MANILA, Philippines — While major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai are choking in thick smog and air pollution levels are alarmingly high, one city in China has clear skies and clean air, its many high-rise buildings surrounded by greenery.
Welcome to Nanning, a city in Guangxi province in the southwest of China that is building up its reputation as a hub of opportunities for trade and investment between China and the ten member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes the Philippines.
According to ChinaToday.com, Nanning used to be the political and military center of southwestern China some 1,600 years ago when the area was beyond the control of the ruling Chinese emperor.
It also served as a place for trade, being a medium-sized market town until the early 20th century, when European traders opened a river route from Wuzhou – a city east of Guangxi – to nearby Guangdong province.
Nanning on its 14th year as host of the China-ASEAN Expo (Caexpo) and the China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit (Cabis), where the countries – including some guest states – feature export-quality commodities, launch products of modern technology and innovation and offer opportunities for traders, businessmen and investors.
Nanning, like many other cities in China, has seen fast paced construction of residential and office buildings, which makes one wonder if all units are occupied – and there are even more under construction and set to be built. It is home to two of the tallest buildings in China – the Diwang International Commerce Center which stands at 276 meters tall, and the World Trade Commerce City at 218 meters. Five-star hotels, foreign clothing brands, national and foreign banks, and even foreign fastfood chains have also set up house in this city.
One can also be impressed by how wide and organized the roads in Nanning are, such that there are no traffic jams, except at stoplights!
One can tour Nanning and nearby areas using private cars, scooters, underground trains, taxis, city buses, the BRT – Bus Rapid Transit, a transport system with stations along the designated route but buses drive in lanes on both directions allotted only for them – and Didi Chuxing, China’s version of Uber and Grab. What is surprising about these vehicles, though, is that most of them use hybrid technology, which uses both fuel and electricity, and thus emit less smoke, if at all. Not surprising then that I saw only one gasoline station during our eight days of wandering the city covering the Caexpo!
Perhaps the most convenient, personal and pollution-free means of getting around Nanning is by bicycle, thanks to bike-sharing mobile applications like OFO and Mobike. Through an app on your cellphone, the bike can be used for an hour for just 10 yuan, or around P80, or even monthly, as long as one has installed the app and paid certain dues like registration fees and insurance.
But what makes Nanning a standout from other cities in China is that despite the rise of more buildings, one can still see and enjoy huge patches of green.
One of the most visited, and the greenest, spots in the whole of Nanning is Qingxiu Shan, or Mt. Qingxiu Park. The park, which covers more than four square kilometers, is not actually a mountain but a series of hills, along with other natural and man-made attractions. Thanks to the bounty of trees and verdant fields, Qingxiu Shan provides fresh air to the city’s residents and visitors, serving as the “lungs” of Nanning.
We toured two gardens where various kinds of orchids and cycads, or palms, can be found. Enjoying the tropical climate, these plants grow abundantly and are in full bloom. The park even boasts of a cycad tree which is more than a thousand years old!
The park is also home to other natural and man-made structures like wooden temples, ponds with water so clear you can see the grass below and a pagoda where one can enjoy a panoramic view of Nanning. The park also houses the China-ASEAN Friendship Garden, which features symbols representing China and ASEAN countries.
Everything in Qingxiu Shan was fully restored in 1986, after the government recognized the park’s significance as a place for leisure and recreation, having served as an attraction for over a thousand years, since the Tang Dynasty.
Our tour guides, mostly language students from a university in Guilin, another city in Guangxi, also brought us to the wetlands of Nakao River.
Previously severely polluted and stinking with all kinds of waste, Nakao River – stretching 6.35 kilometers – is now alive with 165 ponds located along the river, scenic walkways on the riverbank and various kinds of land- and water-borne plants growing abundantly.
Behind the scenic views of Nakao River wetland, work is still underway to preserve its restored natural beauty. Several pumps installed along the stretch of the river serve different purposes: one is to separate sewage and polluted water coming from upstream; another to bring the polluted water to water treatment facilities; and another to bring the treated water back to the Nakao River. The project started in 2015 and will take three years, with total investment costing 8.7 billion yuan.
The renovation project for the Nakao River aims at building a “sponge city” in Nanning wherein water quality will once again reach the safest level and the river itself can withstand devastating floods.
Of course, one cannot miss tasting the flavors of China by visiting Zhongshan Lu, Nanning’s food street. The whole stretch features stalls and restaurants serving different dishes – from the flaming-hot “stinky tofu” of Changsha, to grilled garlic-topped oysters, to the oddly-appetizing fried insects like scorpions and worms, to the cooling ice cream on waffle cone and the refreshing Harbin beer.
As China continues to develop its so-called second- and third-tier cities, Nanning, the “green city,” can be a perfect escape from the pollution and stress of typical urban living. With Nanning, nature is still at the heart of progress. Photos by Ghio Ong