I have met plenty of backpackers whilst traveling around China who have attempted to tackle the chaotic city of Guangzhou. Most have told me about their experience of stepping out of the city train station only to be met by huge crowds, pollution and traffic jams then retreating to the closest hotel and catching the morning train out of there. But this isn’t the real Guangzhou.
The west side of the city is filled with narrow streets with old buildings and tiny street vendors. Shamian Island on the Zhujiang river is home to old colonial buildings. The streets are lined with banyan trees and its pace much slower then rest of the city. Just north of Shamian is were Guangzhou starts to get interesting. Qingping market occupies a number of city blocks and is famous for vendors selling anything from live scorpions to dried cockroaches. The government has cracked down on the market in the last decade because it used to be renowned for selling bears in cages and other endangered species’ parts. But don’t be put down, there is still plenty to check out.
Just north again you will come across Up Down Street (Shang Xia Lu). The street winds north for a few kilometres and it is filled with neon lights and old building that have been converted into shops. The shops blast techno music and employees stand out front clapping and yelling trying to make more noise then the next shop completing for your attention.
Duck down the side lanes and you’ll get lost in a maze of tiny alleys. The oldies sit together playing Chinese chess and yelling over the top of each other trying to throw their two cents in. Around some of the larger streets you’ll find the best street dish in China, chuans. They are lamb kebabs cooked over coals and spiced with cumin seed and chilli. The best are from the Uyghur vendors and you will be able to smell the coals from a mile away. Spend only 20 kuai and you’ll get a fist full.
If you can, make Guangzhou the last stop on your backpacking trip. This way you won’t have to drag around a backpack full of shopping because Guangzhou is the best place for shopping in the world. It is the wholesale market for the rest of Asia’s markets. There is a market for literally everything. Check out Haiyin Shichang for electronics, Wan Ling Shi Chang so everything under the sun, but the best one is Zhanxi Lu Shi Chang just next to the main train station. It has buildings filled with watches, accessories, clothes and shoes. It has all the fakes but it has plenty of original stuff. It is the cheapest place in China to shop and you don’t even have to bargain hard. The lack of tourists in GZ has kept prices low and you’ll get most stuff for just over wholesale price. The street food out front is amazing too. Try the dumplings, chuan and pancakes.
Give Guangzhou a few days on your backpacking trip and by the end you will love the place.