03/30/2012 07:15 am ET Updated May 30, 2012

The Hidden Pleasures Of Guangdong

Earlier this month, I was the first Westerner to be given monk's robes at the Chun Yang (Pure Yang) Taoist monastery in Guangzhou, China. Somehow, perhaps alchemically, my Taoist persuasion connected me to a unique subset of Chinese culture, opened secrets of the city and beguiled me with the charms of surrounding Guangdong, a province that most tourists, drawn to the more frequently-visited tourist areas in China's northern throw, never see.

Despite the popularity of Hong Kong, which is still correctly seen as different from the rest of southern China, most tourists head to Beijing's Great Wall and Forbidden City, and to the terracotta warriors of Xi'an. Yet along with being Taoist comes a close connection to nature, and such a connection produces discomfort at the aridification of the north and the resultant dust storms, brown skies, polluted air and soiled rivers of the upper and central zones. In this sense, Guangzhou is a far more agreeable destination.

While China's third largest city does not frequently enjoy deep blue skies, it is set deep within a broader province, Guangdong, which is surprisingly verdant. Southern China may not be as relatively unspoiled as parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma or Laos, but the environment is resilient and rife with butterflies and birds. If China's burgeoning environmentalist movement gains some traction, waterways are cleaned up and farming and industrial practices regulated, don't count it out as an ecotourism destination a few years down the line.

Taoist practice -- I teach tai chi and qigong -- was the theme of my trip, and vegan meals, teahouse visits and rituals at monasteries were the order of the day. Guangzhou was formerly known as Canton, and Cantonese cuisine is justly famous for subtle and intricate flavors and for drawing inspiration from the seafood of the coast. Garlic is used, but fresh herbs are not typical, as the clear taste of fresh ingredients is prized. I found the vegan choices absolutely brilliant.

Chinese chefs seem to have invented limitless ways to use rice, soy, wheat and other plant-based protein sources to create an array of dishes ranging from "mock" duck to fake chicken, faux beef and even vegetarian sushi offerings. Vegan dishes are created inexpensively and creatively at monasteries -- there is a proscription against eating flesh in Taoism as in Buddhism -- but most spectacularly in specialty restaurants.

ZiZhuLin Vegetarian Restaurant at No. 77 Nantianlu West, in Guangzhou's Haizhu district stands out among these. There I enjoyed noodle dishes dressed with enough different varieties of mushrooms -- seen as the medicine of the forest by many -- to make a forest tortoise (or a vegan) swoon. Mushrooms were also ever-present on bright green presentations of amaranth, spinach, bok choy and broccoli. Protein came in as vegetarian chicken tenders, as fish that wasn't and as a pork dish with nary a hint of pig, all these dressed with a cornucopia of locally grown vegetables devoid of the kind of preservatives required for transportation a great distance between farm and table. The food in China always tastes more vibrant and fresh than food does here at home, more nutrient-dense and flavorful. A Taoist like me would say it has more qi.

There may be monastic proscriptions against flesh, but there are none against tea, a good thing because nowhere in the world is tea culture richer nor the drink itself more sublime than in China. I was treated to some especially marvelous oolong (the name means black dragon tea) at Guangzhou's Zhujiang Park Teahouse, an elegant establishment replete with gazebos and private rooms, all set right in the middle of the city in a luscious park ringed by skyscrapers -- a sort of mini, tropical Asian version of New York's Central Park. The tea ritual, which requires specialized implements, involves heating the water before using it to wash the cups and different teapots to infuse and then pour the tea into sipping cups, where it is sniffed, swirled in the mouth and then imbibed. The purity of the water is all-important to the taste of the tea, and was certainly filtered at the teahouse, for the city's tap water is not potable.

At the Chun Yang monastery where I received my robes, I also enjoyed tea rituals -- as well as terrific vegan food -- but there the water was heated by energy projected from the hands of monks. Not really, but I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been, as the monks radiated vitality and power. More, they appeared decades younger than their chronological age, despite the fact that unlike their Buddhist counterparts they can marry and participate to some degree in the outside world. The temple's abbot is rebuilding and expanding the site using funds from well-heeled devotees in a bid to create a Taoist Shangri La in the heart of the city, where just over the walls, an urban pulse beats fast and loud. I found the contrast between the monastery's silence and the fracas outside to be especially poignant, mirroring as it does the reality for the monks, who have a foot in each world, and for the devotees of Taoism, who find refuge both in their rituals and in practices like meditation, qigong and tai chi.

As much a practical philosophy as a religion, Taoism is among the systems that are emerging from the long, brutal winter of Mao Tse Tung's so-called Cultural Revolution. Like a groundhog clear of his shadow, those who practiced in secret are now out in the open and the mountainous area within a day's drive of Guangzhou is dotted with Taoist temples, some entirely hidden away, others more visible. Among the latter is the Yellow Dragon Temple on Luofu Mountain a few hours drive from Guangzhou. The route skirts the seacoast and offers glimpses of both cultivated fields and craggy peaks.

The temple itself is a magnificent complex of traditionally styled buildings set overlooking a long valley. The air is clear, the night sky filled with stars and the views salubrious, especially in the early morning light. I did tai chi at sunrise and contemplated both the future of tourism in this beautiful landscape and the rising usefulness of Taoist practices as a counterweight to the speed-and-greed culture of the West and, increasingly, of China too. It's hard to know where this juxtaposition will lead, but that uncertainty simply made my visit more precious.