Guangzhou is not at all what I expected. This is a huge, teeming city just north of Hong Kong in mainland China and is green and leafy, with remarkably little litter. The city centre is busy with an early Friday evening crowd but traffic moves at a reasonable pace and the pavements are not crammed. Where are the heaving crowds, the pushing and shoving that I had been led to expect in China? Where is the rubbish and grime?
As we drive in the early evening light, the faces we see out the window are not only Chinese but also African, Middle Eastern and European. We pass Vietnamese grocers and English pubs and elegant, dark-skinned women dressed in vibrant printed fabrics.
"Guangzhou is a melting pot," our local guide Simon is telling us.
According to Simon, nearly 50 per cent of the rapidly expanding population of around 14 million in Guangzhou, which was formerly known as Canton, are immigrants - both from elsewhere in China and from overseas.
"Cantonese is the most complicated of the nine Chinese dialects," Simon tells us. With some pride, he demonstrates the nine tones for each character of the Cantonese language - each very subtly different but conveying meanings that are often wildly divergent. "Mandarin speakers say that Cantonese is a bird's language," he continues. "But in ancient China, the intellectuals spoke Cantonese."
Simon is proud of Guangzhou in general, and in particular of its cuisine - and justifiably so. So famous is Cantonese cooking that there is a saying in China setting out how to live a good life: "Be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou, die in Liuzhou." (Apparently, Suzhou is renowned for its attractive and well-educated citizens, Hangzhou for its natural beauty and Liuzhou for producing wooden coffins that resist decay.)
Certainly, Cantonese is the style of cooking that we in the West most commonly associate with China. It is a cuisine that, Simon tells us, is "rich in materials" - "fresh produce" in foodie parlance - and dim sum is a local specialty.
After we check into our rooms at the Crowne Plaza City Centre, located in the central shopping district on the leafy Huanshi Road, we have a chance to sample Cantonese food for ourselves. We head for dinner at the nearby Beiyuan Cuisine, established in 1928 and housed in a traditional Lingnan-style building around a beautiful central courtyard with a pond. Our meal is of banquet proportions, encompassing everything from pickled garlic cloves and baked fish with coriander to fat scallops with lily and slices of roast goose with crispy skin. Happily for Simon's sense of cultural pride, it's all absolutely delicious.
After dinner, we take the short drive to the Pearl River, which connects Guangzhou with Hong Kong and Macau on the coast. People are out and about in numbers in the warm evening air: children ride bikes on the footpath, couples stroll hand-in-hand past the coconut sellers and groups cluster around the buskers playing maudlin Chinese ballads. On the river, garishly lit ferries whoosh past the new high-rise apartments on the opposite bank.
Night is an ideal time to appreciate Guangzhou's wealth of cutting-edge contemporary architecture, from the sail-like roof of the Xinghai Concert Hall, picked out in colourful lights, to the low, rounded form of the Guangzhou Opera House, designed by superstar Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. Teenagers whizz down the ramps outside the opera house on BMX bikes, while in the adjacent square separating it from the Guangdong Museum, families are enjoying the gentle autumn breeze. Across the river, more of the city's dazzling array of new buildings is on display: the striking stadium where the opening of the 2010 Asian Games was held and the spiralling Canton Tower, glowing with multicoloured lights and disappearing into the low cloud.
The following morning, I awake in my room on the 31st floor of the hotel to a view over Guangzhou, stretched out as far as I can see beneath a dull cover of smog. There is a touch of disappointment: what has happened to the glittering metropolis of the previous evening?
After availing ourselves of the hotel's extensive buffet, we head out and - despite the air pollution and the close, tropical heat - Guangzhou charms me anew, albeit in an entirely different way. Where last night we saw the new Guangzhou, today we see the old.
Our first stop is the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Built in 537, it centres on an elegant pagoda containing the Indian relics which the temple was originally built to house. The temple's circular doorway is not much to look at from the street but, inside, a sense of calm descends. We take in the laughing Buddha and the statues of four generals, alternately threatening and genial, in the Giver's Hall, where worshippers have left offerings of bottled water, apples and cling-wrapped coconuts, and walk through the tree-lined courtyard towards the pagoda.
There is the smell of incense, an offering to accompany the prayers of the faithful to the heavens, and the sound of chanting coming from the far side of the compound. In the main hall behind the pagoda, there are three huge Buddha statues, 6m tall and 10 tonnes each, which Simon says represent reincarnation - one statue each for the past, the present and the future. The low light reflects off their gleaming bronze faces and the swastikas - an auspicious rather than hateful symbol in the Buddhist context - on their chests. A young woman in leather leggings stands, reading quietly from what I assume to be a religious text, while a liver-spotted old man performs solemn prayer rituals. They both seem entirely unperturbed by the presence of a group of curious, camera-toting Australians in their midst.
Given the Chinese government's stance on Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, it's something of a surprise to find Chinese Buddhism flourishing - even experiencing a resurgence - in temples such as these. But the two are seen as distinct practices and, although figures on religion in China are slippery, Buddhism is generally considered to be the nation's dominant faith, with adherents ranging from devout to so-called cultural Buddhists, frequently combining it with the practice of traditional faiths such as Taoism and Confucianism.
