From Hong Kong, there is a train direct to Canton...so Canton seems like the perfect place to spend a weekend and yet I don't know anyone who has been there..."Nothing to see", "It's ugly"...Canton has a very bad reputation, probably due to its image as a completely business oriented metropolis (like Shenzen, which was only a small village a few decades ago). I quickly realized how false this perception is and I even found Canton more interesting than Hong Kong!
Like elsewhere in China, foreigners were corralled on a little island, (you can see the same thing on Gulangyu Island in Xiamen). In Canton this little western oasis, which was called Shamian, was mostly English but with a small French enclave. I immediately noticed the difference: the architecture of the French part is less austere, less imposing. Shamian has retained all its splendour - a large part of the island is pedestrianized and very green, the former banks, consulates, and other buildings have lost their function but kept their grandeur - so it has become THE spot for Cantonese couples to have their wedding photos taken. (For information, in China the photos can be taken months before the wedding day.) And I found it very charming to walk there.
When I left Shamian the change in scenery was as radical as it was immediate: opposite the island is Qinping market, where the ingredients for Chinese medicine are sold. Here I found shops filled with sacks of dried seahorses, bouquets of insects, whole ranges of snake skins, collections of starfish...over several buildings! It was a market where my only purchase was some dried lemons to put in my tea...but which I left with my camera filled with pictures and some of my best memories of my son! Behind the market is a well preserved area of Art Nouveau buildings in a commercial street where I found something to eat before strolling off to the Chen Clan Academy, which is truly remarkable and a perfect place for children's tea.
As much as Canton was a marvelous discovery that I hadn't expected, I was impatient to get to the Kaiping Towers in the nearby countryside, which are inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These towers were built by rich immigrants to protect their families in a countryside that was a little dangerous at the time, and also just to show the rest of the village people how rich they were...The architecture is a mix of Asian and Western that is unique in the world. As soon as I arrived in the area, I realized the towers were everywhere - I visited some villages and I climbed lots of towers...the day was as good as I anticipated, and I have some favorite towers to recommend to you: I fell in love with the non-touristy JianJiangLi and the village of Zili which has an amazing group of towers.
Canton also has a very modern side to it, and some architectural jewels that we saw during a night cruise of the Pearl River. The symbol of modern Canton is Canton Tower, which is beautifully illuminated at night, but there is lots more to see...that will be during my next weekend in Canton!