China: Masters of the ring

By Penny Lewis

A circus spectacle in Guangzhou leaves Penny Lewis awestruck.

Besides hippos, you'll see elephants, lions, tigers, a zebra, giraffes, swans, goats, horses, flamingos and more at Chimelong International Circus.
Besides hippos, you'll see elephants, lions, tigers, a zebra, giraffes, swans, goats, horses, flamingos and more at Chimelong International Circus.

If I hadn't seen the performing hippo myself I don't think I would have believed it was possible. But there it was, running around in the glitzy Chimelong International Circus in Guangzhou, China's third-largest city.

The hippo does a couple of circuits of a moat-surrounded ring in a show that's performed every night at 7.30pm, with more performances laid on during the Chinese New Year Holiday.

In many Western countries it's long been out of favour to have wild animals, or any sort of animal, performing for our amusement. But this isn't the West; it's China and the audience loves the show. Besides the hippo, you'll see elephants, lions, tigers, a zebra, giraffes, swans, goats, dressed-up horses and even a flock of flamingos. Several bears, each shackled at the neck and mouth, performed a well-rehearsed array of dances and balancing acts. I felt extremely uncomfortable watching these animals, especially the bears, but the largely Chinese audience seemed to love it.

Other New Zealanders may well have the same reaction I did watching these shenanigans, but Jacob, the 6-year-old Kiwi kid in our group, loved the show.

His eyes were wide with amazement during the entire 90-minute extravaganza. Other New Zealand adults commented that the animals looked well-cared for and seemed to be okay.

While the animals are a large part of the Chimelong circus, they're not the only part - more than 300 international performers are involved in the production.

The show's Russian and Belarusian acrobats, with their ballet-like grace and athletic prowess on the trapeze and rings, almost made me forget about the bears.

But the most impressive feats for me were performed by a group of South American daredevils.

Their Hot Wheels of Death routine used a large contraption with four mouse treadmill-style circular units rotating in a giant windmill. Gravity beating showmanship, sparks flying; you name it, it happened. Gravity was also defied by several riders on mini motocross bikes who rode inside the Ball of Death, a not-very-big globe-shaped cage. But it wasn't all adrenalin-pumping stuff. Light relief came courtesy of clowns and trampoline artists. There were also parades of Las Vegas-style showgirls, some doing high kicks, others riding elephants.

The action did not stop and the whole show was very slick.

More than 300 international performers are involved in the circus' production.
More than 300 international performers are involved in the circus' production.

To get to the circus we'd caught a charter coach from the city and headed south to reach the Chimelong Holiday Resort in the Panyu District. The traffic was shocking and we made it just in time, no thanks to me. I had kept my fellow circus attendees waiting on the bus outside our hotel fell asleep in my room, tired after the 11-hour night flight and a day of sightseeing.

Thank goodness for our guide Yang, who once we reached the circus, guided us past the queues after the driver had parked the coach in the full-to-the-brim giant Chimelong carpark. As we made our way briskly through the crowds to the tent we could hear some thumping music and were awed when we stepped inside the top level of the enormous circus arena, big enough to seat nearly 7000 people. Then the show began, with me gawping at the hippo on stage in front of us.

Top tip: Individual seats aren't allocated, apart from a VIP section at the front, so it pays to come early if you want a good vantage point.

Access is allowed from 6pm or 90 minutes before the show starts.

If I hadn't seen the performing hippo myself I don't think I would have believed it was possible. But there it was, running around in the glitzy Chimelong International Circus in Guangzhou, China's third-largest city.

Getting there: World Travellers runs $1299 return trips from Auckland as long as you book at least three nights' accommodation with the airfare.

Details: Chimelong International Circus, Yingbin Rd, Panyu Town, Guangzhou:
Chimelong International Circus is part of a wider tourist attraction, the Chimelong Holiday Resort. Tickets about $50; over-65s and children half-price.

Penny Lewis travelled with the assistance of World Travellers and CTS Tours.

- NZ Herald

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