In the heart of Canton, Winston Aldworth finds a booming Chinese city with rich history.

Local legend has it that the land where the city of Guangzhou now stands was once a barren space, the population starving, the dirt dry and unyielding. With nothing forthcoming from the soil, this was an all-round rough place to live and one you wouldn't want to visit.

Two millenia ago — as the legend has it — five colourfully dressed immortals rode into town on rams. They handed out rice, blessed the city and left. The rams? They turned to stone.

Those five immortals wouldn't recognise the giant, technologically advanced, prosperous city that stands on the same ground today. It's an all-round thriving, dynamic place to live and a fascinating one to visit.

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The writer with his family at the Nanyue King's mausoleum. Photo / Winston Aldworth
The writer with his family at the Nanyue King's mausoleum. Photo / Winston Aldworth

The place where no rice would grow now proudly calls itself the home of Cantonese cooking — though their neighbours in Hong Kong, an hour or so away by bullet train, might beg to differ.

Guangzhou has ridden the Chinese economic boom, and today the hub of Canton is a sprawling Asian megacity with about 15 million people packed into an area smaller than Auckland. There's a cutting-edge high-tech sector and a university neighbourhood that's home to a quarter of a million staff and students. The people buzz around on a fancy underground rail network that could grace any modern city, or on ubiquitous yellow Ofo bikes, one of the world's biggest bike-share schemes. You think you see a lot of shared bikes in Auckland? In Guangzhou, we passed piles of parked bikes so vast you'd measure them by the acre.

Those five rams are still there ... kind of. On an early-morning jog through the beautiful Yuexiu Park, I was one of a handful of visitors to the Five-Ram Sculpture, one of Guangzhou's most famous structures and an emblem of the city. The quiet morning mist was unsettled only by the occasional crackle of music from one of the transistor radios that some of the elderly locals had with them during their morning tai-chi routines.

Kids get a close-up view from the observation level of Canton Tower. Photo / Winston Aldworth
Kids get a close-up view from the observation level of Canton Tower. Photo / Winston Aldworth

We were visiting for Chinese New Year, and I exchanged a couple of cheery greetings with some in the tai-chi crowd: "Gong hei fat choy." (It's a blessing for a prosperous new year.)

From the same ancient strand as the tai chi, you'll see plenty of herbal tea in Guangzhou.

Old traditions inform new habits at Guangzhou Shennong Caotang Museum of Traditional Chinese Medicine, where herbal tea is big business. The museum tells the story of the local herbal tea blend that's now a global brand.

Growing in the museum gardens are the herbs that make the medicinal blends — and a few poisonous ones we're advised not to touch.

Visitors to this dramatic city won't see a lot of old Guangzhou, the dazzling new buildings came with the boom of the past couple of decades. But the influence of the old remains.

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The fabulous exterior of the Guangdong Provincial Museum was inspired by the traditional Cantonese ivory puzzle ball and it sits next to the stunning Guangzhou Opera House designed by Zaha Hadid. Just up the road is Canton Tower, the second-tallest tower in the world and, by my reckoning, the best looking.

When you do find Guangzhou's old stuff, it's seriously old.

On our first day there, we went for a wander and stumbled across the clunkily titled Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. A guy called Zhao Mo, was the Nanyue King, ruling the area from 137BC to 122BC, shortly before the ram-riding immortals arrived. His tomb was discovered in downtown Guangzhou in 1983 and today, for a few bucks, you can walk inside the mausoleum he was buried in and see some of the artefacts found alongside him.

The Five Rams Sculpture in Yuexiu Park. Photo / Getty Images
The Five Rams Sculpture in Yuexiu Park. Photo / Getty Images

We stoop low to get beneath the tiny door frames, the ceiling has been removed but creeping through the chambers of this mausoleum is still a thrill.

They say you can't take it with you but Zhao, the old rogue, certainly tried. The king had 15 courtiers buried with him — chefs, concubines and musicians — to keep him fed and entertained in the afterlife. His loot went with him, too. More than 1000 cultural relics were found in his tomb. His jade burial suit is on display, alongside gold, weapons, bronzeware, a chariot and gifted artworks. A Persian silverbox, which was discovered in the tomb, is the earliest imported thing found in China, a gift from someone in what is now modern-day Iran.

The legend of the Five Rams is a good one, but it seems there's always been wealth in Guangzhou.

Check list: Guangzhou

GETTING THERE

flies daily from Auckland to Guangzhou, with return Economy Class flights for around $1000 return, and Premium Economy for less than $2000.