China Travel Guide
Guangdong & Hainan
Located at the southernmost tip of continental China are the province of Guangdong and the island of Hainan, just off its coast in the South China Sea. Guangdong’s capital, the great city and port of Guangzhou (Canton), stands on one of China’s longest rivers, the Pearl (Zhu Jiang), while Haikou, the capital of Hainan, is on the island’s north coast, about 30 miles (50 km) to the south of the mainland.
Guangdong is perhaps the most familiar part of China, since a large proportion of expatriates around the world are of Cantonese origin. The province also lies very close to Hong Kong, whose inhabitants are mostly Cantonese. Given its long-standing contacts with the outside world, it is not surprising that Guangdong was only fully integrated into China in the 12th century, when large numbers of Han settlers migrated here from the north. Today, it is a key area of China’s economic development, most evident in Guangzhou and the new cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai. Despite the recent development, there are several places of historical interest, as well as some beautiful inland countryside.
Formerly administered as part of Guangdong, the tropical island of Hainan is now a separate province. A place of exile for centuries, its superb beaches on the southern coast have only recently been developed as thriving tourist resorts. There are still vestiges of the indigenous Li culture to seek out, and some wild mountains to explore at the island’s center.
Sights at a glance
Towns & Cities
Areas of Natural Beauty
and moat, Shantou
This city was originally a fishing village, whose strategic location on the Han Jiang estuary was exploited by foreign traders from 1858. Known then as Swatow, it soon became a major center for trade. In 1980, it was declared a Special Economic Zone and today it is essentially a modern city. The old quarter still has a few sights of interest such as the restored 1879 Tianhou Gong, a temple with vibrant carvings. Nearby along Anping Lu are the remains of old colonial houses and warehouses. East of Anping Lu at the waterfront is Shipaotai Gongyuan, a fortified gun emplacement that was built in the 1870s.
- Haibin Lu.
- 0754 885 43120
- 7:30am–11pm daily
- Shengping Lu.
- 0754 884 54097
- 7am–5:30pm daily
- 220 miles (350 km) E of Guangzhou
This ancient city was the seat of a highly cultured civilization during the Ming dynasty. Its fortunes declined rapidly in the 17th century, when almost 100,000 people were massacred for opposing the Manchu regime. Later, during the 19th century, terrible famines and poverty led to mass emigration.
Today, the remains of the 23-ft (7-m) high Ming City Walls run along the banks of the Han Jiang, defining the eastern boundary of the old city center. Extending up to Huangcheng Lu in the west, the old city is Chaozhou’s most fascinating quarter, where its historic past is visible on streets such as Zhongshan Lu and Jiadi Xiang with its well-preserved Qing-dynasty architecture. To the north of Jiadi Xiang is Kaiyuan Si, an active Buddhist temple founded in AD 738, with pretty courtyards and several colorful halls, one of which has a gorgeous vaulted ceiling. The grand Guangji Men along the city wall has steps leading up to a trail along the top of the wall. Across the river is the 10th-century temple Hanwen Gong Ci, and downstream is the slowly crumbling Ming dynasty pagoda Fenghuang Ta.
- Kaiyuan Lu.
Shenzhen was one of the first towns to become a Special Economic Zone as part of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of the late 1980s. SEZ status transformed this tiny village bordering Hong Kong into a booming metropolis in just a few years. Today, it is an important, although rather soulless, business center and transport hub. On its western outskirts are a host of strange theme parks. Splendid China and Window on the World have scale models of famous monuments such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Great Wall, as well as plenty of souvenir shops. The Folk Culture Village displays China’s folk traditions, and has paintings, pavilions, and shows of traditional dances. East of Shenzhen, at Shatoujiao, Citic Minsk World displays an entire Soviet aircraft carrier, complete with aircraft.
