For many travelers, Guangzhou can be a bit of a letdown. Although the city has a few pockets of charm and some great dim sum, these are easily outweighed by the pollution and choking congestion all around. When your lungs have had enough smog, a quick day trip to the Kaiping watchtowers scattered throughout the neighboring countryside may well be the perfect cure for your ailment.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, many Chinese emigrants returned to find their country in a state of political disarray. In Guangdong, instability and corruption had led to widespread banditry throughout the province, particularly in rural areas like Kaiping. In order to protect themselves from attacks, returning Chinese used their wealth to build sturdy watchtowers (碉楼/diāolóu) to function not only as defense fortresses but also as private residences for their families. These multistory towers were built with thick walls, iron gates, and solid structures of stone, brick, and concrete. They can generally be divided into three main categories: communal towers built to provide refuge for the community, residential towers built by wealthy families, and watch towers intended for wide-ranging protection.
In addition to the meticulous defense designs of the buildings, the curious fusion of different architectural styles is equally impressive. At first sight, the towers look something similar to a medieval European castle. Blending both Western and Chinese decorative forms, each building displays a range of diverse architectural designs that, in a broader sense, represent the crossroad of ideas and trends brought back to China by the overseas Chinese.
To visit the watchtowers, take a two-hour bus ride to Kaiping from the Guangzhou long-distance bus station located next to the main train station in town. As the watchtowers are scattered in the countryside, the easiest way to tour the area is to rent a taxi for the day for about RMB200. There are over 1,800 towers, so if you're more interested in the highlights, tell your driver to head out to Ruishi Diaolou (瑞士碉楼) with its elaborate Byzantine roof, Zili Village (自力村) where you'll find a cluster of old watchtowers and houses, or Nanxing Village (南兴村) to view the "Leaning Tower of Kaiping" (边筹筑/biānchóuzhúlóu or simply 斜楼/xiélóu).
Pass the day by taking a stroll around the clusters or exploring each floor of the tower you're visiting. The views of the rice fields and duck farms from the roofs of the buildings are spectacular. If you're interested in a little history, Zili Village offers a fascinating exhibition that displays the lives of Chinese immigrants and how they influenced society in Asia. There's a lot to see, so arrive early and be careful not to miss the last bus back to Guangzhou at 6 p.m.; otherwise, you might have to pitch a tent or settle for a rundown hotel in Kaiping.
The Kaiping watchtowers are unique to the Guangdong area, and are well worth a day excursion out of Guangzhou. If not for your health, do it for your own peace of mind. When you get back to the city, your lungs will be refreshed, your nerves will be calmed, and you'll have a new understanding of a fascinating chapter in China's past.
Time and Cost
Flight from Chengdu to Guangzhou: 2 hours, RMB600 to 900
Train from Chengdu to Guangzhou: 30 hours, approx. RMB350 (hard sleeper)
Bus from Guangzhou to Kaiping: 2 hours, RMB45
Taxi for the day in Kaiping: RMB200
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 24 ("summer"). Text and photos by Paul Stilley.