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The Leaning Towers of Kaiping

Though cleverly photo-shopped images everywhere may lead you to believe otherwise, none of the diaolou (watch-towers) in the Kaiping region 137km (85 miles) southwest of Guangzhou is particularly impressive. Those who come here expecting to see Chinese versions of Krak des Chevaliers or Warwick Castle are going to be sorely disappointed. The diaolou are mainly drab concrete affairs, outstanding only when compared to much of modern Chinese construction. In my own opinion, preservation orders should have been put on some of the fantastic ancient trees that were previously village centerpieces, rather than the diaolou that are mainly 20th century hodgepodges of unconnected styles.

Most tourists start in San Men Li village on the road west from Changsha to Chikan, which has the oldest surviving diaolou, but precious little else of interest. The lower two reddish levels of Yinglong Lou built sometime in the middle of the 16th century, and follow the standard design of brick Qing Dynasty houses, except that the walls were thicker (almost a meter) and the doors and windows narrower and smaller. An upper grey brick story was added in 1920. This monument to the past is usually locked up, its narrow slits into inky blackness telling visitors even less than the remaining village inhabitants, who seem to know very little about its history. Just across the road is another village that has been dubbed Canada Village, as so many people have left. It is now a run down, depressing collection of derelict buildings with only a few snarling strays left to welcome the occasional tourist.

The largest single collection of diaolou is at Zili Cun. Almost any bus passing San Men Li will drop you at the right-hand turn toward Tangkou, where there's a convenience store and some small restaurants. Motorbikes here will take you to Zili Cun, turning right again where there's a gas station after 4km (2 1/2 miles), and then going through Tangkou. This diaolou cluster is spread across three villages (Anhe Li, He'an Li and Yong'an Li), the six story Mingshi Lou (1925), with many of its original late Qing furnishings inside, is as good an example as any with a top-floor ancestral shrine, which affords extensive views across the countryside. On the wall of the main hall hangs a large photo of the original Chinese owner Fang Runwen and his three wives, one of them an American. When he died in the U.S., his relatives bought him back to be buried here in a glass coffin.

While Changsha is the modern town center, Chikan is a focus point for the villages and the block-houses. The town itself is now in a sorry state and while the buildings certainly evoke the atmosphere of 19th century Canton, the whole place is run down and uncared for. Down by the river, a few residents have jumped on the tourist bandwagon by collecting together what some might term antiques (but others would describe as junk) and are now charging visitors to look around their dark and gloomy abodes. Clustered together at the end of the embankment are a motley collection of souvenir vendors with the same knickknacks that are found from Dali to Dalian, all waiting for the domestic coach parties that come to see the Film Studio attraction. This is probably quite interesting if you watch a lot of Cantonese TV (for example Jackie Chan once made a movie here) but might be a little boring for Westerners. Tickets are ¥20 but we just sailed through in order to visit the Guan Library out front -- though nothing too interesting to report here either. Just a selection of Chinese magazines and pictures of the Guan Clan shaking hands with celebrities.

A walk back to the main bridge in the center of town reveals more interesting aspects such as a small shop with an antique noodle making machine chugging away inside. Just opposite the bridge is a small place selling wonton soup that is a good place to stock up for lunch. I personally found that the back streets were the most interesting places to explore, full of classic South China architecture but nearly all disused and derelict. These streets are great for atmospheric pictures of haunted houses and dark foreboding residences that would make great retirement homes for elders of the Addams clan.

Majianlong Cun is only a few minutes by bus from Chikan. You are dropped off on the near side of a large bridge that you can cross by foot before you see the inevitable ticket office. We decided to have a scout around the outskirts before paying to go in, and were quickly chased down by three very aggressive security guards that insisted on escorting us back to the main gate to buy ¥50 tickets. Their obstreperous attitudes spoiled the whole visit before we had even stepped into the village proper, which was a shame because the block towers have been nicely connected up with walkways, and a stroll around the villas and towers and surrounding bamboo groves is quite pleasant. While looking for somewhere to eat we got talking to the village clan chieftain, largely an honorific title these days. He explained to us that of the ¥50 entrance fee ¥.60 goes to the village, ¥.60 to the local government, ¥.60 to the local tourist department, and ¥.60 to the party office. The other ¥47.60 goes to the travel agency that brings in the coachloads of tourists. Over the entire year, the village earns between ¥200 and ¥300.