Shenzhen Theme Parks
- Guangshen Expressway, Shenzhen Bay
Citic Minsk World
- Citic Minsk World
Guangdong’s capital, known as Canton to its 19th-century foreign residents, is an ancient and significant port. During the Tang dynasty, the city’s trade links throughout Asia gave it a sizable Muslim community. Later, Western merchants made their first contact with China through this port. Today, Guangzhou is an affluent, bustling city, with a handful of interesting sights including the 2,000-year-old tomb and excavated palace gardens of the Nanyue kings. Recent developments have greatly improved the infrastructure, with new metro lines, and the restoration of old buildings. South of the city, Shamian Island was the site of the foreign concession and is filled with charming colonial-style buildings.
- 94 miles (150 km) NW of Hong Kong
- Guangzhou Station & East Train Station
- Provincial Bus Station, Liuhua Station & Tianhe Bus Station
- to Hong Kong from Nanhai Port
- 179 Huanshi Xi Lu, 020 8666 6889
Guangzhou City Center
- Chen Jia Ci 9
- Guangxiao Si 7
- Huaisheng Mosque 6
- Hualin Si 2
- Liu Rong Si 8
- Nan Yue Palace Gardens 5
- Nan Yue Tomb 10
- Orchid Garden & Islamic Cemetery 11
- Peasant Movement Institute 4
- Qingping Market 1
- Sacred Heart Church 3
- Shamian Island 13
- Yuexiu Gongyuan 12
Guangzhou City Center
on sale, Qingping Market
Just across the road from Shamian Island is one of China’s largest and most famous markets, devoted to all types of produce. On sale are medicines, spices, vegetables, dried seafood, grains, fish, meat, and live animals, including cats, dogs, and endangered species. Fortunately, the numbers of endangered animals on sale have drastically reduced in recent years. For some visitors, the atmosphere is too gory, while for others it is exhilaratingly Chinese.
- Near Changshou Lu.
- 020 8139 6228
- Changshou Lu.
The city’s liveliest Buddhist temple, founded in AD 526, was one of the many shrines visited by Bodhidarma, the Indian founder of Chan Buddhism. Hualin Si is notable for its main hall with 500 images of luohan or arhat (those freed from the cycle of rebirth); one of them, sporting a broad-brimmed hat, is supposed to be the merchant Marco Polo.
Sacred Heart Church
- 56 Yide Lu.
- Haizhu Guangchang
A Gothic-style Roman Catholic church, the Sacred Heart Church (Shi Shi Jiaotang) was built by the French between 1863 and 1888. The land was granted to France as compensation for its losses during the Second Opium War. The church’s twin spires rise to a height of 190 ft (58 m), and its bell tower contains four bronze bells cast in France.
Peasant Movement Institute
- 42 Zhongshan Lu.
- 020 8387 3066
- Nongjiang Suo
- 9am–4pm Tue–Sun
The city’s revolutionary past is on display in this former Ming Confucian temple. In 1924, the building became a training school for peasant revolutionaries, who were taught by leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. The school closed in 1927, after the Guandong Communist uprising, when 5,000 people were killed under the orders of General Chiang Kai-shek (see Communists and Nationalists).
Nan Yue Palace Gardens
- Zhongshan Lu.
- Nongjiang Suo
- 9am–noon & 2:30pm–5:30pm daily
This extraordinary site contains the excavated gardens that surrounded the palace of Zhao Tuo, the founder of the ancient Nan Yue Kingdom. A Qin general from Hebei province, he founded an independent kingdom after the fall of the Qin dynasty. The site is covered by a corrugated roof, and a raised pathway leads past the main sights. To the northeast, a paved lake and an ornamental stream are clearly visible, while in the southwestern corner are the remains of an even older Qin dynasty shipyard. The site’s small museum exhibits stone slabs, pillars, and roof-tiles, many of which bear the inscription “Panyu,” Guangzhou’s original name.
- 56 Guangta Lu.
