You can easily distinguish the locals and the tourists in Nanning: one group casually rides their shared bicycles, usable by simply swiping the QR code on WeChat; the other group, which includes me, performs contortions with cameras in an effort to take pictures of manicured parks at weird angles. It is a pleasant shock to find this much green in the middle of a metropolis of seven million, and even though the locals were trying to hide their smiles at my picture taking acrobatics, you could tell they’re not really trying to judge. In fact they are very proud of their home, aptly known as the Green City of China, and how it’s finally getting the recognition it deserves.
Green is right. Historically, since the city was named Nanning – meaning ‘peace of the south’ – more than 700 years ago, it’s been a lush, tropical agricultural centre. And today, its green reputation is supported by its 20 city parks and 80 greenbelt areas. Residents make good use of them, with Nanhu Park the most beloved spot. The park features a trail that encircles a huge lake stretching eight kilometres, and people come here simply to stroll, practise tai chi, use the outdoor fitness equipment or admire the flora. Pedestrian flow reaches its peak in the evening, when residents go for a jog or simply gaze at the Nanhu Bridge, which has water cascading down both sides and lit up in rainbow colours.
‘It’s slow living at its best, making this a very comfortable place to live in,’ says Luo Yu, a businessman who moved here eight years ago from Shenzhen. ‘The air is clean and the people are very friendly, which is why a lot of people have chosen to move here now.’
Nanning’s green credentials are now shaping its future, with government policies looking to turn reputation into opportunity. According to the Nanning Green Planning Guidelines, for example, trees should be planted on road sides, and different tree types are used to distinguish different districts: highways running in east-west directions have palm trees to show the city’s tropical characteristics, while north-south highways are planted with vegetation that highlights the native Zhuang culture. Setting up rooftop gardens is now also highly encouraged, and green spaces must be incorporated into buildings exceeding 12 storeys.
Wuxiang New District is the green jewel in Nanning’s crown. It’s an eco-city due for completion in 2020 and boasting spacious residential high-rises along with state-of-the-art schools, sports centres, art galleries, a massive forested area and Wuxiang Lake Park, featuring a scenic expanse of water. With the goal of creating an international logistics centre catering to Southeast Asia, the district will be fully functional for businesses in two years’ time, housing headquarters for multinationals. There’s also a new tech hub in the Gaoxin district, modelled after the Zhongguancun technology hub spanning Beijing and Tianjin.
Indeed, frenzied development has come to Nanning in recent years, thanks in part to its strategic location, only a few hundred kilometres from the Vietnamese border. It’s become an important player in the One Belt One Road initiative, linking China to neighbouring Asean countries and becoming the permanent location for the China-Asean Expo. The city has recently opened its first metro line and a second one will be running in the coming months. ‘Development escalated a lot these few years; they’re even building a high-speed rail to Thailand as we speak,’ says Wang Yina, a shopkeeper in the massive Wanda Shopping Mall. ‘I think in 10 years’ time, Nanning can be in the running to become the next Shanghai or Hong Kong.’
Even though this statement might sound slightly far-fetched now, there’s no denying Nanning’s strategic importance. The government has invested over RMB 1.2 trillion in more than 200 projects, including numerous highways and railways, making the city the epicentre of southwestern China.
Despite this frenzied development, Nanning locals are adamant that it can’t come at the expense of the environment. ‘Even though we’re full steam ahead with development, we are still very aware of keeping the city in pristine condition,’ says Xu Tianbao, a journalist working in Nanning. ‘We need to stay with our notion of “fixing the five ills” – no selling on the street; no parking irresponsibly; no littering; no mess in construction sites; and no random ad posting. These rules were embedded in the psyche of the people a decade ago by the government. Furthermore, it has also spread the message regarding recycling. That’s why everywhere you walk on the streets you see recycling bins.’
‘There are definitely more opportunities now, and as the first international hotel chain to set up here back in 2009, we are more than ready to welcome the change,’ says Benny Zou, general manager of Fairfield by Marriott Hotel. Opened in July 2017, the hotel overlooks one of the local parks. ‘We also follow Marriott’s environmental guidelines when running the hotel, which coincides with Nanning’s own approach.’
The slow life also evidently remains intact. After getting completely lost in the massive Qingxiu Mountain Scenic Area, I began to fully appreciate the laid-back pace of the city. Residents take their time to hike to the top of pagodas or picnic on one of the slopes. They’re also more than willing to give you their time and show you the way to the exit, before asking, ‘What’s the rush? Slow down.’
Zhongshanlu Food Street
This is the main tourist attraction in Nanning and offers local and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Asia’s largest intercountry waterfall straddles China and Vietnam.
A beautiful hiking location that’s a less crowded alternative to the famed Yellow Mountain.
Na Kao Wetland Park
A newly built wetland park made famous by a visit from President Xi Jinping.
Where to stay
Fairfield by Marriott Nanning Nanhu Park
The hotel is located in walking distance to Wanda business district and Nanhu Park. With excellent transport connections, it’s a green and efficient option for travellers.
Cathay Dragon flies to Nanning from Hong Kong four times a week starting 8 January