I love Chinese New Year. Once a year migrant workers get to go home and see their loved ones for a couple of weeks. Train stations are full to overflowing, every public transport option has been booked for months and major cities become deserted.
This Chinese new year is the year of the goat so it’s appropriate we go to Guangzhou or, as it’s also known, “5 goat city”. Legend has it 5 fairies carrying bundles of rice rode into town on 5 different coloured goats to give blessings for the harvest. On completion, the fairies vanished leaving the goats to turn to stone. The stone goats can be found in Yuexui Park usually included in photographs of groups of Chinese hoping their good fortune and prosperity will rub off. The goat is also the 8th sign in Chinese astrology and 8 is a very lucky number symbolising wisdom, fortune and prosperity so we are all in for a good year.
Guangzhou and I have a long history. In a past life my business was based there. In a past, past life I traveled in and out on someone else’s business. In this life I went with the Baron for a bit of R and R and to catch up with some friends.
Getting to Guangzhou is easy. Fly directly into Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) or you can take the Kowloon Canton Rail (KCR) from Hong Kong. I’ve taken the KCR option in the past due to CAN being quite a way out of the city centre and Guangzhou’s traffic is notoriously heavy. The KCR arrives at Central Guangzhou and Guangzhou East stations so cab rides to the business and entertainment areas are short with less traffic.
Taking the KCR requires you to have a China visa so get this either in your home country (generally the most cost effective) or apply in Hong Kong. A same day service is offered at a price or, if you are spending time in Hong Kong, the regular priced service takes 2 – 4 days depending on your nationality. A regular China visa obtained prior to arrival gives you free reign to move around the country within the visa specifications.
If Guangzhou is your only destination in China and it’s a short visit then dispense with the hassle of visa applications and arrive at CAN. Guangzhou and about 10 other cities in China have a 72 hour visa free transit period for 50 odd countries. You can find out if your country qualifies and the procedure to follow here. This visa can not be obtained if you arrive via any other method than air travel and there are a few restrictions so read the instructions carefully.
With visas out of the way let’s go to the hotel. I’m not going to give you a list of options, hotel booking sites can do that, I want to tell you about my favourite.
A magnificent central floral display greets you in the foyer of The Garden Hotel before the gold mural behind the reception desk captures your attention. Ginger flower scent permeates and staff are courteous and well trained. The hotel is centrally located in the business and entertainment district and the hotel itself has many dining and relaxation options if venturing out is not on the agenda.
A special mention should be made of the gold mural in reception. It’s a stunning piece measuring 24m x 6m and is weighed down by 2kg of gold leaf. It depicts 12 scenes from the Chinese classic ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ and took 30 people 7 months to carve and inlay the gold.
The Baron had already checked in, having arrived on an earlier flight, so we made our way to The Tavern on the hotel’s ground floor. Happy Hour runs from 6pm – 9pm and daily snacks are included. We enjoyed baked oysters on this occasion, igniting the appetite for something more.
You can wander out in the street and find copious dining options, it doesn’t matter which hotel exit you use, food surrounds the Garden Hotel. Take Jian She 6th Street exit, turn left and on both sides of the street entire buildings of restaurants offer global cuisines. We had a hankering for Xingjiang chuan’r, skewers of beef or lamb covered in a rub consisting of cumin, coriander seed, chili powder, salt and sometimes sesame seeds cooked over a charcoal grill. It’s street food really but a casual restaurant just up the road serves them and they have a pretty good wine list too.
Leave the hotel via the main entrance and turn right. Follow Huanshi East Road until you reach the first elevated walkway and cross to the other side. At the base of the stairs turn left into the side street and walk 50m or so. It’s on the left hand side of the street with a small outdoor area and a big yak on the bar inside. It would be helpful if I could find their card.
Across from the Garden Hotel is the original Friendship Store. Friendship stores started in the 1950s and were the only stockists of imported goods and foreign newspapers. Local Chinese were forbidden to enter and purchases were made with foreign exchange certificates. This may be the original but times have changed and it offers all the retail pleasure other malls do.
The Great Fire Wall of China blocks all social media sites and now blocks gmail. Be prepared and download a VPN before you go. There is no guarantee you will have access but a VPN gives you a better chance. I have a gmail account and was able to download my emails once before I was detected and unable to get around it again during my stay. This posed a problem contacting a good friend but as he had opened a restaurant we planned to lunch there on the off chance of running into him.
My friend is a bit of an entrepreneur, he has his fingers in a few pies but this is his first neighbourhood bar and kitchen. His partner in crime is young and energetic New Zealander, Aaron, who holds the reigns and runs the show. Open for just on 1 year, Social&Co offers a relaxed all day dining service of small plates encouraging diners to share.
Hungry? The menu includes comfort food along with lighter options for the carb conscious. We shared the Pork Belly with Aaron’s Mum’s plum sauce and just as the menu promised it was sticky sweet with excellent crackling. We were on a good thing with Mum so had her Cauliflower Patties and later in the day tried the Lemon and Chili dusted Calamari. Both delicious. That’s the beauty of the small plates, order as you go and graze. Should I mention we repeated the Pork Belly? It was at the Baron’s insistence of course. We didn’t go near desserts, who could after 2 serves of pork belly, but someone should have the Pavlova and the Banoffee Pie and let me know how good they are.
Thirsty? Beers from Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, France and the two best commercial exports from my home town, Coopers Sparkling and Pale Ales. Wines were the hilight for me. I was pleasantly surprised at the affordable prices for the quality drops on the wine list. Italian Prosecco, French Rosé and Tuscan Chianti but the real surprise, the Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noir from New Zealand and the Shiraz from the Clare Valley. Well priced and well selected.
Social&Co caters to the expat community and local Chinese alike. In their first year they have been awarded That’s PRD Best New Restaurant and sit at #4 out of 5000 odd restaurants in Guangzhou on Trip Advisor. They offer discounts on presentation of The FACE and APC cards, host the occasional drag bingo night and have impromptu ‘Cards Against Humanity’ games with the clientele. It’s like spending time at a really good friend’s place with the added benefit of great service. Don’t take my word for it, check it out and let me know what you think.
In case you’re wondering, we tracked down my friend and had breakfast with him at the Cascade Cafe at the Garden hotel the following day. A great catch up in a lovely setting smack bang in the middle of Guangzhou. Not seeing someone for years and picking up where you left off? Priceless, and another thing we love…..