This photo shows a local Cantonese fishing in the part of the Pearl River 珠江 that separates Guangzhou City广州 from Shamian Island 沙面岛。The back-drop is Shamian Island’s imposing colonial architecture. It could almost be Paris.
Within an hour from Guangzhou, Zhaoqing is a fantastic place to spend a few days exploring. It’s a lively city with its own miniature version of Guilin’s famous karst scenery smack- bang in the centre in the form of the Seven Star Crags Scenic Zone; a massive park and lake area.
Moreover, Zhaoqing still preserves some interesting, old downtown areas to wander around and explore the traditional shop-houses, the tiny dwellings built onto the city walls and the occasional riverside pagoda.
Nearby, China’s first Biosphere Reserve, Dinghushan 鼎湖山, lies on the outskirts of the city. Just an hour away by local bus are the time-forgotten, completely un-spoilt ancientBagua Villages of Licha Cun and Xianggang Cun. Add to all this a great night market with restaurants spilling out into the street, serving excellent Cantonese food and you couldn’t really ask for more. Incidentally, though the city is popular with Chinese visitors, you are unlikely to see another foreigner during your stay.
It’s a beautiful place of towering green hills, gushing waterfalls and clear streams, laced with a sprinkling of peaceful Buddhist temples and home to numerous plant and animal species. However, apart from the awe-inspiring, lush, tropical scenery, one memory will always stick in our minds: that of pigging out on tasty, deep- purple potatoes…
We got to the park by local bus, leaving from downtown Zhaoqing. Though the park’s only 18 km away, the ride took quite a while, as the bus meandered from one densely populated suburb to the next. Even when it finally dropped us off in a quiet, dead-end street, lined with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, we still found it hard to believe there could be an important natural reserve near here.
One of Guangdong’s hidden gems is found only 200 meters from some of the drabbest scenery you are ever likely to see in China.
The road between the attractive town of Zhaoqing and the fascinating Bagua village of Licha Cun 黎槎村 has got to be one of the ugliest in China. Dusty, dirty and lined, almost uninterruptedly, with small ceramic factories, many of them specialize in manufacturing toilet bowls of all shapes and sizes. These thrones, destined for backsides of China’s growing urbanized middle class, are haphazardly displayed along the side of the road making the traveler wonder if the world is just one big toilet.
Yet, the ugliness is deceptive. Turn 200 meters down any small road leading off the highway and you enter a rural world of bucolic charm that has hardly changed for centuries. The turn off to the Bagua Village of Licha Cun is just one such example.
Bagua 八卦 The Octagonal Shape of Licha Cun
“The bagua: 八卦; literally: “eight symbols”) are eight trigrams used in Taoist Cosmology to represent the fundamental principles of reality, seen as a range of eight interrelated concepts. Each consists of three lines, each line either “broken” or “unbroken,” representing Yin or Yang, respectively. Due to their tripartite structure, they are often referred to as “trigrams” in English.” WikiPedia
It just shows how much things have changed in China: according to our rather dated guidebook, the train from Guangzhou to Qingyuan 清远 should have taken around two hours to cover the 80 kilometers between the two cities. Not anymore! It now takes about twenty minutes to whizz you from one place to the other on one of China’s new high- speed trains. And they even feed you breakfast – of sorts – in that time!
It actually takes longer to do the 15- kilometer ride on the underground from Central Guangzhou to the new GuangzhouSouth station 广州南站, than it does to travel to Qingyuan.
Rows of historic Qilou buildings and old world charm await the traveler in the Guangdong Village of Chikan
Arrival in Chikan 赤坎 is quite spectacular. The town’s unique riverine setting, and it’s unbroken line of Qilou style buildings strung out along the entire Tanjiang River front, is one of Southern China’s most impressive sights.
The town invites exploration, but at the same time there are the small, appealing restaurants under the Qilou arcades. This poses a dilemma for the traveler; exploration first, or a cold beer; we chose the latter, but both options are great. Chikan is a place to linger.
Qilou buildings are a construction style that developed in the late 19th and early 20th Century in Guangdong Province. As city streets were widened, Qilou buildings began to spring up. They combined 18th Century Western architectural styles with traditional Cantonese styles.
The most prominent features are the pillared columns that provide shoppers and shopkeepers’ alike with shelter from the merciless sun and the torrential downpours. The upper floors, usually three or four, are characterized by their European influenced wooden shutters or stained glass windows.
Last but not least, JinJiangli 锦江里. The village of Jinjiangli is the furthest Diaolou Cluster from Kaiping and is home to what many believe to be the most spectacular Diaolou building: the Ruishilou 瑞石楼.
With its unmistakable Indian Raj design, pillars and colourful decorations, the Ruishilou seems from the distance to be a part of Mughal India dumped in the middle of a classical southern Chinese landcsape; it really is an extraordinary sight as you approach the village and this imperial looking building comes into view, looming over the rice paddies.
Majianglong 马降龙 is a must when exploring the Diaolou in the Kaiping region. The local tourist propaganda calls it the most beautiful village in China and one of the 50 places that can’t be missed. Heard that one before? Actually, while I’d take some of the hype with a pinch of salt, Majianglong is undoubtedly very pretty and makes for a fascinating visit.
Majianglong is not one village, but a collection of 5 small hamlets: Yong’an永安, Nan’an 南安, Qinglin庆临, Hedong河东 and Longjiang龙江，linked together by bamboo- shaded stone paths along the shores of the Tanjiang River 潭江.
The buildings in Majianglong are sturdy, grey- brick constructions with beautiful roofs and lovely paintings above and around the doorways, showing scenes from classical China: beautiful maidens, song birds, flower arrangements, etc. The vernacular buildings mostly date from the Qing dynasty, while the Diaolou are early Chinese Republic edifices.
Obviously, the number one activity around here is ‘spot the Diaolou’ (Click here for a definition of a Diaolou). Given that these are rather tall buildings, you’d be surprised how challenging this can be. Many are hidden by the dense vegetation and the tall, swaying bamboo trees, or concealed down blind alleys.
Zili Village 自力村碉楼群: The setting of Zili’s Diaolou (Click here for a Diaolou definition) is the embodiment of bucolic China. They appear amidst shimmering green rice fields, dotted with hoe- carrying peasants, dressed as they were when the Diaolou were built a century ago, with the odd water buffalo to put the icing on the pastoral cake.
Zili Village 自力村碉楼群
Zili village is more than just its Diaolou. The village boasts a peculiar mixture of sturdy peasant houses with beautiful eave roofs and delightful alleys.
Zili Village 自力村碉楼群
A couple of those houses on the square near Zili Village 自力村碉楼群 entrance have been converted into an interesting folk museum, showing traditional furniture, farming implements, as well as photos and historical records.
Li Yuan or Li Gardens: Heading on past Sanmenli from Kaiping, the next important group of Diaolou buildings is in the Li Yuan, or Li Gardens, a further 10 kms down the road. These are the posh Diaolou. Click here to see what is a Diaolou
The Diaolou in the Li Gardens are the most European in the Kaiping region. Many resemble French Villas with only the eave roofs giving away their Chinese essence. They exude wealth and power and wouldn’t be too out of place on the Champs-Élysées (maybe the cheaper end). The interiors of the Li Garden’s Diaolou are luxuriously furnished and gorgeously decorated.