Covering Afghanistan, this is not. I check into the elegant Victory Hotel on Shamian Island. The hotel was built by the British in the 1920s as the Victoria; in efficient Guangzhou fashion, the postrevolution name change to the Victory Hotel glorified the communists while requiring a minimum of new letters. After the Second Opium War, Shamian became a foreign concession in 1860, and its pedestrian-friendly streets are lined by former consulates and trading offices that lend an aura of faded grandeur. If most of Guangzhou marches at triple time, gentrified Shamian ambles, stopping at bright, breezy café like Lucy's at 5 Shamian Nan Jie, tel: (86-20) 8187-4106, and the Rose Garden at 2 Shamian Nan Jie, tel: (86-20) 8192-2808, that linger on the edge of the Pearl River, beneath suspiciously green trees.
Guangzhou is still a river town, even if the Pearl sweats oil and tar, so I begin with fish for dinner. In the Dashatou area, on Xigong Seafood Street along the river, where restaurants zealously compete for customers, I choose Red City Seafood Restaurant (look for the ship's hull protruding from the second floor). Lording over the outdoor live tanks like an executioner, I pick the creatures doomed to become my meal. Vegetarians don't get this kind of thrill.
Drinking follows eating in Guangzhou like, well, hangovers follow drinking. I make my way to Voltage, located at 2/F, Jinye Building, 422 Huanshi Dong Lu, tel: (86-20) 8777-2888, an underground lounge with live music and an ice blue ambiance. While a band led by Martin, perhaps the greatest Swiss reggae musician of all time, jams some funkadelic Marley, I drink vodka-and-Red Bull with some newfound Cantonese friends. Afterward, we shamble to Windflower, tel: (86-20) 8358-2446, a relaxed music pub with a botanical theme. Vodka is replaced by Jack Daniels, and my sobriety is misplaced somewhere on the floor. Bourbon, vodka and unstoppable Cantonese drinkers do not a healthy combination make.
Emerging into painful consciousness the next afternoon, I decide to salve my pounding head with a shopping spree (and half a bottle of aspirin). I skip the overpriced stores of Shangxiajiu and go to Dongshan district for cheap, brand-name Western garments. I then proceed to go mad, spending $106 on clothes, including a $7 leather "Gucci" wallet the clerk assures me was made in Italy—which must be what they're calling Shenzhen now.
Being a responsible journalist, I steel myself for another night of barhopping. The city's best drag runs down Huanshi Dong Road, around the Garden Hotel. I pick out the Hill Bar, tel: (86-20) 8333-3998 ext. 3913, and Gypsy King, tel: (86-20) 8387-5177. Decorated with a Hard Rock Café starter kit, the Hill should have been unforgivably cheesy but has a friendly vibe that somehow mixes classic rock and Canto-pop without imploding. The Gypsy King, where the locals come to see and be seen, is bathed in scarlet light and packed with a mixed crowd even on a weeknight, all grooving on the dance floor. I depart for Face, at B/F, International Bank Tower, 191 Dongfeng Xi Lu, tel: (86-20) 8388-0688, where the atmosphere is pure Tomorrowland: silvery translucent tables and walls that pulse with primary colors. If the Jetsons had a nightclub, this would be it.
I spend my last morning drifting through Guangzhou's famous Qingping market. If it has legs, wings, claws, brains, scales, fur, fins, gills or lungs, it's aggressively hawked here. This is Guangzhou in miniature: full of variety, full of extremes, always willing to do what it takes to make a fast buck. Seat belts? We don't need no stinkin' seat belts.