Guangzhou, China

Posted by Jeremy on February 21, 2015

New foods discovered: Chang fen, hongtang hetao bao, nuomi ci, huasheng su, maiyatang, jigu cha, hongdousha tangwan, yezhi xiangyu, nuomi tuan

Click here for the whole photo set

This week we visited Guangzhou, China. It an ancient city at the northern end of the Pearl River delta. It is home to over 13 million people, it is the third largest city in China and is also the capital city of the Guangdong Province. We decided that Guangzhou would be our first foray into Couchsurfing in Asia. If you’ve never heard of Couchsurfing, it’s an excellent website (and community) that helps travelers connect with hosts in cities all over the world. People set up profiles and then offer up their spare bedrooms, couches, floors, backyards for travelers for free. This allows people to more affordably travel the world and get to know people from different cultures. To get started, just create a profile on and then you can communicate with other travelers and hosts. Depending on your current situation you can let others know that you are available to host, or looking to be hosted. The website allows you to write references for people you already know as well as the people you’ve hosted or been hosted by. This way you can build up a history on the site so that future travelers will be informed when they are looking to connect with you. It also weeds out the weirdos as most travelers will not stay with someone with bad reviews. While we were living in the US, we participated in Couchsurfing as hosts and had a few guests come through the house. Now that we are traveling, we were excited to finally have the opportunity be on the other side.

We started looking for a host in Guangzhou about a week before we were due to arrive. Our host, Dora, welcomed us with open arms. She had a large apartment with a spare bedroom for us. The room was very clean and well cared for and she had very fast internet (something we have come to appreciate very much). We were made to feel right at home as she offered up her apartment to treat as our own. Dora was from the north of China, and had only recently moved to Guangzhou. She had used the Couchsurfing site while traveling in Spain and Macau and was well versed in the ethos of Couchsurfing, but had never had an opportunity to host. We were her very first guests and she was thrilled to have us. It seemed very fitting that our first experience as guests was with someone who had never hosted before. Dora also spoke English very well and it was helpful to have a translator as we explored Guangzhou. During our stay, we were able to ask her many questions about the hows and whys of living in China.


As is the case on many of our days traveling, we spent our first day relaxing. We caught up on calls home and just hung around Dora's house while she was at work. We explored the market down the block and found ingredients to make food for our host. That evening, Dora met us downtown to show us the newest part of Guangzhou. It is a large central park surrounded by beautifully lit skyscrapers. We spent quite a while enjoying the gorgeous light shows on the sky-high buildings.


The city library was one of our favorites; it looks a bit like the pages of a book.



The crown jewel of the city is The Canton Tower. It is a 600 Meter (1,969 foot) TV and observation tower built in 2009 that briefly held the title of tallest structure in the world before the Burj Kalifa was completed a year later. It holds center stage at the far end of the central square and at night it is lit up with thousands of LED lights. We watched in fascination as it cycled through a rainbow of colors from yellow to red to purple and back again. Dora told us that the locals often refer to the tower as a woman due to its elegant hourglass shape.


In fact, she reminded us very much of one of our favorite art pieces from the Burning Man festival in 2013 called Truth is Beauty. Can you see the resemblance?

Click the image for more of Scott London's pictures of Burning Man (Possibly NSFW)

As you approach the tower you cross over a large square that is lit up by lights embedded in the ground. It is a beautiful sight and quite the marvel of construction.


On one side of the park stands the looming dark shadow of the Chow Tai Fook Finance Center which is still under construction. It is due to be completed in 2016 and will be 530 meters tall (1,740 ft). It will be the tallest building in Guangzhou upon completion, but only the third tallest in China. It will only take a couple years for it be sent down the list as many more mega-tall structures are planned in China before the end of the decade.

We passed the tower and walked across a futuristic-looking bridge. As we crossed, we saw many brightly lit boats plying their way up and down the river. We were reminded of Burning Man as their bright lights made them look like art cars.



