Undoubtedly one of my favorite places in China was the small city of Kaiping (开平). Not for the city itself, which is your typical small sized Chinese city: crowded streets, tall buildings, and general gray haze hanging over everything. It was the small villages around Kaiping that attracted me. Once outside the gray doldrums in the city, the world exploded into color. Vibrant green fields of rice, blindingly blue skies, and of course, the Diaolou (碉楼), ancient fortress watchtowers littered throughout.
Taking a bus from the city outside into the countryside you can see little pockets of civilization and in every pocket there is at least one watchtower standing sentinel among the scattered homes. The Diaolou not only stand out in stature, but in their truly unique style. They are a bizarre combination of Chinese and Western architecture and that’s because most of the people who built these towers during the Ming Dynasty had previously emigrated to the West and wanted to reproduce what they had seen abroad.
We got off the bus in several villages along the bus route, always surprising a group of locals who probably have had very few foreigners wander into their village. I’m sure foreigners visit Kaiping, but most probably stay to the well trodden paths that lead to two main collections of Daiolou museums. We would eventually visit those museums, but for now we sought out our own discovery. It proved difficult to get near and go inside many of towers in these village because frequently the towers now sit empty and there are issues with safety to the structure. But we thoroughly enjoyed the hunt and the random encounters with strangers who stood agape at our progress through the village.
One especially fond memory is of flagging down a local bus to get on and ride to the next village. As we’re waiting to climb on the bus I can hear the cacophony of everyday conversations on the bus, however as soon as we stood on the bus to pay our fare all conversation ceased. Absolute silence as every eye was fixed on us. Then, as quickly as it had stopped it started up again, but now the conversations were about us. I could hear the telltale signs woven in their conversations, “foreigner (老外)” and “American (美国人)” said over and over again. I just smiled at anyone that made eye contact and contentedly rode on until the next stop.
After our solo excursions, the next day we took the bus out to the museum style clusters that Kaiping offers; Li Garden and the Watchtower Group of Zili Village. Both are definitely worth your time as these towers are well preserved and beautiful to look at it. They also have furnished the interiors so you can see how the families would have lived back when they were built. There are even a few that you can climb to the top of to get a view from the balconies.
The Kaiping area offers another very unique site that is worth a visit; Chikan Old Town (赤坎) . In Chikan there is a wonderful collection of old shophouses throughout the town, but the greatest concentration is along the canal, which provides some unique photographic opportunities. Due to the old style of buildings, Chikan has been used frequently as the backdrop of old Hong Kong and China in various movies. There is even a Movie Town attraction that you could visit.