The Travel Cathay blog focuses on ancient and ethnic villages of southwest China. In my escapes from the big coastal cities of China, I try to head to off-the-beaten path villages. These historical villages are steeped in history and the best way to experience an ‘authentic’ China.
With development of Chinese domestic tourism, many of these villages have been fenced off and visitors have to pay an entrance fee. I have skimmed through a few blog posts about Chinese villages. These blog posts rarely state that there is an entrance fee, an information that budget travelers in China are interested in.
Here is the top 9 most expensive historical towns and ethnic villages for south and southwest China (including Guangdong, Guizhou, Hunan, Guangxi and Yunnan).
Note : I wished I had time to go everywhere. If you have add-ons to this list, please contact me or leave a comment.
1. Kaiping 开平 180 RMB
Where is it : south Guangdong province, in the Pearl River Delta, between Guangzhou and Zhuhai/ Macau west of the city of Kaiping (开平).
What is it : UNESCO-listed fortified villages with watchtowers built between the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century to protect locals against bandits raids. There 1800 Kaiping watchtowers (kaiping diaolou 开平雕镂) in the Kaiping region and only four clusters made it to the UNESCO list.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : even for the price, it’s worth it. You can get into the watchtowers where there is the original furniture and see how people live at that time. The best would be to explore the other non-UNESCO listed watchtowers. Do avoid Chinese holidays and weekends.
How to enter without paying : you cannot see the four UNESCO-listed clusters without paying, but you can visit all the other villages for free.
More info : The Kaiping Watchtowers : where East meets West
2. Fenghuang 148 RMB
Where is it : in western Hunan province, south of Zhangjiajie national park.
What is it : one of the most photogenic ancient town of China. Home of Chinese novelist Shen Congwen, Fenghuang (which means Phoenix in Chinese) is famous for its houses on stilt line the Tuo river. It is also one the most popular destination among Chinese tourists.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : Many foreign travelers are tricked into thinking it is an off-the-beaten path destination. If an overcrowded commercialized town surrounded by two airports with a 3 hours bus ride (Tongren and Zhangjiajie) where loud techno music shakes Fenghuang from 6 PM to 11:30 PM is your stereotype of an off-the-beaten path destination, you can go ahead a book a flight. In spite of my negative comment and my very mixed feelings about Fenghuang, it remains a beautiful, must-see place in China. Do avoid Chinese holidays and weekends.
How to enter without paying : guards check your tickets at different key locations within the historical core of Fenghuang. It’s impossible not to pay the fee.
More info : A day in the heart of Fenghuang : pros and cons
3. Hongjiang 120 RMB
Where is it : in southwest Hunan province
What is it : an ancient business town that flourished during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Hongjiang boasts narrow alley streets dotted with ancient courtyard houses, opium house, lineage temples, auction house, banks … everything a Chinese business city between the 17th and the 19th century needed, including an upscale ‘brothel’ where the wealthy businessmen kept their mistresses away from their wife. The price includes a tour guide (in Chinese only) and performances by paid local actors in Qing style costumes at the different sites. You can of course roam free in the town, but the tourists guides are afraid you will get lost in the maze of narrow streets.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : it’s a unique place. If you understand Chinese, do pay for the guided tour because you get to learn a lot about the city and the region. Do avoid Chinese holidays and weekends.
How to enter without paying : if you don’t enter by the main gate on Yuanjiang Road (沅江), you will not need to pay the 120 RMB fee. If you don’t pay, you will not be able to visit any buildings, but just walk in the streets. The ancient business town of Hongjiang is a Swiss Cheese. Any alleys on Xinming Road (新民路) and Yuanjiang Road lead to the ancient town. I have seen guards checking tickets near other entrances of Yuanjiang Road.
4. Dehang 德夯 100 RMB
Where is it : 30 min by bus from Jishou, north of Fenghuang in western Hunan.
What is it : a big tourist-trap near Fenghuang. The 100 RMB fee includes access to one Miao dancing performance (if you get there on time to see it), a two hours hike to see a pity-full waterfall (yes, the landscape is stunning) and a ‘quaint’ little village where grandmothers trick you into tacking pictures of them then aggressively charge you. The locals have obviously mastered the basics of capitalism.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : skip.
