Veteran travellers insist you get the real feel of a country by driving through it and seeing the landscape change every hundred miles. Exploring south China, starting from Guangzhou and moving up to Shenzhen, Zuhai and Kaiping, before returning to Guangzhou on a whirlwind five-day trip, satiated the tourist in us.

Guangdong province combines the best of agricultural, industrial, historical and cultural aspects. Known for the annual Canton fair, few, however, are adventurous to make it an exclusive holiday destination. But this is set to change, as the Indian tourist gets more exploratory and China more welcoming.

Modern architectural marvels and skyscrapers exist cheek-by-jowl with well-preserved traditional villages and historical monuments, against the backdrop of the majestic Shikengkong mountain peak and the many crisscrossing rivers, starting from Zhujiang river (Pearl river) to the Dongjiang, Hanjiang Rongjiang and Moyangjiang rivers.

The road trip brought home the fact that China has successfully integrated its rural hinterland with the urban metropolis through well laid-out infrastructure.

Guangzhou is more than just a manufacturing hub

The shimmering Canton Tower is China’s tallest building, at 1,968.5 ft.

A modern symbol of this ancient trading port town, the tower’s distinctive shape has earned it the nickname Xiao Man Yao, or ‘young girl with a tight waist’! Visitors can climb up 108 floors to the observation deck, do a skywalk or ride its bubble car for an aerial view of the city.

Other highlights in the city include a traditional village at Liangnan Impression Park, with its quaint open-air opera house and flower-lined streets; the Pearl river cruise, offering an hour of quietude along the waterfront; and Chime Long Circus, 90 minutes of an amazing amalgamation of acrobatics, dance and animal training.

Opened in 2000, the circus boasts several Yugoslavian, American, African and Colombian artistes.

The thrill of picking up a near-original imitation in Shenzhen

Shenzhen has earned a place for itself on the world manufacturing map. On one hand are great shopping bargains, and a sea of imitation luxury brand handbags, electronic items, watches, garments and jewellery; on the other is a wealth of exquisitely manicured gardens and theme parks.

However, unlike other Chinese cities, Shenzhen does not have much of a historical past. It was a fishing village that transformed into a buzzing financial centre.

The infectious charm of Zuhai’s romantic countryside

The coastal city of Zuhai has one of China’s longest beachfronts, ideal for lovers. In fact, its popularity is attributed to the tragic love story of the Fisher Girl, whose marble statue beckons all for a closer look. From the Zuhai waterfront, a cruise takes you past Macau, with its tantalising Vegas-styled skyline of casino hotels.

The Ocean Spring resort, a sprawling 5-km-long property, houses an amusement park, restaurants, golf courses, walking and cycling tracks and an auditorium for choreographed dance shows. On completion of Phase II this year, it will be the world’s largest resort. Chief among its attractions are the hot springs, which at 46 degrees Celsius are a quick remedy for city-weary bodies.

The interiors of South China make for an ideal getaway, but with language still a deterrent not many international tourists come here.

The trip would be incomplete without sampling the rich countryside. Kaiping Diaolou, a well-preserved ancient village, has retained the multi-storeyed defensive houses built using the monies sent by the first set of Chinese emigrants to the US. With their unique Chinese-European influences, these architectural marvels have been accorded World Heritage status.

As you wind your way back to Guangzhou, you realise you have flipped through just the first few pages of Chinese modern history. This unfolded in Guangdong, which was the starting point of the Chinese Democratic Revolution. The local government is working hard to make the province more accessible by overcoming the language barrier, training youth as facilitators and guides, and establishing a better understanding of international cuisine.

Insights to help you plan your holiday better

Though Guangzhou has thousands of factories catering to global markets, you don’t find things at ‘factory price’, so bargain hard when shopping.

Everything, including fakes, have different grades of quality; do check before paying.

Expand your food palette and experiment with non-Indian cuisine; sample local veggies and fruits, but be extra careful of fleshy tid-bits and pork oil.

Culture of tipping is not predominant but if you do tip, be assured of wide smiles and enthusiastic service.

Language is a challenge. A foreign guest at a resort was enquiring where the gym was. Front-office staff kept saying there was ‘no Mr Gym’ with them. Finally, he gave up and retorted, “I was looking for Mr Gymnasium, and will find him myself.”

Carry your hotel card at all times. Cabs are safe and you can always hop into one, provided you can tell where you want to go!

Investing in a good interpreter/ guide could ensure you a safe and happy vacation.

Avoid shopping for electronic items, however attractive the prices, for quality is often suspect.

Exchange money safely at any government bank or hotel. Some charge an additional transaction cost above $500. Learn to identify fake currency.