24 Hours in Kaiping

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Kaiping was not always the sleepy town in Guandong Province it is today. Conflict between Hakka settlers from central China and local peasants during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), was followed by huge overpopulation after the Opium Wars. The result was major migration abroad; the population of the town is 680,000, but an estimated 750,000 emigres live overseas, in 67 different countries. Those that made their fortunes built fortified tower structures called diaolou to house their families and protect their wealth against raiders, and the melting pot of ideas and trends brought back by overseas Chinese make it a must-stop place to see these unique architectural attractions.

Things to see
Since 2007 the villages of Zili, Sanmenli, Majianglong and Jinjiangli have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. At its peak there were 3,000 diaolou but today only 1,833 remain dotted among the fields outside Kaiping. A good place to start exploration is Zili village. It contains a museum with a useful introduction to the area and its people. Few of those who went overseas ever made it back. The Fang family were one of the lucky ones. They built Minshi Lou from the proceeds of a restaurant business in Chicago. Here a traditional, ornately carved ancestral room is juxtaposed with concrete, defensive turrets and holes for shooting bandits.

A trip to Sanmenli reveals the older origin of the buildings. Yinglong Lou dates back over 440 years and is the earliest remaining diaolou. Unlike diaolou in other villages, it has no foreign influences. Originally only two storeys high and with a much larger footprint than other towers, it nonetheless represents the prototype of the more modern ornate diaolou built by locals who made it rich overseas.
Majianglong is worth visiting for its secluded location sandwiched between a river and mountain, shrouded in a bamboo grove. If you manage to find Jinjiangli (even locals have problems!) you will be rewarded with Ruishi Lou, said to be the tallest at nine storeys and famed, with its ornate baroque style, as the best diaolou of them all.

Li Garden
Built between 1926 and 1931 as the residence of Xie Weili, who made his money trading in Hong Kong and the US, the six villas and one tower offer a glimpse into the life of a wealthy family plus their efforts to protect themselves, including an escape tunnel from the communal diaolou to the canal.

Chikan Town
This 350 year old town boasts plenty of historical buildings. Down by the Tan River are picturesque houses famed for their balconies (qilou in the local dialect). There is also a film set with reconstructions of traditional style buildings.

Eat & Drink
Bao zai fan – rice with meat or fish and vegetables cooked in a bowl – is a local speciality that makes for a cheap lunch, particularly in Chikan Township. Ze yu zhou restaurant in Kaiping is recommended for rice porridge with seafood, another local favorite. Alternatively there are a number of restaurants along the banks of the Tan River.

Stay
Situated near the Tan River, the Wilson Hotel is conveniently located and offers very good value rooms at RMB207 a night. See www.ctrip.com to book.

Guide
Bobble (137 5036 0307) is an English-speaking tour guide who may be able to help or arrange transport.

Getting there
There are frequent buses from Guangzhou leaving from the long distance bus station near the railway station.

Handy tips
You can buy a combined ticket for Zili, Majianglong, Li Garden and the Chikan film set for RMB130. To get to most of the sites will require transport. A car (with driver) will cost around RMB300-400 for a day.

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