How to enter without paying : you can’t. Then, there is no real reason to go to Dehang. Unless you want to pay to hike in the mountain, but there are plenty of places (i.e. the rest of the world) where you can hike for free.
More info : Rationalising a visit to Dehang
5. Xijiang 100 RMB
Where is it : 1h30 by bus from Kaili in eastern Guizhou’s prefecture of Qiandongnan (黔东南)
What is it : the largest Miao village of the world! (seriously, have you seen other Miao villages outside China? … Nice marketing pitch). It’s large enough so that you can avoid the crowds of tourists and get lost in the alleys that criss-cross this cluster of Miao ethnic minority villages. There are performances for tourists, the possibility to rent Miao outfit and do an ethnic fashion photo shot by the river with the Wind and Rain bridges in the backdrop. How quaint! There are a lot of guesthouses of different categories, from basic guesthouses to 4-star wanna-be hotels.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : an interesting place to see Chinese tourists in Miao ethnic dressing posing near the river. If you are on a budget and want to see Miao villages, skip. The whole Kaili area is dotted with Miao villages.
How to enter without paying : you can’t. And after you pay the entrance ticket, you will need to pay another 20 RMB for the bus, because there is another 2 to 3 km to Xijiang. So a total of 120 RMB. If you really want to see Miao villages, take a bus from Kaili to Langde.
More info : The largest Miao village of Xijiang
6. Zhaoxing 100 RMB
Where is it : at the southeastern tip of Guizhou, bordering on Hunan and Guizhou, in the Land of the Dong.
What is it : a Dong ethnic minority version of the village of Xijiang, except that Zhaoxing is not marketed as ‘the largest Dong village in the world’. There are possibilities to hike to the village of Tang’an. A new ‘fake’ village has been built near the entrance gate which will certainly become a ‘entertainment district’ with loud bars and karaoke.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : There is an airport nearby, but it’s still a long way to pay to see a Dong village. Your choice. If you have already been to Chengyang or other Dong ethnic villages, you may want to skip even if you are not on a budget.
How to enter without paying : unless you look like, dress like and speak like a local, you will have to pay.
More info : Zhaoxing, on remotness and mass-tourism
7. Huangyao 100 RMB
Where is it : in southeast Guangxi province, 2-3 hours from Yangshuo.
What is it : Huangyao is 900-year old stone village in the middle of the limestone landscape that put Yangshuo on the map. The slab-stones streets are dotted with ancestral temples and old houses. It was dubbed the ‘Garden of Dreams’ by Chinese poet.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : it’s hard to get there from Yangshuo, but not impossible. There are agents who can book you on tour to Huangyao from Yangshuo. Definitely worth it. It’s a ‘package tour’ and entrance free to Huangyao is included.
How to enter without paying : do not enter by the main gate. There are at least 7 gates from which you can enter without paying until the day they hire more people to close this loophole. If you book a tour from Yangshuo, the entrance fee may be included in the price.
8. Heshun 80 RMB
What is it : Dubbed the ‘Hometown of Overseas Chinese’, locals migrated to Southeast Asia and even north America by following ancient trade roads Heshun was on. Hence the name. A photo-essay published in the New York Times in 2009 calls Heshun “Untouched By Time“. It’s unfortunately not the case anymore. A lots of homes have been converted into jade stores or guesthouses for tourists and a few old mansions are being torn down (because the mud-bricks have been ‘touched by time’) and replaced by houses in sturdier construction material. The center of Heshun is very busy with busloads of tourists, but venture out of the core and you’ll find peaceful streets.
Skip or don’t skip, my advice : Although it’s quite far, It’s definitely worth it. Go as quick as possible.
How to enter without paying : go around the entrance gate before the parking lot, find your way to the river and enter through one of the other gates.
More info : The ancient village of Heshun : a travelers’ guide If you get that far, read also my article about Tengchong and the town of Lianghe (1 hour from Heshun by bus).