Farther southwest at Xiangang, 50 minutes from Kaiping, are perhaps the oddest towers of all. Motorbikes meet buses, but it's much more enjoyable to do this on foot. Cross the river bridge with views of river-going vessels, homes to their owners, with firewood stacked on their decks, and turn left onto Dong Long Lu. After a short distance, the path passes a gate and shrinks to a track before reaching the little village of Dong Xi Cun. The third narrow alley between the traditional houses leads to a vast European-influenced mansion, whose owners went back overseas again and are now said to be in San Francisco. Carry straight on and descend to a decent paved road. Turn left, making a note of where to turn off on your return. Passing the occasional armchair grave, water buffalo wallowing in the paddies, rice, and buffalo dung laid out to dry on the road, you reach the first major village on the left; the village of Nan Xing Li is beyond this one on the right. Here's China's answer to Italy's Torre di Pisa, a slender six-story concrete finger called the Nan Xing Xie Lou (Leaning Tower of Nan Xing), 20m (60 ft.) high and inclined severely but very photogenically to one side. It is reflected attractively in the village pond. The tower's top is out of alignment, with an annual lean increase of 2cm (4/5 in.) so though it has survived since 1902, you'd better see it while you can. Even when just completed, it was already leaning so far the watchman had to put bricks under one side of his bed.

Returning to Xiangang, turn right and recross the bridge, then turn left and walk straight out the other side of town; the narrow road wriggles between other diaolou en route. Once you're in the fields, fork left. There are optional diversions into other villages, but swing left at a junction with a modern pavilion, and the Ruishi Lou at the rear of Jin Jiang Li will shortly appear on the right across the waterlogged fields. The road leads past it to the village entrance and across the open area at the entrance, where people shoo pigeons away from drying rice. Any narrow alley between the ancient houses where shoeless children scurry among the chickens will take you to the tower's base. Built by a man who ran a bank and herbal medicine store in Hong Kong, it took 3 years to construct using local labor but imported materials. The nine-story tower dominates the village, with its corners and windows decorated from top to bottom, a gallery with domed corners running around all four sides, 28 Roman arches, and a two-story octagonal folly at the top. The diaolou were often named after the village or the traditional chieftain, while others were described by their function. Once the name was chosen, renowned artists were called in to trace the characters in calligraphy, which were then carved or molded and displayed at the top of the main facade. The inscription adorning Ruishi Lou is the work of an abbot and celebrated calligrapher from Canton's Temple of the Six Banyan Trees.

Nearly as elaborate, the neighboring Shengfeng Lou, completed in 1925 by a returnee from the U.S., has bizarre columns running up two stories of elevated galleries. The houses of Jinjiangli, like most other villages, are laid out in a neat grid with narrow flagged lanes crossing each other. Each multi-story house is contained within a private courtyard with only one entrance. For a little extra adventure, follow the raised paths that wind through rice fields from village to village. It's impossible to get lost and you are sure to find your way back to town sooner or later.

Li Garden (www.kpliyuan.com; ¥60) is located in the rich fields of Genghua village of Tangkou town 20km (12 miles) from the downtown area of Changsha, and was built in 1926 by Xie Weili. In October 1999 Ms. Xie Yu Yaoqiong, the widow of the garden owner, wrote a letter to entrust the People's Government of Kaiping City to administer the 11,000 sq. m (118,400 sq. ft.) garden for 50 years. Several yellow brick blue-tiled buildings are in the garden, which demonstrate the fusion of western and Chinese designs, and the gardens flourish with a variety of flora, including the Chinese redbud, kapok, cypress, and other precious flowers and plants amidst artificial lakes, streams and bridges, pavilions, and pergolas. This is not part of the WHS, but a private park. Li Yuan itself is a good place for lunch, but bring your own food as it has become very expensive and touristy. They now have a jade store among the market stalls, along with blaring speakers not so cunningly disguised as plastic logs.

Getting There -- Around 50 buses daily go to Kaiping from Guangzhou (about 2 hr.; last bus back at 6pm; ¥40), and eight from the Macau border at Zhuhai Gong Bei (2 1/2 hr.; last bus back at 6:30pm; ¥45). Nine bus services run from Shenzhen (299km/187 miles; ¥65). You can reach Kaiping by bus from Kowloon, Hong Kong. Bus tickets can be purchased for ¥150 from the Trans-Island China Link Office (tel. 00852/2336 1111), where the bus also picks up, just behind the Metropark Hotel Mongkok (Former Hotel Concourse) near the Prince Edward MTR Station (Exit c2), with departures per day at 7:45am, 8:30am, 2, and 7pm. It's a 4-hour plus ride from Hong Kong to Kaiping. You will need to disembark the bus in Shenzhen when you are crossing the border. This means taking out your luggage and all your belongings. Suitcases and luggage will be passed through an X-ray machine and your passports and visas will be checked by border security. The number for the sister office in Kaiping is (tel. 0750/221-3126).

Getting Around -- Suzuki minibus drivers hang around outside the Changsha who will offer their services for about ¥300 per day. A cheaper option is the public buses.