- Xi Men Kou
- to Muslims only
Said to have been founded during the Tang dynasty by Abu Waqas (see Orchid Garden & Islamic Cemetery), this is one of China’s oldest mosques. Although much of the mosque has been recently constructed, it contains an ancient Islamic-style minaret and numerous stone stelae.
Thought to have been founded during the Western Han dynasty, the Guangxiao Si (Temple of Glorious Filial Piety) is one of the city’s most attractive sights. Built over the palace of the last Nan Yue king, it became a temple in the 5th century and was later visited by Bodhidarma, the founder of Chan Buddhism. None of the original buildings survive, and most of the current halls date to the 19th century. The pillared main hall has several Buddha images, while the three pagodas behind it are of great antiquity. Of these, one was built in AD 676 over a hair of Hui Neng, the Sixth Zen Patriarch (AD 638–713) who came from Guangzhou, while the other two are 10th-century structures.
Liu Rong Si
Liu Rong Si, the Six Banyan Temple, was established in AD 537 to house a portion of the Buddha’s ashes, which were brought from India and enshrined in the Flower Pagoda (Hua Ta). Rebuilt in 1097, the 187-ft (57-m) octagonal pagoda appears to have nine stories from the outside, but in fact has a total of 17 – they are well worth a climb. The pagoda’s wooden eaves are covered in intricate carvings of birds, insects, and lions. At the top is an enormous bronze pillar with reliefs of meditating figures.
Little remains of the original temple, which was associated with Hui Neng. The Hall of the Sixth Patriarch contains a bronze figure of him, cast in AD 989. The temple was named by the exiled Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo (see Haikou) in appreciation of the trees in the temple. His calligraphic characters that read “Liu Rong” are engraved into stone over the gateway.
on the façade of Chen Jia Ci
Chen Jia Ci
- Zhongshan Qi Lu.
- 020 8181 4371
- Chen Jia Ci
- 8:30am–5pm daily
This temple, in the gloriously colorful southern style, was built in 1890 with funds donated by members of the Chen clan. It was to act as a temple of ancestor worship and as a school. Though obviously Chinese, these southern temples are quite different from their northern counterparts. Less severely classical, their halls are generally lower and broader. Roofs, and as in the case of the first hall here, façades, are often smothered in fantastic designs and sculpted figures from operas.
Nan Yue Tomb
- 867 Jiefang Bei Lu.
- 020 3618 2920
- Yuexiu Gongyuan
- 9am–5:30pm, last entry 4:45pm daily
This is the site of the 2,000-year-old tomb of Zhao Mo, grandson of Zhao Tuo. Zhao Tuo, a Qin general from Hebei province, was sent here in 214 BC to control southern China. After the fall of the Qin, Zhao Tuo established the Nan Yue Kingdom. Shortly after his grandson’s death, it was reclaimed by the Han kings.
The tomb contains magnificent burial items made of gold and precious stones, including a jade burial suit. Many of the captions are in English, and a video recounts the story of the excavation that took place in 1983.
Orchid Garden & Islamic Cemetery
- Jiefang Bei Lu.
- Yuexiu Gongyuan
- 6am–9pm daily
This charming garden has bamboo groves and ponds overhung with palms. The orchids are in greenhouses, and the best time to see them is late winter to early spring. Along the garden’s western edge, the cemetery contains what is said to be the tomb of Abu Waqas, the uncle of the Prophet, credited with bringing Islam to China. Though closed to non-Muslims, it can be viewed through a screen.
Spread over 222 acres (90 ha), Yuexiu Park is one of the largest municipal parks in China. It is split into several parts by Huanshi Zhong Lu and Qingyuan Lu. The most striking building, the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, is in the southernmost section off Dongfeng Zhong Lu. Built in 1931 in traditional style with a blue tiled roof, it marks the spot where Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was proclaimed head of government in 1923.
Most of the other sights lie in the middle of the park, including the Five Rams Statue – the city symbol that commemorates the myth that Guangzhou was founded by Five Immortals riding five rams, who planted sheaves of corn to ensure that famine would never strike.
