As the ancestral homeland for many overseas Chinese, Guangdong has a very rich history. One of the places where this is perhaps most obvious is the region around Kaiping, a city-administered as part of Jiangmen, approximately 140 kilometers from Guangzhou. If you ever find yourself in Shenzhen or Guangzhou with a spare day or two, Kaiping is worth the trip!
Kaiping was a region of major emigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century and the area has a wide range of diaolou, or watchtowers, scattered through the rural landscapes. These diaolou served two purposes, housing, and protection against banditry. Many western architectural features are featured in these towers, and recently some of them were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.
Perhaps the most famous of the diaolou clusters, Zili Village, or Zilicun, is a beautiful sight with impressive, fortified watchtowers looking out over vast fields of green. The watchtowers have most of the original furniture intact, and there are still portraits of its residents hanging on display. They are indicative of the wealth that many overseas Chinese returned from America to China with.
Entry here is RMB 80, and there are a few buildings that you can enter and enjoy the view from the top. You can also get an RMB 150 ticket to cover all clusters in the area as well as the Li Gardens that are nearby, build in the 1920s and 1930s.
Chikan Village (赤坎)
Chikan Village is a really interesting village, though you’ll need to go here soon if you want to enjoy it in its former glory. The village has already been emptied and feels like a ghost town, and signs indicate that there are plans to demolish the entire village and turn it into a sort of ‘tourist destination’ with newer buildings that look like the old buildings.
This seems a rather odd way to preserve a village that has been designated as a National Historic and Cultural Town of China. One of the most impressive sights is a three-kilometer long riverside stretch of European-style buildings.
One of the few villages that still had residents living here, Jinjiangli has three famous diaolou, the most well-known being Ruishi Lou. You can enter it and climb to its balcony, but for the best views, there are surrounding neighbors who are more than happy to let you on their roof for a small fee (RMB 10 per person).
The village also has a couple of little restaurants for if you’re arriving hungry and want to experience local cuisine.
One of the most inhabited villages of them all, Sanmenli, has the oldest diaolou of the area at its core: Yinglong Diaolou. Being off the beaten track, you don’t need a ticket to go here.
This huge, almost windowless watchtower was built during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th century but is unfortunately closed to the public. Again, we asked nearby neighbors whether we could take a look from their roof, as the view was impressive from high up.
Get a bus to Kaiping from Guangzhou Railway Station or from Tian He Bus Station. The travel time for both of these buses is about two hours, and they depart every 30 minutes between 7am and 7pm.
From Shenzhen, you can get a bus from Shenzhen Qiaoshe Bus Station or from Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport. This bus takes approximately 3-4 hours, depending on traffic.
The easiest thing to do is rent a car to take you to these spots, as they are approximately 10 kilometers from Kaiping and then another 5-10 kilometers from each other. Alternatively ask a taxi driver to take you there, wait, and take you back.
Staying there: While the sights can be covered in a (long!) day trip, we recommend staying over in a hotel in Kaiping (there are plenty of options available online), so that you have a day and a half to cover the four clusters listed above.
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Photos: Margaux Schreurs