"Hello, hello? Do you like snog?" asked the stranger across the aisle on the bus ride out of Guangzhou. His eyes were eager, and the toothy grin belied a master in the art of seduction.
"Um, sometimes with girls," came the awkward, faltering reply.
"My name's Stephen. I very like snog. You and me play snog together. Ok?"
Having reached our destination, I resigned myself to following Stephen to his favourite 'snog' hall. Mercifully, the den of iniquity that I'd begun to imagine turned out to harbour nothing more threatening than green baize and blue chalk. Snooker, it turns out, is all the rage in Zhaoqing. Playing a few frames of 'snog' was therefore a fitting introduction to this friendly town, and a pleasant way to begin this escape from Guangzhou.
The travel agency flyer that first planted the Zhaoqing seed in my mind had promised "the freshest air in Guangdong". And Zhaoqing's clean air is not even that far away: only a two-hour bus ride into the western hills.
In few parts of the world can a city of 1.5 million people be considered a quiet rural retreat; and yet here, in the teeming Pearl River Delta, the description does not sound unreasonable.
The compact city centre lies sandwiched between lake and river with mountain ranges on either flank. Although you can count the number of high-rises on one hand, Zhaoqing is no village. The city's main artery, Duanzhou Lu, pulses with eight lanes of traffic beeping their way up and down. Road signs remind drivers, in a triumph of hope over experience, to 'Please Drive the Correct Way.'
Zhaoqing's low prices are a by-product of its relative poverty. The economy here is sustained by tourism as much as industry and, with little bitterness, locals recall a recent survey that ranked their city as second poorest in the province.
There are hints of this in the shabbiness of many apartment blocks and the cracked concrete pavements of the back streets, but Zhaoqing has much to offer for those tired of the gleam and sheen of Chinese urban affluence.
A ten-minute walk from the bustling shopping drag of Tianning Lu takes you into the crumbling single-storey neighbourhood that stretches north of Jianshi Lu to the wide Xi Jiang.
A scrap collector brushes past as he pedals through the labyrinth of narrow alleys, banging his plastic drum while dodging old ladies selling home-grown fruit and veg. It is a scene reminiscent of the more famous hutong of Beijing. Emerging onto Yuejiang Lu, men on bicycles haul leather sofas towards the wealthier part of town. People dining by the riverside watch rust-bucket boats chug serenely by.