On a short stopover, Grant Bradley gets a taste of Guangzhou, the city where ancient China meets its modern counterpart.
At Guangzhou's sprawling traditional medicine market there's an ancient remedy for every malady, old and new, by the sackful.
Having trouble concentrating? Try ginseng with chicken. Worried about your immune system? Some Chinese caterpillar fungus. Bone density worries? Dried seahorse could help, and as our guide Linda Ha adds, "it's also good for men". Dried fish belly promises to enrich blood for women, live scorpions - available for around $200 a kilo - will cleanse the body and boost immunity, and deer's tail is "also good for men".
Here at Qingping market creatures great and small have an after-life purpose when dried and mixed into soups and stews, sprinkled into foods or ground into medicines. This is China's biggest wholesale traditional medicine market, with 2000 stalls. It's a place for tourists to look rather than buy, as this is where local families will stock up once a year and pharmacists will buy in bulk. A check at a pharmacy later revealed just how exotic the ingredients can be.
Haima Buobian tablets promise to invigorate the kidneys and strengthen yang and marrow; among its two dozen listed ingredients are sea horse, giant gecko, dog, ox and ass testes and penis and most mysteriously, dragon's bone. Try bringing those through Customs at Auckland Airport.
Qingping market made for a fascinating straight-off-the-plane immersion into old Guangzhou, a hectic city of up to 16 million people. Formerly known as Canton, it is in the heart of Guangdong province and is China's third largest city behind northern rivals Beijing and Shanghai.
Situated about 120km up the bountiful Pearl River delta, Guangzhou is a slightly mind-warping blend of the ancient and challenging ultra-modern architecture. Away from chic bars and luxury shopping, it's a workaday wholesale market town famed for the Canton Fair retail, and has historic ties to the West.
It is at the leading edge of China's new outward push.
During an all-too-brief stopover, our excellent tourist authority guide Linda and hosts at the Ritz-Carlton helped us to get a flavour of Guangzhou, a city that is all about food. There are between 20,000 and 30,000 sit-down places to eat and about 10 per cent of the population work in the restaurant business and industries related to the distinctive cuisine the region has gifted the world.
Panxi Restaurant is a Guangzhou institution. A garden restaurant blessed with the patronage of national and local authorities in more authoritarian times, it grew into a monster in the 1950s. It has played host to world leaders including George Bush Snr and Deng Xiaoping. In the days of ping-pong diplomacy, Henry Kissinger also ate at the restaurant.
This 3000-seater is so large it's possible to work up an appetite just finding your seat. But on this assignment we were seated in a private room with restaurant managers who led us on a culinary journey of local specialties including roast goose, suckling pig, shaved crab meat soup and Kohl Beef, a heavier spicy dish named in honour of the German leader who once dined there.
We learned the secret of Cantonese cuisine - fresh and unadulterated flavours drawing on the seafood and rice paddies of the delta and complemented by an enormous range of tea or the excellent local mid-strength brew, Pearl River Draft. The sprawling public dining rooms look like fun and you will be able to have a good meal for around $20.
Dining at any of thousands of other restaurants in the city could cost you less still, or you could splurge at the Ritz-Carlton and learn a lot more about local delicacies, as we did in a fascinating tea-pairing lunch. Those Ritz-Carlton dishes included chicken fed solely on sunflower seeds from a local one metre-square farm and birds nests, made of swallows' spit, harvested from the bottom of their nests in caves and on cliff faces. That was served with Dahongpao tea, which can cost up to $20,000 a kilogram.
There seems to be a reason for everything you eat and drink in Guangzhou - lychee tea sharpens the appetite at the start of a meal, Golden Throat tea helps fight the humidity that can afflict the sub-tropical region and Puer tea at the end of a meal aids digestion.
The Guangdong region owes its prosperity to sheep, as New Zealand once did. According to legend, five rams carrying rice grains in their mouths were apparently ridden into the area and sustainable farming replaced subsistence hunting and fishing as the area thrived. To celebrate this there's Five Ram Icecream, the Five Ram Morning Post and the quite wonderful Five Ram Statue, which is worth a visit if only to enjoy the lovely Yuexiu Park and young locals enjoying what is a symbol of provincial pride.
In the park you can follow the remnant of an early Ming Dynasty city wall to the Zhenai Tower, a building dating back 800 years which is now home to a regional museum that doesn't overwhelm and provides a good view of the city. A momentous part of 20th century history is marked in another part of the park - the octagonal memorial hall celebrating Sun Yat-Sen, who led what was to be the forerunner of the communist revolution. If your time is limited, as mine was, it's not a place to linger but a primer for further research.
But you should make more time for the Museum of the Western Han Dynasty where for a little over $2 you can descend into the relatively recently excavated 2100-year-old tomb of King Zhao Mo. On his journey into the afterlife, human sacrifices entombed with him included two soldiers, seven wives, four concubines, a musician and a eunuch.
They had the misfortune - or great honour - of serving at court when Zhao passed on and it is thought they died through drinking poison wine although our museum guide said it is possible the musician was buried alive.
Priceless gold, jade and ceramic treasure and animals were also buried in the tomb, one of a few in China that was not plundered as it was covered with earth and lay undiscovered until 1983 when the foundations of an apartment block were dug.
All the artefacts including Zhao's jade and silk coffin are exhibited in the museum.
At the other extreme is the Canton Tower, opened in 2010. It offers an impressive view from its observation deck at 488m (Auckland Skytower's Skydeck is at 220m) - but when the smog thickens, it's also a reminder of why China is desperately investing in renewable energy.
Guangzhou is at the epicentre of manufacturing that makes it a great shopping destination and a supplier to the world. The clearest air and most moderate temperatures can be enjoyed in April and October.
Getting there: China Southern Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Guangzhou. Economy fares start at $1540 and business class from $4940.
Getting around: Taxis are much cheaper than in New Zealand. There's a comprehensive subway system and an average journey costs around $2.50.
Accommodation: The range is enormous. At the top end, rooms at the Ritz-Carlton start around $400.
Further information: travelchinaguide.com
Grant Bradley travelled to Guangzhou courtesy of China Southern Airlines.