Nearby, the Municipal Museum is housed in the Zhenhai Lou, a Ming watchtower. It has 1,200 exhibits dating from 4000 BC to the present, and includes a Christian tract that inspired the Taiping Rebellion.
- 13 Luhu Lu.
- 020 8365 9337
- 9am–5pm Mon–Fri, 9:30am–4:30pm Sat & Sun
This contemporary museum exhibits shows by major Chinese artists. On permanent display is an exhibition of the works of political cartoonist Liao Bingxiong, who was criticized in 1958 for his Rightist leanings.
- 19 miles (30 km) E of Zhongshan town
- from Zhongshan & Zhuhai
Zhongshan county, located 56 miles (90 km) south of Guangzhou, is the birthplace of Sun Yat-sen, whose name is Sun Zhongshan in Mandarin. This revolutionary leader was born in Cuiheng village on the outskirts of Zhongshan town in 1866. The Portuguese-style house in which he lived with his parents between 1892 and 1895 is now part of a memorial garden devoted to his life. Nearby, other houses belonging to the same period have been restored and are also open to the public.
Sun Yat-sen’s Residence
- Cuiheng Dadao
- 0760 8550 1878
- 9am–5pm daily
Foshan has been known since the Song dynasty for its fine ceramics, particularly figurines with a pale blue glaze. Visits to factories can be arranged through the tourist office. To view the town’s other crafts, it is worth visiting the Foshan Folk Art Studio, housed in a former Ming temple, the Renshou Si, in the southern part of town. Nearby, the Zuci Miao was founded in AD 1080 as a Daoist temple. It is lavishly decorated with ceramic figures, made in nearby Shiwan, representing scenes from traditional opera and folk stories. Near the entrance is a garden displaying the cannons that were used against the British in the Opium Wars.
Foshan Folk Art Studio
- Zumiao Lu.
- 0757 8225 4052
- 21 Zumiao Lu
- 8:30am–7:30pm daily
ancient city walls
- 68 miles (110 km) W of Guangzhou
- to Hong Kong
- 90 Tianming Bei Lu 0758 222 9908
This attractive city was the home of the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci in the late 16th century, before he was summoned to Beijing by the Ming emperor, Wanli. Today, it is famous for the scenery at Qixing Yan (Seven Star Crag), 1 mile (2 km) to the north. Located beside a lake, the mist-covered peaks lie in the shape of the Big Bear constellation, and are thought to be fallen stars. They can be explored via a network of bridges and causeways.
The city’s sights include the Chongxi Ta, a pagoda overlooking the Xi Jiang. Built in the Ming period, it is the tallest pagoda in Guangdong. The old City Walls still stand on Jianshe Lu, while in the western suburbs, the Plum Monastery is associated with Huineng, the Sixth Chan Buddhist Patriarch.
A short bus ride northeast of the city is the forested reserve of Dinghu Shan, which offers numerous scenic walking trails.
- 0758 223 4728
- 7:30am–5:30pm daily
along the banks of Bei Jiang
Feilai & Feixia
Feilai & Feixia Temples
The busy market town of Qingyuan is the access point for two picturesque temples located at Feilai and Feixia on Bei Jiang, that can only be reached by ferry. The ferries, which depart early in the morning and return in the afternoon, pass fishermen whose cormorants – trained to fish for them – sit patiently on the prows of sampans. The first temple, Feilai Gusi, was founded about 1,400 years ago and is situated on the steep riverbank of a gorge. Steps lead up from the river to its ornate gateway. Its current buildings are mainly from the Ming dynasty. A short walk through the various buildings leads to a modern pavilion, from where there are superb views along the river.
Located a short distance farther along the gorge is Feixia Gusi comprising two late 19th-century Daoist temples, Feixia and Cangxia. Feixia is much larger than Feilai, and its stone halls and temples are surrounded by a fine set of walls. Cangxia, located up the hillside, was severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution. It is currently being refurbished, and there are some impressive frescoes worth seeking out.