From the temple, it is a short drive to Shamian Island. Separated from the city proper by a narrow strip of greenish water, the island feels quite different from the rest of the city, and with good reason. A sandbank 900m long and 300m wide, it was for many years the only place in Guangzhou where the British, French and other foreign merchants who had come here to trade were allowed to live and work. It was connected to the mainland by two bridges, which closed every night at 10pm, and became something of an oasis away from the bustle of the city proper, filled with elegant European architecture.
However, what I notice when we arrive on Shamian Island is neither the architecture nor the atmosphere, but how many brides there are. Virtually everywhere we go during our stay in China, we see photo shoots in action - whether professional or otherwise - with attractive young Chinese women posing for the camera and, more often than not, they're in wedding dresses. According to Simon, it has become popular in recent years for engaged Chinese women to have elaborate wedding photographs taken prior to the big day and, given its attractive surrounds, Shamian Island is a particularly popular backdrop. Virtually all of the women we see are without their beloved in tow, so it seems that the role of the groom in the whole endeavour is limited.
After a pleasant stroll around the island, dodging men with enormous cameras and light reflector boards, we make our way to the rather less salubrious surrounds of the nearby Qingping market. Formerly notorious for its trade in exotic animal wares, including tiger products, the market was cleaned up considerably following the SARS outbreak a decade ago. The first section is devoted to traditional Chinese medicine, selling everything from various herbs and roots to dried starfish and fish stomach (good for the complexion, apparently). There are a few products on offer that cause a Western eyebrow to shoot skywards - the dried-out lizards splayed on a stick are pretty revolting and the bags of dried seahorses look somehow melancholy - but overall it's fairly tame stuff.
Potentially more troubling is the section of the market devoted to live animals; puppies, kittens, squirrels, guinea pigs and fluffy chicks are sold alongside tortoises of various sizes, fish and aquarium equipment. The market was once known for selling all sorts of live animals for human consumption - there is a saying that the Cantonese will eat "everything with four legs except the table" - but I'm told these days it caters for the pet trade. What's more, Simon has already reassured us that eating cats and dogs is not common in modern China, although I'm not entirely certain he's not being economical with the truth to save the feelings of the soft-hearted Australians. Nonetheless, I can't help but worry for the tiny kittens mewing in their cages and the bouncy little puppies tumbling over each other to sniff at an outstretched hand - at the very least, they look rather hot and bothered.
They're not the only ones feeling the effects of the humid weather, so after lunch I retreat to the perkily named Guangzhou Friendship Store, a sprawling luxury mall near our hotel. Shopping here, in air-conditioned comfort amid the racks of well-known European luxury brands, could not be more different from browsing the more traditional surrounds of Qingping market. Where the market was busy and hot, sound-tracked by the chat of stallholders and the blaring of car horns, the mall is serene and cool, and nearly empty except for the clusters of immaculately dressed shop assistants.
I head up to the top floor, where signs indicate there is a supermarket - wandering the aisles of foreign supermarkets in search of exotic groceries being something of a travel fetish of mine. What I find is a world away from your local Coles or Woolworths: broad aisles filled with the sound of piped string music and attendants in maroon bellhop jackets. With the possible exception of Fortnum & Mason, the so-called "royal grocer" in London, this is far and away the poshest supermarket I've ever visited - and at Fortnum's, the staff were neither so abundant nor so smartly dressed.
As I browse the aisles, I marvel at the sheer choice on offer. It's mind-boggling to think that the Chinese, who within living memory starved in their millions under the excesses of Mao Tse Tung, can now come to places like this and choose from dozens and dozens of varieties of noodles, washing powder and imported beer in rarefied surrounds. Or, rather, this is available to those who have done well enough in the new Chinese economy. Certainly it is worth remembering, when surrounded by Guangzhou's modern splendours, that this is still a country with a per capita GDP roughly equivalent to that of East Timor, one of Asia's poorest nations. China's wealth is by no means evenly distributed and not everyone is lucky enough to be able to shop at the Guangzhou Friendship Store.
As I walk down the tree-lined footpath towards the hotel, I recall Simon, who told us earlier in the day that Guangzhou "is a heroic city". He's undoubtedly biased, but it's true that people continue to be drawn to Guangzhou in droves, all seeking the potential rewards of this ever-expanding metropolis, where cutting-edge architecture abuts ancient temples, and tradition and modernity sit side by side. It's an exciting mix, and one that is evolving day by day.
China Southern Airlines flies to Guangzhou three times a week from Perth, departing at 8.30am on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Return fares start from $759 for economy, $3848 for business and $5978 for first class. Travel agents, 1300 889 628 or facebook.com/ChinaSouthernAU.
Creative Holidays is offering two nights at the Crowne Plaza Guangzhou on Huanshi Road in a superior room for $155 per person twin share, including full breakfast daily, valid for sale until June 30 for travel between May 5 and August 31. Private tours visiting Shamian Island, the Temple of the Six Banyon Trees, Qingping Market and more are available from $74 per person. creativeholidays.com or 1300 301 711.
Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport recently announced it will introduce a 72-hour visa-free stay policy from the middle of the year, which will allow Australians to have a stopover of up to three days in the city without a visa.
In the meantime, and for longer stays, single-entry visas for China cost $60 and must be obtained prior to departure from the Chinese consulate in East Perth. Getting a visa for China can be an officious process, so avoid leaving it to the last minute - but note, you cannot apply more than three months in advance of your departure date. perth.chineseconsulate.org/eng.
Gemma Nisbet was a guest of China Southern Airlines and Creative Holidays.