Wonder of wonders, I had a two day weekend at the beginning of May. Cliff, on the recommendation of some of our friends, suggested we use the time to visit Kaiping. I booked a hotel for the night, he got the bus tickets, and away we went.
Kaiping (开平) is the ancestral homeland of many overseas Chinese who fled for their lives due to various conflicts, from the Punti-Hakka clan wars in the late 1800’s to WWII. Those who returned from abroad brought with them Western architectural knowledge which they combined with traditional eastern architectural style, leading to the construction of the Kaiping Diaolou (碉樓), some of the loveliest buildings I’ve ever seen.
The diaolou are fortified watchtowers (the tallest is nine stories high) that were used in defense against Japanese invaders at one point in time and now live on as memorialized, unused anomalies dotted across a green rice-paddy landscape.
Cliff and I took a 3.5 hour bus from Shenzhen, arriving in Kaiping in the early evening. We checked into our hotel before heading out to find dinner, which we finally found after walking through weirdly empty streets. It was only around 7:30pm on a Saturday, but almost everything seemed to be closed. After dinner, on the way back, it started down-pouring, crashing sheets of rain.
This continued all night, however resulting in a gorgeous, sunny, swelteringly sticky day. We ate dim sum at the hotel before heading out to find the diaolou. The city was pretty, cut through by a wide, muddy river. Eventually we arranged for a taxi driver to take us to two of the main tourist spots, Jinjiangli village (famous for having the most diaolou in a concentrated area) and Chikan (a historic overseas Chinese village).
Jinjiangli was completely underwater. Because the paths were flooded, we got lost again, this time walking past farms with way too many geese.
In the picture above, you’ll notice that water comes right up to the diaolou’s door. In dryer times, that water is nowhere present, and you could walk to the diaolou without wearing flippers. Cliff and I gamely took off our shoes to wade to the entrance of one of the diaolou. Inside, we climbed five or six flights of stairs to get onto the roof and take in the view.
While on the roof, a man stopped us, gesturing with his camera. However, he didn’t want the ordinary tourist photo with the resident foreign couple. He wanted us to pretend to be Rose and Jack from Titanic. Titanic 3D was a huge hit in the mainland (and in Hong Kong as well). Laughing, we did as he asked, letting him position us facing outward from the diaolou with our hands spread out. “I’m King of the World!”
I wish we had spent more time in Jinjiangli, because Chikan was much less exciting. The street on the river was lovely and we found a curious antique shop with tea cups, masks, snake wine (complete with snakes curled up inside the jars) and various other junk that has no reason to be fascinating except it’s all old, and dusty, and is meant to make us think that if we can take home a little piece of exotica our houses, and by extension, our lives, will be a little less boring.
In Chikan we ate honey twirled on a stick for 1 yuan, a sickeningly sweet and quite chewy piece of candy. Later on, our appetites raging after just three dishes of dim sum that morning and heavy walking, sweating, and picture-taking all day, we finally found a little shop that served us my perennially favorite, excessively simple Chinese meal: 10-15 pork and cabbage dumplings with peanut sauce, chili sauce, and soy sauce to flavor.
After our late lunch, we returned to our friendly taxi driver who had stuck with us all day so that we could get to the bus station and head back to Shenzhen, very sweaty, sun-burned, and pleasantly worn out.