Click the image for a high resolution version

It has been fascinating getting the chance to see a country building and developing as quickly as China. We’ve have now stood at the foot of three skyscrapers in China in the past year that are all higher than the tallest building in the US. It has helped us to gain a bit of perspective on how much economic development is taking place here. It is mind-boggling to think how far they've come in just a couple decades here compared to how much has happened in the US. They have built more structures and infrastructure in 20 years than United states has built in its entire history and it seems like they're not stopping anytime soon.  

Click the image for a high resolution version

On her day off, Dora made plans to take us out with a few of her friends. She was looking to show us China from a Chinese perspective for a day and she succeeded! We got up early and started out our day at the Guangzhou Restaurant, well known for its dim sum breakfasts.


It fills up fast on weekends, so Dora’s friends went ahead of us to get a table. Once we were seated, we were handed a menu with a lot of Chinese writing and checkboxes on it. You order by checking off the number of each dish you want. We couldn't read anything, and we felt lucky to have some friends help us navigate the menu.


Dora had let them know ahead of time that we were vegetarians and they took care to order things that we could eat. After a few minutes, a flurry of dishes arrived, filling the lazy Susan on our table.


There was Chang Fen—rice rolls filled with vegetables and smothered in a slightly sweet sauce.


Then the Nuomi Ci--miniature rice buns filled with sweet red bean paste or peanut butter and covered in sesame seeds.



Jeremy’s favorite were the Hantang Hetao Bao—steamed sweet buns filled with nuts.



The dishes arrived at the table piping hot in wood steaming baskets. We munched for a couple hours until we were all stuffed. Dora said that it is important to get as many people as you can gathered for dim sum, so that you can order more and pay less. It cost us ¥50 ($8) each for an incredibly filling breakfast with a total of about 20 dishes ordered.

After we ate and paid the bill, we headed out of the restaurant and followed our hosts down the block. We walked to the metro and headed for our second destination: strawberry picking! It seemed surprising that in the middle of a city of 13 million people that you could find any fresh produce, but sure enough after a short metro ride we arrived at a small farm with a few strawberry patches located just outside of a metro stop.




When you arrive, they hand you a red basket and pair of scissors and set you loose in the field. We had a great time picking out the best strawberries we could find and being silly with our new Chinese friends.









We weighed out our strawberries and between us, we had picked over 2 kilos worth! It was quite the haul. We were concerned for a moment that we had picked too much, but as we munched and walked we knew there was no such thing as too many strawberries.

Next, we hopped across the street to catch a bus. Throughout the day we had no idea where we were going and just trusted our hosts to lead us around town. After a very short wait, we boarded a bus to somewhere and held on tight. Within 10 minutes, we arrived at a street corner and got off the bus. We began walking around the block and then seemingly out of a nowhere a large street market appeared.


We delighted in the sights and sounds of yet another market with even more unidentifiable fruits, vegetables and treats. All manner of foodstuffs were on display here and many had free samples available. We passed by all of the chickens, geese and rabbits in cages that lined one side of the street and then stopped to watch a women who was pressing Huasheng Su in to a mold. This is a lovely treat made from crunchy, sugar coated peanuts covered in sesame seeds. It reminded us a bit of the Qie Gao we tried in Shenzhen, but it was much cheaper, so we bought some. Since then, it has become one of our staple snack foods.



A few meters down the block, one of our new friends purchased some Maiyatang, a large glob of glistening honey on the ends of two sticks. As gravity pulled it down, she began to work the honey on her sticks over and over like a taffy pull. As she did, it became aerated and turned a creamy, white color. She handed off pieces of the creamed honey to each of us. It was deliciously sweet and had a very floral taste to it.



At another stand, a man handed Jeremy a small sample of tea. He called it Chicken Bone tea or Jigu Cha. It had a somewhat off-putting flavor that is not unlike grass. However, as you swallow it down, it finishes with a very sweet and flavorful aftertaste, which was surprising since it did not at all resemble the initial flavor.


