meizhou hot springs thumbnailMEIZHOU is often overlooked in the treasure trove of travel options in Guangdong Province. But the city is just as rewarding as other more popular locations such as Chaozhou, Qingyuan, and Shaoguan. Whether for the Hakka culture, hot springs, or simply to explore new places, Meizhou is a worthwhile destination.

Perhaps the most important thing about Meizhou is the Hakka culture and history that permeates the city. Hakka people originally came from northern China and migrated south to avoid social unrest and upheavals from war and famine, beginning during the Jin Dynasty (265-420). Meizhou has since become the unofficial capital of Hakka people and culture in Guangdong.

The city is not unlike many other cities in Guangdong, with few extraordinary features to set it apart. However, as it is in a remote, mountainous region of Guangdong, away from the rapid development of the Pearl River Delta, the environment is clean and the air is fresh, comparatively.

What came as a nice surprise was that Meizhou must be the “beautiful bridge capital of the world,” or at least in Guangdong. The Mei River winds its way through the city center and, at night, the many bridges spanning the waterway are illuminated with an array of colorful lights. Promenades on both sides make for a romantic stroll along the riverbanks. The river is extremely picturesque, day or night.

 Within the city, one notable attraction is Renjinglu cottage, former home of the 19th century poet and diplomat Huang Zun-xian. Even better is a wander around the surrounding neighborhood, which features classical Hakka-style townhouses and architecture set among the many fishing ponds. Samantha Hudson, an American visiting China, summed it up as an “incredible, quasi-untouched enclave, a contrast against the newer part of the city, a juxtaposition of new and old.”

For a breathtaking panoramic view of the city, head up to the Thousand Buddha Temple Pagoda. It’s the perfect place to relax and watch the sun set over the city. Among the thousands of intricately carved figurines there, you’ll also find “The Electric Buddha,” which you’ll have to see to believe. The kitchen serves Buddhist vegetarian food, and the resident nuns who live there are extremely friendly. They even gave us a free meal, although the kitchen was closed, and topped it off with a bag full of fruit and cookies.

Meizhou is not exactly famous for its food, although it does have several well-known staples. Among these are salt-baked chicken, meat stuffed tofu, preserved beef, and candied ginger. Delicious street food and snacks, a highlight for many travelers, were not so easy to find. It’s probably safe to say that Hakka cuisine is overshadowed by nearby Guangzhou’s world-famous Cantonese cuisine.

Among other recommended attractions in Meizhou, the Yannanfei Tea Garden was often cited. However, our visit to the gardens proved rather disappointing, because of a high admission fee, limited attractions, and sub-par scenery. If someone suggests you visit Yannanfei, and they probably will, save yourself the time and look elsewhere — unless you are an absolute tea fanatic.

 Perhaps the best reason to visit Meizhou is the hot springs. While they can be found almost anywhere in Guangdong, hot springs have greater significance in Meizhou. Most hot springs are expensive and cater to the rich, but in Meizhou they are easily accessible by the general population. What must be reminiscent of ancient Roman public baths, most villages in the countryside have public bathing facilities fed by hot springs.

We discovered this almost by accident, after taking a random bus to a random village in the spirit of adventure. We also came across hundreds of villagers collecting natural hot spring water from a dried up riverbed. Exclusive resorts, including hot mud baths, are also available throughout the region.

In retrospect, although Meizhou may lack the “bling” of other cities in Guangdong, it is no less attractive as a travel destination. Explore the villages, soak in the hot baths, stroll along the river, taste the sweet ginger, climb with a thousand Buddhas, wander the charming neighborhoods, experience the Hakka culture, and you are bound to have an amazing time.

Jesse Warren – February 18, 2008 – Shenzhen Daily