Ancient and ethnic villages of China are the only places on my bucket list when I travel in China. As a travel destination, they are an alternative to overcrowded and polluted cities (but yes, Shanghai and Beijing are worth visiting if you are in China for the first time) and they offer a window into China’s long history and cultural diversity.
Hopping on a train or a bus to go the countryside and visit the ancient and ethnic villages of Southwest China will enhance your travel experience and allow you to see what urbanisation have contributed to disappear.
With the development of mass-tourism in China some ancient towns and villages have been transformed into ‘cultural Disneyland’ where stores cater only to tourists. They have also been fenced off and visitors have to pay expensive entrance fees.
Here is a list of five free off-the-beaten path ancient villages and towns worth visiting in five provinces of south China.
Weishan – Yunnan
A view of Weishan from the Gongchen Tower
Weishan (巍山) is in Yunnan province, China’s most ethnically diverse province. Although this ancient town is just one-hour bus ride south of rural Yunnan most famous and most cosmopolitan backpackers’ ancient town of Dali (大理), Weishan has escaped commercialisation brought by mass-tourism.
The core zone of Weishan (巍山), which was an important stop on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道), is a pedestrian streets lined with Ming and Qing dynasty buildings that seem untouched by time, some of which are more thant 600 years old.
What I like about it : the ancient architecture, few tourists (except during high season), the shops cater to local people (although there are a few ‘souvenir shop’) which allows a visitor to see what life in rural China is really about.
There is another off-the-beaten-path village to visit near Weishan : Donglianghua (东莲花), the village of the Muslim caravan leader on the old Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道).
Read the article about Weishan (巍山) or Donglianghua (东莲花).
Qianyang – Hunan
Red lanterns in the streets of Qianyang
Qianyang (黔阳) is located in Hunan province. The town used to be a regional political center and the ancient town has well-preserved city walls.
The cobble-stone streets of Qianyang (黔阳)
are lined with dozens of ancestral halls, temples and courtyard mansions that belonged to local government officials. With its laid-back atmosphere and its ancient architecture, Qianyang is a window on what a real traditional ancient Chinese town looks like.
The best about Qianyang is that so far the town has been spared by mass-tourism and commercialization. There is not entrance fee (unlike Fenghuang (凤凰)
, 148 RMB) and much like Weishan
, it gives the visitor a window on the more authentic way of life of rural China.
Longli – Guizhou
The changing face of Longli in Guizhou.
The entire town of Longli is going through a renovation process. End of work by 2015. Don’t mind the bamboo scaffoldings and the piles of bricks. Longli was an ancient Ming garrison designed to keep an eye on the local ethnic minorities, the Miao (苗族) and the Dong (侗族). The multiple ancestral halls, city gates, well-preserved walls and former residence of local scholars and officials are definitely worth a journey by bus from the closest town of Liping (黎平)
So far, it’s still free. But the government is building a new road to bring visitors to Longli. They will probably charge an entrance fee with the construction is complete in 2015. One reason to go now!
Huangpu – Guangdong
An abandoned ancestral hall in Huangpu.
is the ancient port of Guangzhou and is located just a few kilometers east of the city’s new business district of Zhujiang New Town.
It’s hard to believe that this sleepy village was once the only port open to foreign trade and a center of opium smuggling during the period that led to the first opium war in the mid-18th century.
is a great historical place to unwind and escape from the crowds of Guangzhou where visitors can get a grasp of the city’s past, mainly through the different well-preserved temples, ancestral halls and guilds assembly halls that dot the narrow alleyways.
Unlike the nearby village of Shawan (沙湾)
which share the same architecture,Huangpu (黄埔)
is free and easy to get to from downtown Guangzhou.
Huangyao – Guangxi
Seasonal harvest in the streets of Huangyao
Huangyao (黄姚) is an impressive stone village which slab-stone streets are lined with 600 years old residences and ancestral temple. The village stretches on the banks of two rivers which are connected by more than 15 stone bridges.
Situated in southeast Guangxi province, Huangyao is surrounded by karst peaks that made Guilin and Yangshuo famous (they are two to three hours north).
Set in this incredible landscape, Chinese poets have nicknamed Huangyao (黄姚) “the garden of dreams” (and yes, Chinese people love lyrical nicknames).
In theory, there is an entrance fee of 100 RMB, but visitor can easily avoid paying it by entering the village through one of the many stone gates (just avoid the main one by the parking lot).
Read more about Huangyao (黄姚)