The summer in Guangzhou can be brutal: hot, bright, humid. Thus I find myself in the unusual preference for the spectacular rain, thunder and lightning that is thankfully a regular occurrence in this part of the world. Why? Well for a start it makes things bearable, just that touch cooler and best of all with the subsiding sheets of heavy rain, the refreshed shiny city presents a perfect opportunity for a drizzly stroll around a new area of town.
By chance I’d heard about a district called Dongshan which in turn is part of a bigger one Yuexiu. So the first thing I had to ascertain was which part and how to get there. At my local metro station I am about to board a northbound train when my enquiry is met by a local who pinpoints an exact station – which was hiding in plain sight, how could I have missed it!? This ensured my boarding a southbound train and the birth of a very pleasant evening.
Of course I chose to leave my bulky camera behind – which makes travel a little more convenient though fate would punish my laziness by ensuring I miss out on some wonderful shots. No matter, those moments may be lost but my return would be soon enough. Dongshan houses some of Guangzhou’s older buildings, it is leafy and in the overcast low light and drizzle appears more like Holland Park or Highgate (London) than China.
The host of coffee houses I’d read about took a while to materialise. Some such as Ten Café are supremely exclusive – clearly this was not Starbucks (not that there’s anything wrong with them). It feels like Christmas when I pass by; the warm glow of amber light emanates through the shuttered blinds and condensation sticks to the window. On peering in I note its plush decor is devoid of an audience as is the double bass which stands silent across the way.
Further down the same street (Yandun Lu) is the equally exclusive No 7 Host club with especially designed latticed black fencing and gate. Inside staff in crisp white shirts, black bow ties and matching tuxedos confirmed this was somewhere for the more affluent. Although my teacher’s salary is good it would be no match for whatever this place has on offer.
Also eerily empty is the old house on Peizheng Lu. A clutch of nearby students say it’s some kind of photography club but its atmosphere suggests a museum of a bygone age which suits Dongshan to a tee. An alarm greets my entrance. There is a painting on a crimson wall hung over the bust of a horses head, though both building and garden are bathed in an ominous silence.
An elegant red velvet settee leads to a gramophone by the window. Another room emits the impression of a photographers studio but no-one seems to be present – nor is there a sound from upstairs. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. The beep of the alarm is indeed the only sound in this creepy place. It was a relief to hear a bus on the one way street outside, my departure also signalled by a bleep.
So how does one enter this arcane enclave? Scrutinising the map at the station, I opt for Exit E. It turns out to be a wise choice and I’m pleased with how the afternoon unfolds. The unknown territory bombards my senses with information, which way to go first, left or right or straight ahead? Once the latter is selected I swing a right and hit on a street (Miaoqian Xijie) with many shops selling anything from caps to shoes and bags.
I follow it down until a small roadside park and another of the cities huge overpasses cloud my view, before returning the way I came past the sushi place. Around to the right is a road with a McDonald’s on it. I don’t mind them either but sometimes they can kill a moment. Slightly further down is another road (Donghua Donglu) running east west which has the first café I chance upon. First my promenade takes me west past a tea shop and another quirky eatery ‘Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf’!
Donghua also meets the aforementioned slither of a park so again I retreat and this time call in at the café (it’s actual name is Gupa café but only the latter word is cited in Chinese and English above the door). It’s cosy and full but empties when I enter, perhaps a westerner wearing orange is a bad omen. The comfy seats are low compared to the tables but somehow this kooky trait serves it well and I could easily find myself falling asleep in its relaxed atmosphere. The walls have many pictures and artefacts and its only when my head tilts upwards my eyes fix on a Victorian style clock with the words Paddington Station draped across it which I mention to the staff – one of whom speaks tolerable English.
On exiting I turn right again and meet a canal; if the exclusive Yandun Lu was London then this was Amsterdam. Back on Yandun I find a couple of street drink bars (literally holes in walls with counters from which to order). One, Puyingshi, has Purple Potato Latte and another, has anything from Thailand Coconut juice to Lemon Ribena tea. There are others.. Cowhouse which is a general convenience store and a further drink cum dessert place called Lemon and Pudding offering all manner of intriguing delights.
There are also markets and language bureaus in this area and I feel there is a lot more to discover. One moment you can be surrounded by throngs of people in a meat market, the next almost alone in a serene lane. It is difficult to believe it is still pretty much the centre of Guangzhou with the Canton Tower visible from Dongshanhu park (ghostly on the day I visit). This beguiling and at times enigmatic area is without question one I will return to often.