “where the remaining wild elephants live, the story is somewhat different. That was a Dai Kingdom and they lived with elephants and have had them as part of the folklore and daily life as much as at least the northern Thai, Burmese and Lao folks did.” Not surprising given the proximity, the Chinese name for the Mekong is the Lancang, derived from the old name for Laos, Lan Xang – “land of one million elephants.”
“Nowadays the public living with wild elephants in China have seemed among the most understanding and gentle of the communities. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the Government has a reliable insurance scheme to help people who have crop or vehicle (some elephants don’t like motorbikes, it seems) damage.” Roberts and his team are working on exchange trips to bring Chinese park officials to see their captive elephant operation in the Golden Triangle and to Thai National Parks to see other examples of the way tourism can be successfully handled in wild areas.
Driving back to the resort we stop at a road side restaurant with dirt floors, a small child asleep in the corner and dogs lying outside. This restaurant, which the guide books might call “rustic”, was where I probably had one of the best meals I had while travelling in China: Pea eggplant; fried river fish; bacon and green capsicum; banana flower salad; fig leaves steamed with chilli, vinegar and a garlic sauce; pork and spring onions; and tiny little juicy river snails that were delicious.
The local Menglun market is held in a large covered space, lined by long tables with local producers selling their wares. A short walk from the resort, our guide Mi Wei An or “Annie” introduces us to spices and herbs that are sold in bulk, the aromas kicking our nasal passages into shape. Giant cuts of tofu and baskets of mangosteen, lychees, rambutan and an assortment of other fruits are all for sale.
Running the length of the market is the meat section, hardly Woolworths or Coles in presentation. I don’t see a single plastic-wrapped tray of meat, but there is something quite mesmerising looking at how the locals have cut and butchered their cattle. There are no flies, each cut is clean and it seems every hind, quarter, organ, ear, nose, throat, tongue, eyeball and testicle is for sale. The colour of the meat is blush red and appears well bloomed.
As I get closer to the far exit, baby poultry in handmade reed cages stare out at me and chickens are jammed into spaces that don’t seem legal. The market is at times a little confronting, but well worth the visit to watch the locals barter and buy their daily produce.
After an afternoon trip to the botanical gardens (founded in 1959 it contains more than 10,000 species of tropical plants, is also a research centre and attracts academics from across the globe) I am ready to return to the resort and soak up the comfort Anantara is renowned for.
As Southern China continues to open its doors to tourism, Xishuangbanna is well set to attract travellers who want to experience a China that is more than just a shopping trip to Shanghai. Watch out for the local elephants in the mystical mountains among the low-slung clouds, as you just never know when you might catch a glimpse.