China is westernizing so rapidly, even old China hands may not recognize it when they return for a visit. Beijing and Shanghai are fast-paced metropolises no different from, say New York City or London. But the old China, the one of our pre-conceived notions of the Middle Kingdom, is still out there. You just need to know where to look. Head to the rural areas where life is slower in the villages and towns in China, and old traditions die hard.
A description of Suopo might sound like a recipe for a chocolate sundae: White stone buildings surrounded by lush forests and topped with tall brown towers. This Tibetan village of Qiang people once had the highest concentration of ancient watchtowers in the world; today it has only 84 of these wood and stone structures. They range in height from 20 to 60 meters (66 to 196 feet). These thousand year-old towers were used as lookout posts, storage sheds and places of worship.
Duoyishu is a village in southwest China’s Yunnan Province where the farmers are noted for the rice terraces. The terraces are spectacular and should be considered works of art. Duoyishu residents belong to the Hani and Yi minority groups. Sunrise over the terraces is not to be missed. Viewing platforms allow you to get that perfect photo. Besides rice terraces, the Hani are known for their family-oriented Chinese New Year celebrations.
Heshun Town is a small town in western Yunnan Province that is considered one of the most charming villages in China. This is not too surprising since Heshun Town is set among forested hills and its name means peace and harmony. Heshun Town is famous for its well-preserved ancient architecture, with its stone houses with tile roofs looking more like museums than homes. There are narrow lanes running between the closely packed homes. Heshun Town was a stop on the old Tea-Horse Road.
The Miao people are one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities. They are a colorful people, known for their singing and dancing, intricate embroidery and houses built on wooden stilts. The best place to experience the Miao culture is Xijiang Town, 35 km (22 miles) from Kaili, Guizhou Province. Xijiang Qianhu is one of 10 villages making up the town. A good place to start your visit is the Miao Nationality Museum where you’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about the Miao culture but was afraid to ask.
A trip to Hemu Village will take you to west China’s Xinjiang Province to the scenic Kanas Lake area. China National Geographic says Hemu is one of the most beautiful villages in China. It is a small village, in a garden-like setting, where the Tuwa people live in log cabins. Hemu and its surroundings are considered so picturesque that many tour companies book trips just for photo buffs. There’s a viewing platform on a nearby hill where you can get some great shots.
If you want to experience the Dong culture, Chengyang Villages are a good place to do it. There are eight villages in the group, located about a five-hour ride from Guilin. The villages are famous for their folk culture – villagers put on a culture show twice a day – and their covered wooden wind-and-rain bridge, one of the most famous in China, that protects users from the elements. The villages are surrounded by rice paddies and other crops. Fall harvest time is a good time to visit here.
A village shaped like an ox may sound far-fetched until you get to Hongcun near Mount Huangshan in Anhui Province. The head is a hill, two trees on it the horns, four bridges represent the legs, and the houses are the ox’s body. A stream running though the village is the animal’s innards. Besides the unique shape, Hongcun is famous for its Ming and Qing dynasty architecture. Hongcun is considered a traditional Chinese village, something that is fast disappearing these days.
Zhouzhuang is a good place to unwind during a jam-packed trip to China. One way to do this is take a gondola ride down this water town’s canals. Not only is this relaxing, but it will give you a different perspective on the town. Located 30 km (18 miles) from Suzhou, this 1,200-year-old offers many outstanding sites, including 14 arched stone bridges, of which the Twin Bridges are the most famous. You can also visit centuries-old houses built by wealthy families and an 11th century Taoist temple.
Even if you’ve visited other old towns in China, you will still be amazed by Fenghuang Ancient Town in Hunan Province. This Qing Dynasty town, home to the Miao who are famous for embroidery and silverwork, is exceptionally picturesque. It is what China was like before its modernizing movement. A serene river runs through the town, carrying residents around on wooden boats. Cobblestone streets are narrow and well-worn. Some of the waterfront houses are built on stilts. Fenghuang Ancient Town appears simple yet elegant at the same time.
Wuyuan Villages are a collection of rural villages noted for their old architecture. While there are many well-presented Ming and Qing dynasty buildings, some are even older, dating back 1,300 years to the Tang Dynasty. The houses are white stone with gray tile roofs and are quite picturesque. Indeed, the whole Wuyuan area is one of China’s most scenic spots. Spring is a good time to visit: the azaleas and rape flowers are in bloom, and the tea plants are green.
If you’re staying in Shanghai, you simply must visit a water town. Most people go to Suzhou, but savvy travelers head to Tongli. This sleepy town has so many beautiful gardens and temples you won’t be able to see them all in one day, so plan on staying longer. Cruise the canals, where even the water moves slower, on a flat-bottom wooden boat. Who knows, you may see old women doing laundry in the canal or a fisherman using cormorants to catch fish.
If you don’t have time for a trip to Tibet, you can still get a feeling for that culture by visiting Jiaju, a Tibetan style village in Sichuan Province. Dubbed the “Tibetan fairyland,” Jiaju is considered one of the most beautiful towns in China. Built on a forested hillside, it’s hard to argue with this assessment, especially in the spring when pear trees blossom. The homes are uniquely shaped, with crowns on top of several floors; the eaves are red and the exterior walls white.
Lijiang Old Town is one of the most famous ancient towns in China. It oozes the charm of days gone by. Waterways passing through this Yunnan village only add to the ambiance. But visit now, before it’s too late. Development is taking its toll here. Due to overbuilding in the new Lijiang, the water table is dropping, impacting the canals. On the old Tea-Horse trade route, Lijiang Old Town was once filled with the colorful Nakhi people, but they are leaving because of the high cost of housing.
Yangshuo Town on the beautiful Li River was once a backpacker’s paradise. It’s becoming more upscale now as more people discover the beauty of the area. There is something ethereal about the karst mountains and caves which surround the town, especially on a misty morning with fishermen out in their small wooden boats. It’s a great place to take a bike ride in the country. Like many other travelers, you may enjoy a boat ride to Guilin on the Li River and then cycling back.