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A Walk Around The Walls of Chongwu

A little over 50km (30 miles) from Quanzhou, Chongwu has one of the best-preserved city walls in China. Measuring 2.5km (1 1/2 miles) long and dating from 1387, it is not yet the victim of much official recognition, and consequently is more natural than walls at Pingyao.

The bus ride there departs from the main bus station every 30 minutes from 7am, with the last one heading back at 6pm; the fare is ¥9.50. The often crowded minibus takes an indirect 90-minute route through towns and villages almost entirely devoted to stonemasonry. Stone is the traditional building material in this area and is still used in preference to concrete, the mountainsides gashed like raw meat; stacked beams everywhere look like a giant's rough-hewn Jenga tower. Houses are blockish, plain, and flat-roofed, with the occasional external stairway giving them a decidedly Middle Eastern look, reinforced by the tendency of local women to wear headscarves.

Before you even arrive at the old town, get off the bus and walk the last part of the way to see the amazing output of all the local stone factories. Alight at the roundabout with the three laughing Buddhas (known in Chinese as Mi Le Fo) and the huge triangular billboard. From there on in, not only do statues of every description line the road, but the front lots of the factories have thousands more. Apart from a complete pantheon of Asian deities, there are local celebrities of every age, right up to modern times with Mickey Mouse, Pokemon, and Hello Kitty. The biggest factories are clustered together, and we particularly recommend these sites. Start out at Haoxiang Stone, Shan Xia Industrial Zone (tel. 0595/8761-9999; www.haoxiang.cc); Shi Xing Stone, which is almost next door (tel. 0595/8760-9999; www.cn-shixing.com); and then maybe ask for Miss Ye, who speaks a little bit of English at the Hua Feng Sheng Stone Carving Company (Shan Xia Chi Hu Gong Ye Qu), Shan Xia Industrial Zone (tel. 0595/8760-6210; www.hfs-stone.come). The stockyards of these places are amazing, with everything from aliens and snowboarders to sumo wrestlers and copulating porcines. Many of the designs are semi-abstract and some even downright erotic. Unfortunately, this wonderland of stonework may make the statue park a little drab when you finally arrive at Chongwu. And if you fancy a 6m (20 ft.) granite representation of yourself then expect to pay around ¥60,000 excluding shipping.

Modern Chongwu, reached after 1 1/2 hours, is typically hideous, but walk straight from the bus terminus, and where the road swings right, go straight on up the narrower street of small shops. Continue uphill until you arrive in less than 10 minutes at the modest east gate of the old walls, its enceinte still intact. Through that gate, turn immediately right into an alley called Cui Shi Xiang, which is barely wider than your shoulders, and find steps up. Turn right and walk clockwise.

The wall is very solid, with varied construction styles much less regular than walls elsewhere. It's sometimes overgrown, but accessible. At each gate in the wall the enceinte is entered from one side with a turn forcing you to pass through the wall itself. You can look down on the passage of beeping motorbikes, and on meat sold from open trestles in the shade. Elsewhere, geese, ducks, and hens in backyards look up startled at your passage.

This makes an interesting contrast to other old towns such as Lijiang and Dali, where the whole layout has been expanded to make it more accessible for tourists. Inside Chongwu, conditions are cramped and claustrophobic. The stench of open sewers pervades the narrow alleys and yet motorbikes scream though the dark confines pinning pedestrians up against the walls, assuming that they manage to sidestep the sewers. Here is an authentic view of what really happens when an ancient Chinese town meets the 21st century head on.

After the north gate the wall has been cleared a little and rises to views of the sea across the roofscape. There's a modern statue of a heroic defender looking out to sea, and a little temple on the wall topped with marvelous dragons with green bodies and red tails and faces. Firecracker residue and incense ash indicate the temple's popularity. Another temple below is worth descending to see, its walls papered with lists of contributors to its restoration, and its hall again topped with rampant polychromic dragons.

Below the east gate, a group of bad modern statuary looks out over broad sand beaches, and there's a modern lighthouse at the southeast corner. Actually the statue park (¥25) is worth a visit if you have not been to any of the statue factories, as it contains a truly bizarre sight, the 24 virtues of filial piety. Taken from a collection of popular Chinese folk tales available in every bookstore, the statues are great examples of weirdness. Madam Tang breastfeeds her grandmother for she has no teeth, Guo Ju buries his own son alive because he is too poor to feed him. I'll leave you to check out the tiger strangling and dung eating for yourself.

On the south side there's more beach, neat topiary-lined pathways, and sun shades. At the south gate, the Nan Men Guandi Miao is a new but remarkably elaborate temple, its stone pillars carved fantastically into dragons. The ceiling inside is finely carved and gilded, and interior pillars are fabulously carved with birds and figures giving great liveliness to dead stone.

A ticket office at the base of the gate is unmanned but would attempt to charge ¥2 to visitors entering from the beach side if anyone could be bothered. The exterior of the wall here is bearded with creeper, and beyond it are cold-drink and ice-cream sellers, sly seafood restaurants, horse rides, lookout points labeled as suitable for photography, and more bad statuary. The final section is more overgrown but there's a clear path where you scatter crickets underfoot while ducking under branches.

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.