Hotels & Dining -- Hotels nearby Changsha Bus Station (6am-7:30pm) on Xijao Lu are scabby low-end flop houses for karaoke brothels, with squat toilets and complimentary cockroaches. Down toward the river is a better selection of hotels. Try the Triumphal Arch Hotel (Kai Xuan Men Jiu Dian), 15/16 Yinxing Hua Yuan, Guangming Lu (tel. 0750/220-6888; fax 0750/220-6898; www.takxmhotel.com; ¥230 standard room) to get a feel for modern Chinese hotels, where everything is about form rather than function, and impressing the casual observer is far more important than comforting the discerning visitor: huge, imported hardwood doors, but fitted so badly that housekeeping could almost limbo underneath them; enormous glass showers the size of squash courts but water barely warm enough to melt ice; meter upon meter of marble paneling, with beds so hard, they could easily double as billiard tables. Fortunately, the Wei Gang Hotel (Weigang Jiu Dian) 1 Baoti Dong Lu (tel. 0750/236-9999; fax 0750/231-79999) is around ¥100 cheaper, and much more centrally located. Just 5 minutes walk from the bus station, what was previously the Overseas Investment Bureau is now a strange but eye-catching tone of saffron. Jutting out onto a promontory in the river, it was entirely refurbished in December 2008. This means that there are still only a handful of cigarette burns on the carpets, and not all of the rooms smell like ashtrays. At ¥159 the standard rooms feel slightly cramped with all the faux Art Deco furniture that has been squeezed in, but the big beds and the bathrooms soon make up for this minor flaw. Like so many modern Chinese business hotels, the window from the bedroom to the bathroom is inexplicably almost as large as the window to the outside world. Internet is a mere fraction of the speed available in Hong Kong even though you are barely a few hours away, so you can forget downloading torrents or even checking e-mail. Larger rooms are available but the added advantage of having an automatic mahjong table is outweighed by the fact that these larger rooms smell like cigarette stubs and hangovers.

Just over the bridge from the Wei Gang is a selection of local restaurants that should keep most travelers well fed and watered. Our favorite was the Fun Garden (Fung Zi Yuan Jiu Lou) at 118 Changsha Guangming Lu (tel. 0750/221-2006) but the Chao Jiang Cun Jiu Dian next door at 114 (tel. 0750/221-9963) is almost as good at local dishes such as braised goose (mung er ro bao) and lotus root soup (men lian ou). The Shiji Zhi Zhou Canting (Ship of the Century) at Yan Jiang Xi Lu 18 (tel. 0750/222-2988; 9am-2am), is a two-story boat-shaped restaurant/cafe/bar on the Tan river whose "sails" form an awning over a platform with pleasant views. There's an English menu, local and Western dishes (including breakfast), very cold beer, and decent coffee. Main dishes are around ¥40.

Parsing Fact from Fiction: the Kaiping Dialou

The diaolou recently secured UNESCO status. Numerous websites and extensive advertising show castle keeps capped with crenellations and embrasures, ornately decorated belfries and finely sculpted towers. Some are made of stone, some concrete and some in pise (compressed earth). In the last 10 years the area has been heavily publicized, and a collection of local myths have sprung up around the structures, the most popular being that these were castle-type strongholds, built by wealthy Chinese emigres returning home from the west to stave off a plague of robbers and bandits. It is true that many sported contemporary architectural influences, but the claims that they were castles or fortresses is pretty preposterous upon closer inspection. If that were true, then why are there no diaolou around Chaozhou or Shantou where there were just as many (maybe even more) returning from overseas? The Kaiping towers most closely resemble Scottish tower houses, over 300 of which were built between the 14th and 17th century. Rather than mimic actual fortresses such as Threave Castle, with its sturdy battlements and artillery wall built by Archibald the Grim, the Kaiping Diaolou have much more in common with later examples, such as Borthwick and Craigievar, where defensive ornamentation took over from real defense and security. Vast building projects such as these required long periods of peace and prosperity, and it was only the tales of Sir Walter Scott that romanticized this period of Scottish history as one of kilts, claymores, and blood-feuding clans. The same thing has happened in Kaiping. Travel agency PR staff and overeager journalists (myself included, as I wrote one of the first published stories about the area more than a dozen years ago) have rewritten history in order to excite the punters. In fact, the name Kaiping dates back to its establishment in 1649 and translates as "the establishment of peace." The diaolou were either protection against flooding (of which the high-grassed levee banks surrounding many of the villages are good evidence, clear reminders that this flat delta, ideal for growing rice, is riddled with waterways that overflow their banks during heavy rains and typhoons, a Cantonese word), or flashy statements of wealth by the nouveau riche. The diaolou represented prestige. They were status symbols, flaunting the prosperity and power of their owners, who consequently spent lavish sums on them.

Few, if any, are placed in positions of strategic importance such as hilltops. Most have many windows down to even the ground level. None pay any attention to the tactics used to attack castles, such as laying siege, blind spots, or undermining. Few even have functional ramparts, only ornate balconies and cornered-out towers, useless for defense. This was the first time that cement and steel had been imported into the region, which turned out to have a determining impact in terms of unusual architectural styles, with reinforced concrete making cantilevered construction possible, and facilitating domes and other rounded forms. These were not buildings where paranoia expressed itself in stone, but statements of taste and style in the Schloss Neuschwanstein mold.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.