Shaoguan town has only a handful of sights such as the Fengcai Lou, a reconstruction of an ancient city gate, and the Dajian Chan Monastery founded in AD 660, but there are three worthwhile places of interest in the vicinity. The Nanhua Si (Southern Flower Temple) 16 miles (25 km) to the southeast, was founded in AD 502 and became renowned for its connection with Bodhidarma, the founder of Chan (Zen) Buddhism who meditated here for 36 years. One of the halls contains a statue of him, said to have been cast from his corpse; another has a statue of a monk walking on stilts. The bell tower has a large, 700-year-old bronze bell cast in the Song dynasty.
About 31 miles (50 km) northeast of town, Danxia Shan is a 112-sq-mile (290 sq-km) park on the banks of the Jin. It has rocky outcrops in fascinating shapes, with trails leading to their summits. A boat or bus takes visitors farther along the river to Danxia Shan itself. Meaning “Red Cloud,” it has brilliant red sandstone cliffs, with paths leading past hillside monasteries.
About 11 miles (18 km) south of Shaoguan is Shizi Yan, a cave where the prehistoric remains of Homo erectus were found. The museum displays arrowheads, pottery, and artifacts from local prehistoric sites.
- 0751 650 1223
- 7am–6pm daily
on the East Coast
Although China’s largest island became a part of the Chinese empire during the Han dynasty, it remained a backwater and place of exile until the mid-20th century. It was so remote that its ethnic Li people still lived a primitive hunter-gatherer existence until as late as the 1930s. In 1988, it became a Special Economic Zone, but a decline in investments has left behind unfinished construction sites all over. Despite this, Hainan is today an independent province with much to offer. Its attractions include the tropical beaches around the southern city of Sanya, impressive mountain scenery in the southwest, and coffee plantations on its east coast.
- 15 miles (25 km) S of Guangdong
- train-ferry shuttle from Guangzhou
- from Beihai, Shenzhen & Guangzhou
- 17 Datong Lu, Haikou, 0898 6675 7455
- Li People San Yue San Festival (the 3rd day of the 3rd lunar month)
- 300 miles (480 km) N of Sanya
- mainland ferries from Xingang pier
The island’s capital is a busy port and transport hub, with the ambience of a tropical Asian city. To its southeast, Wugong Ci (Five Officials Memorial Temple) was built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to honor a group of scholars who were banished here during the Tang and Song dynasties for criticizing their government. One of its halls commemorates the Song-era poet, Su Dongpo, who was also exiled here between 1097 and 1100.
To the west of the city center is a massive fortification at Xiuyang, constructed by the Chinese in the 19th century to resist the French. Thick stone walls conceal six large cannons, that are connected by subterranean passages. Farther southwest is the tomb of Hai Rui, an upright Ming dynasty official who was exiled to Hainan for criticism.
Tongshi & the Central Highlands
- 260 miles (416 km) SW of Haikou
- from Sanya & Haikou
- Nationality Museum
The central mountainous region is worth visiting for its spectacular landscape as well as for the chance to explore the island’s ethnic culture. The main town is the pleasant Tongshi, which is the capital of the autonomous Li & Miao governments. The Nationality Museum offers an excellent insight into all aspects of Hainan’s history and culture. Tongshi’s surrounding countryside has remnants of traditional Li houses and barns. About 31 miles (50 km) northeast of town is the 6,125-ft (1,867-m) high Wuzhi Shan, which is sacred to the Li people. It is a pleasant hike to the mountain’s summit. Also northeast of Tongshi, the town of Qiongzhong is surrounded by some beautiful scenery, including the impressive 984-ft (300-m) high water-fall at Baihua Shan.
