It was not so long ago that GUANGZHOU, once known to the Western world as Canton, was dismissed as a nightmare caricature of Hong Kong, one of the most dizzyingly overcrowded, polluted and chaotic places to daunt a newcomer to the country. While the city is still hardly somewhere to come for peace and relaxation, recent improvements have wrought great changes: the waterfront area has been paved and flowerbeds dug wherever possible; old buildings have been scrubbed and restored to public view; the city's nightlife is snowballing; and an expanding metronetwork and multi-layered flyovers are relieving traffic congestion.
True, Guangzhou's sights remain relatively minor, though a fascinating 2000-year-old tomb and palace site complement the obligatory round of temples. Yet the city is an enjoyable place, especially if you love to dine out. The Cantonese are compulsively garrulous, turning Guangzhou's two famous obsessions – eating and business – into social occasions, and filling streets, restaurants and buildings with the sounds of Yueyu, the Cantonese language. And while the newer districts pass as a blur of chrome and concrete from the inside of your taxi, make your way around on foot through the back lanes and you'll discover a very different city, one of flagstoned residential quarters, tiny collectors' markets, laundry strung on lines between buildings, and homes screened away behind barred wooden gates. Guangzhou has also long been the first place where foreign influences have seeped into the country, often through returning Overseas Chinese, and this is where to watch for the latest fashions and to see how China will interpret alien styles.
It may seem, though, what with the biannualTrade Fair, that the emphasis here is towards business rather than tourism – and it's certainly true that commerce is Guangzhou's lifeblood. In purely practical terms, however, while the city is expensive compared with some parts of China, it's far cheaper than Hong Kong, particularly in regard to onward travel. Airfares into China are considerably less from Guangzhou than what you'd pay just south of the border, allowing big savings even after you factor in transport from Hong Kong and a night's accommodation.