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Traditional China at a Comfortable Pace: Chao Zhou and Shantou

Author: Chris Lydon
Date of Trip: February 2015

The main attraction of these areas is the living Chinese culture that is in evidence, which involves, if you are open minded and lucky enough, a taste of genuine Chinese hospitality at its most genuine and natural. The things to see here are the ancient architecture, upon which the infrastructure of the old town still flourishes, the mountains, with their temples, clear water pools, charming locals, tea growing and the traditional agriculture which seems to be mainly rice fields alongside duck farms. The things to do here are eat, drink, hike, visit temples and make friends with the locals. Admittedly there are few major tourist attractions but the cultural and traditional aspects of a typically Chinese lifestyle remain strong, in fact the city is a living museum if you wish to view it like that. People come to Chao Zhou largely for the Fenghuang mountain and the sight of the very traditional agricultural villages still in evidence there with their hutong style houses (called xiangzi or zhai here) all set out in neat squares and rows alongside the fields.

The fact that major cultural relics aren’t really preserved in Chao Zhou, may be because many are still in use and are as much a part of life as they were perhaps a hundred years ago. The old town buildings are either ancient Chinese, Japanese occupational and European colonial styles. Many of these buildings remain in the old town in spite of the lack of preservation. There may be a government initiative to use the location of these buildings in new developments though the general feeling among the Shantou residents is that they wish to keep them. By neglect though, they will eventually become dilapidated and dangerous which will oblige the government to begin demolition so perhaps the authorities are just waiting them out rather than starting a conflict.

Tea culture is very much in evidence and along with fine teas, beautiful and inexpensive china products are an intrinsic part of daily life.

Population density here is low in most areas, especially the old town, and the pace of life is slow and relaxed although business sense is strong among the population.

Things to do:

Hikes: hilly and physically demanding in Fenghuangsan and an easy stroll in Qie Shi both are easily accessable and the routes are well worn.

Fenghuangsan is definitely for someone with more energy but by no means over-strenuous. It is a beautiful location. Grown there is the famous dahong pao tea and there are lakes which can be swum in and may be more comfortable in summer while winter temperatures are certainly not freezing.

Qie Shi by contrast, while still quite large, has more of the feel of a walk in the park though it boasts some Buddhist caves and even a few wild pigs which you may be lucky to see although they are definitely human-shy.

Where to stay: The cheapest hotels are found here and are usually quite comfortable including 7 days and Home Inn, I recommend one for about 140 yuan (12 pounds stirling) per night called the Swatow Peninsula Hotel but if you do wish for luxury there are also a full range available.

What to eat: The food is one of the best reasons for coming here, non spicy and satisfying dishes are in evidence. Unusually in China beef is popular here as well as both savoury and sweet rice cakes.
Beef balls in soup (Chao Zhou nu rou wan) are springy because they are prepared by beating the beef with a pair of mallets until it is like a sticky paste before boiling, they taste great served in the flavoured stock soup.

Rice cakes are available all over the old town and there are enough varieties to write a book about, each with their own names, colours and fillings so that there is a local following and a particularly tasty example is the ‘Hao Guo’ this one has the shrimp and sausage filling. Not too appealing to the eye but trust me, close your eyes and a large mouthful is  satisfying and a pleasure on the palate. Many dishes can be served here with a particularly tasty sauce called ‘sha cha jiang’ but it must be asked for usually. It goes well with savoury dishes such as beef soups and noodles and savoury rice cakes but- be warned, it has an unexpected kick, without being spicy or peppery it warms the throat just enough to alarm the novice and the sensation may be reactivated for the next three or four meals you eat.

Soybean curd (Doufu nao) is eaten warm and sweet here with a caramel and sugar topping and feels like going for a warm musky ice cream. In other parts of China this is eaten in a variety of different ways but this is one of the more dessert like types.

Making friends: There are a large number of parks and people are interested in foreigners even sometimes bordering on rude in their inquisitive nature, but the hospitality here when you make friends is very helpful and appreciable. The locals won’t just kill you with kindness as in other places, they will intelligently anticipate your needs and fulfil them for you and then seem genuinely surprised that you are thankful for something so small. Having even a little spoken Chinese goes a long way and there are often those who are happy to practice their English by way of helping foreigners, but be patient and intuitive, there are many things to misinterpret.

What to buy: Traditional Chinese crafts and tea. China-wares, particularly tea drinking ceramics and earthenware are very cheap here and there is a variety of levels of quality. Other Chinese crafts such as calligraphy, paper cutting and paintings all come at the most reasonable rates in China. A teashop in the old town will usually be serviced by friendly staff and owners who will happily share samples with you and chat for hours about tea, its processes the business and life in general, particularly if you don’t mind to spend about 100yuan (10 pound stirling) on a quality tea that you have sampled.

How to get there: The most convenient way is by light rail or CRH China Railway High Speed (gao tie) to Chao Shan station then a bus or a taxi can be taken to the accommodation location. Illegal taxis are generally safe but don’t like to take just one party and make sure to arrange the price in advance if you do  choose this option. Hawkers for this will probably try to get your attention as you exit the station. However coaches and genuine city taxis are also in operation.

All in all, sample the lifestyle here, that’s what the locals do, its not a big business city, people don’t live here with the purpose of making their fortune in general, they live here because its relaxed, its cultural, people orientated and very traditionally Chinese, enjoy!

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