- 68 miles (109 km) SE of Haikou
Overseas Chinese Tropical Farm
- Overseas Chinese Tropical Farm
- 0898 6362 2808
The town of Wenchang is the ancestral home of the Soong sisters, two of whom, Qingling and Meiling, married the revolutionary leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Its main attractions are the beaches and coconut groves at Dongjiao Yelin. About 62 miles (100 km) south on the outskirts of Wanning town, Dongshan Ling has curiously shaped natural rock formations. Farther south, Xinglong is known throughout China for its coffee, and the Xinglong Tropical Botanical Gardens, 2 miles (3 km) south of town offer coffee and tea tastings. Xinglong’s Overseas Chinese Tropical Farm is home to over 20,000 overseas Chinese, who emigrated from Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia to make their living through the production of coffee and rubber. South of Xinglong is Lingshui, the principal town of the Lingshui Li Autonomous County, that is home to a large number of Li people who have lived on Hainan since 200 BC. The Communist Museum commemorates China’s first Communist government that was formed in Hainan in 1928. Many of Lingshui’s narrow streets remain unchanged since the early 1900s, and are lined with quaint shops and houses. Just 6 miles (10 km) south of Lingshui is Xincun with a large Hakka population (see Earthen Dwellings of Yongding). Close by and accessible only by boat, Monkey Island has a sizable colony of Guangxi macaques, and is a popular day trip from Xincun.
at Yalong Bay
Sanya & the South Coast
Hainan’s main attractions are the tropical beaches near the town of Sanya. The busiest beach is Dadonghai, just south of town, with hotels, restaurants, and shops. The area’s best beach is to the east of town at Yalong Bay, with a 4-mile (7-km) stretch of pristine sand. The beach at Tianya Haijiao, 16 miles (25 km) northwest, is known for its famous rock that appears on the two-yuan note. The other attraction is Ximao Zhou Island, a two-hour boat ride off the coast. It is popular for snorkeling and hiking.
Jianfeng Ling Nature Reserve
- 65 miles (115 km) NW of Sanya
- to Dongfang (Basuo) from Sanya, then local bus
brandished together with those of Marx and
Engels in Tian’an Men Square. Sun Yat-sen,
despite his Kuomintang connections and his
antipathy to class war, is seen as a revolutionary
who paved the way for communism.
Pleasantly situated in the mountains, this highland rainforest, with its huge trees, ferns, and vines as well as species of birds and butterflies, offers great walks and hikes.
For many, Sun Yat-sen, who planned the overthrow of the last Chinese dynasty and the establishment of a republic, is the father of modern China. Born in Guangdong in 1866, he studied medicine and was greatly influenced by the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, and fellow Cantonese, Hong Xiuquan . A failed uprising in Canton in 1895 forced him abroad, where he spent fifteen years raising money in support of his cause (in London he was abducted and held in the Chinese legation). Abroad when the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, he was made president of the new republic in 1912. Power struggles soon forced him from office. He died in 1925 before he was able to establish an independent government, with the aim of uniting the country.
|Sun Yat-sen working in the office of his Guangzhou headquarters, from where he strove to create the circumstances that would lead to a democratic and united China.||Chiang Kai-shek (standing), who also married a Soong sister, used Sun’s theories of political tutelage to justify military dictatorship.||Sun marries Song Qingling, 1915||Seen here as Generalissimo in 1922, Sun Yat-sen established a military government in Guangzhou, the base of the Nationalist Revolution.|
Leased to the French and British after the Chinese were defeated during the Second Opium War (1856–60), this island is really little more than a sandbank about half a mile (800 m) long. Before being allowed to settle on Shamian Island, foreigners had previously been compelled to remain in their warehouses. Soon after the French settled at the east end and the British at the west, the streets filled with European-style villas, banks, and churches. Chinese people were long forbidden to enter the island, so an exclusively European way of life prevailed on this strange outpost.
Cannon in Shamian Park
The two cannons found in Shamian Park were manufactured in the neighboring city of Foshan for use during the mid-19th century Opium Wars.