At the end of the market street, our friends led us to a small dessert stand. We were so full from breakfast and the menagerie of treats we had in the market that could barely eat anymore, but they insisted we try this place as it has great sweets. They ordered us a couple of the non-dairy items. First the Hongdousha Tangwan which is a red bean soup with rice dumplings filled with peanuts. Red beans are a fairly common in desserts here, and we have grown to love them. They are often served warm in water and are slightly sweetened. They have an almost nutty flavor to them.


We also got the Yezhi Xiangyu which is sweet potato chunks covered in coconut milk. It was an unusual combination of flavors and textures as the coconut milk was served cold and the sweet potato was hot, but it was very good.


Our friends also ordered a very unique dish that contained milk, so we did not partake. However, it was very interesting and worthy of noting. It’s called Jiangzhuangnai, which basically just means ginger and milk. When it is served, a woman comes by with a jug of warm milk and fills your bowl. Then she takes a couple teaspoons of sweetened ginger juice and pours it in with the milk. After one minute the milk magically congeals into a pudding flavored with the ginger juice. It is a very beautiful dessert.


We passed more food vendors and our friends insisted we try one last treat. Nuomi Tuan are large rice dumplings made with a type of plant and filled with sugared peanuts. It was chewy and sweet and crunchy and amazing. We wished we had a couple extra stomachs so we could eat more, but alas...



We wandered down the ancient streets and ate strawberries as we ambled. After passing the market, the street led us through the Huang Pu village. It is a winding network of streets passing through an old Chinese town filled with lakes, stone streets, pagodas and temples.





A couple hours later we finally found our way out of the village to the nearest metro. Tired after a long day, we parted ways with our new friends and headed back to Dora’s place to sleep off a well-earned food coma.

We spent a total of 5 days staying at Dora's place. We were especially appreciative of having a kitchen to cook in again. Each night we shared with Dora some of our recipes and she seemed quite appreciative. She admitted that she doesn't do much cooking for herself and we were happy to share our knowledge. We spent the evenings talking until late at night. Overall, we absolutely loved our first Couchsurfing experience. Dora was a very open and giving person and we enjoyed getting to know her and to learn about China from her perspective. If you are traveling and haven’t tried Couchsurfing yet, we highly recommend it! It both helped us keep our budget low and gave us a wonderful experience of living in China. If you are not able to travel at this time, think about offering up your couch or bedroom on It is a highly rewarding experience and you are sure to find some interesting people interested in to seeing your hometown from your perspective. It seems scary at first to let a stranger into your home, but in almost all cases it is a positive experience. We couldn’t have been happier with ours!

Dora had plans to leave on a business trip for work, so we ended our stay there before leaving Guangzhou. We transferred to a hotel across town which turned out to be a construction zone. As we sat in our cramped room surrounded by broken walls and building materials (and no internet access!), we missed Dora's warm home and appreciated the experience all the more.

Our final two days in Guangzhou were spent just wandering the city. We found a densely packed pedestrian street similar to ones we had seen in other cities. This one was called Beijing road and had a few plaques detailing its rich history. They had even excavated a few sections to show the layers of the old road that dated back over 1000 years. It was very interesting to walk a street that had been there for so long.



Another great place to visit was the Yutian gardens. This park was created to commemorate the Guangzhou's sister cities. There were dozens sculptures that had been gifted to the people of Guangzhou from cities all over the world. There was also a very large display under construction to celebrate the New Year.


They also had a bunch of orange trees placed throughout the park. Fruit plays a big role in Chinese culture and the Mandarin oranges are our favorite.


When it came time to leave, we booked passage on another bullet train. These stations are a marvel of architecture and engineering and rival some of the world's biggest airports in scale. They have dozens of trains leaving every hour at over 200km/hour and each one was filled to capacity with travelers heading home for the holiday. It was yet another experience that we have never had in the US as the train systems there are just not developed to this level.

Click the image for a high resolution version

Click the image for a high resolution version

After showing our passports and passing our tickets through electronic readers we finished our visit to Guangzhou and headed east for the city of Nanning.


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