As I write these lines, China is bracing for the largest temporary migration of all times. Millions of migrant workers have struggled to buy a train ticket and have started a long journey home where they’ll celebrate the arrival of the year of the sheep with their families.
During the week-long holiday kindly granted by the state, Chinese people will travel. If a lot of them fly overseas to celebrate the Spring Festival (春节), domestic travel destinations will still be packed with hundred of thousands of travellers (see ‘When not to travel in China’).
As most foreign expats in China, the best thing to do during this time of the year, is stay put or fly out of the country before the beginning of the travel rush.
A good time to sit down and look back at a year of travel in southwest China.
For the first time, after a mere year and half of existence, Travel Cathay finally welcomed its first guest post by Josh Summers who wrote about the Kashgar’s Controversial Facelift in Xinjiang (新疆) province. I visited Kashgar back in 2005 and I’m really glad Josh found time to guest post and update everyone on the current situation in Kashgar. Josh is based in Urumqi and is an expert on Xinjiang Travel and whoever is heading to this part of the country should definitely check out his websites : Far West China and Travel China Cheaper.
Pavel Dvorak, who is Shanghai-based tour guide, photographer and interpreter was kind enough to contribute to Travel Cathay. Pavel runs a website called Bamboome, and has already contributed to several articles. One about the ancient village of Furong (芙蓉) in Hunan and one about the cave-dwelling in Lijiashan (李家山) in Shanxi province.
I have also rewrote two articles for Bamboome, one about the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall of Jingping and the other about the ancient town of Qianyang in Hunan province. Pavel and I are teaming up to map out China’s ancient towns and villages worth a visit via Pinterest-based map that should be interesting to anyone who knows a little bit about Chinese geography.
During the year of the sheep, I hope to feature more China-based and Asia-based expats who want to write about alternative travel destinations. If you feel like contributing and share your stories about ancient villages, alternative travel destinations (in China and Asia), and how tourism and modernisation is changing these places, contact me!
The year of the horse in travels | Southwest China and beyond
An important part of my travels outside Guangzhou (广州) and Guangdong (广东) province were consciously placed under the sign of the horse. In Yunnan (云南), I chose to visit ancient villages and towns which used to be trading post on the ancient Tea and Horse Road (茶马古道).
Some travels in Yunnan were not related to the horse and I got to discover fascinating villages in Honghe (红河) prefecture where I found centuries-old architectural gems worth a detour, namely in Baoxiu (宝秀) and Baxin (坝心).
The provinces of Guizhou (贵州) and Hunan (湖南) were also on my agenda. Although, Guizhou is the province I know the least, I was lucky to visit the ancient Ming garrison of Longli (龙里), before it was totally renovated.
I got the best surprises in Hunan though. The Dong ethnic countryside of Tongdao (通道), the old town of Qianyang (黔阳) and the Pan Clan Ancestral Hall of Jingping (荆坪) are places I highly recommend to see after Fenghuang (凤凰) which, in spite of its beauty, has lost its soul to over-commercialisation and mass-tourism.
With the ‘iron dragon’ (I am referring here to China’s expanding high-speed train line network), it has now become easier to travel fast and I decided to broaden my horizon beyond the Yellow River in Shanxi where I explored a few China’s Ming-Qing era civilian castles (山西民间古堡).
In my quest of ancient and historical villages in southwest China, I also came across a few ghost villages specially in Guangdong and Hunan. If they may not be the best destination for travellers, they are however interesting for several reasons.
First because they show that there is something going on in rural China : many villagers decide to abandoned the hardships of tied to working the land and feel compelled to move to the cities where they go to find a job with in my mind, I assume, the hope of better life. We can’t blame anyone for wanting to improve his life and standard and living. We just hope that they’ll find what they seek. However, it means that many villages are deserted, with only elderly people and young children left and centuries-old structure, some even classified as historical heritage, are crumbling away. This is what is happening in Yuxian (鱼鲜) village in Guangdong, or Banliang (钣梁) in Hunan.
Second, it also means the process through which ancient towns are becoming praised tourist attractions can be selective and artificial. It seems that state intervention is instrumental in shaping new travel destination in the countryside. The village of Zhaoxing (肇兴) in Guizhou is a good example。
The highlights of the year
During the year of the horse, I had the chance to travel to quite a few alternative travel destinations in China. If I had to recommend only three, Lushi (鲁史) in Yunnan, Qianyang (黔阳) in Hunan and Xiangyu Castle (相峪堡) in Shanxi are the first that come to my mind.
Lushi (鲁史) is a remote mountain village that retains some of the charms of the Tea and Horse Road. Qianyang (黔阳) had this small rural town atmosphere in the middle of ancient courtyard houses, temples and ancestral hall. Do go and visit this old town fast because I feel that mass tourism is moving in quickly. Finally, the castle of Xiangyu (相峪堡) in Shanxi province, although it was deserted, was uncanny because it reminds me of the castles I visited back home in Europe.
What’s next on Travel Cathay?
I am not sure what the oracle or fortune teller would say, but one thing is sure, change is coming.
Administrative conundrum is now keeping me away from China (renewing visas has become a headache), this is why I have moved back home. The good thing is that I still have many stories and pictures to upload on this blog and with the contributions of contributing authors, there will be more unique content about China’s ancient and historical villages.
If you have stories to tell, please contact me!
In the meantime, I wish everyone a happy new year of the sheep.