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Kaiping Fortress Castles

Kaiping Fortress Castles
By Melaine Todd

TP 201905 china 02寮骞崇妤

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TP 201905 china 09China is full of unsung treasures. One of these magnificent gems can be found 140km southwest from Guangzhou in the Guangdong province. The Kaiping Diaolou (fortress castles) and Villages is a must visit for anyone who enjoys ancient architecture and wants to experience traditional Chinese culture, as well as for those who are ticking off their World Heritage site list.

 

These unique, multi-story watch towers, communal towers and residential towers were erected during the Ming Dynasty until the early 20th century. At one point there were over 3000 of these fortresses, but today only 1800 remain, scattered around the countryside of Kaiping and neighbouring village, Taishan. Mostly abandoned, only to be swooned over by passers-by and tourists.

 

What makes these towers so unique is their architectural design. They incorporate many architectural styles of ancient Greek, Islam and Rome, as well as traditional Chinese architecture. The combination of Western and Chinese decorative and structural styles makes these structures flamboyant and unique in their own way.

TP 201905 china 03The oldest existing Diaolou in Kaiping is the Yinglong lou built in the 1500s. It has a traditional square structure that鈥檚 not influenced by Western styles, unlike fortresses that were built in the following years. Builders used large red bricks to build the fortress and added turrets on each corner. The Yinglong lou is situated in the village of Sanmenli and is a three-storey fortress with one-metre thick walls. In 1919, during the Diaolou structures peak, Yinglong lou was renovated and is now an unbreakable 11.4 metres high defensive tower.

TP 201905 china 04Ruishi Diaolou is the tallest castle in Kaiping, constructed in 1921, with nine floors. With a strong Roman architectural influence, it sports a Byzantine style roof and a Roman dome. It can be found behind the Jinjiangli Village. Materials used to build this strong structure were stone, earth blocks, concrete and bricks. Some materials, like steel and cement, were imported along with influences from Western emigrants. Traditional Chinese building styles were strongly influenced by adding features like Greek columns, domes and other decorative elements, like flower and leaf sculptures on the walls of the structure.

TP 201905 china 06The interior of the castles shows many defensive elements, like thick iron doors and iron barred windows. It could take anywhere from six months to two years to build a two to seven-story Diaolou. The complexity of these structures has earned them a right to be named as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

TP 201905 china 05Any photographer鈥檚 dream is the contrast between the castles鈥 weathered-down, multi-story and decorative exterior versus the greenery that surrounds it. They make for a flamboyant scenic sight, as they are nestled between the green rice paddies of the countryside.

 

Getting to Kaiping is an easy bus ride from Guangzhou/Hong Kong. When you arrive at the bus stop, you鈥檒l be greeted by many eager taxi drivers who know all the best spots. You鈥檒l soon find out that there are hundreds of Diaolous around, so make sure you know which spots you would really like to visit. Most taxi or Rickshaw drivers will take you to the nearest towers, let you take a few photos and then drop you off at the next nearest village.

TP 201905 china 07If you want to explore something local, it鈥檚 worth visiting Zilicun Village, that is also part of WHS. You have to buy a ticket to enter the village, which is surrounded by beautiful lotus ponds and rice paddies. There鈥檚 a beautiful long wooden bridge that you can cross and take scenic photos of. You鈥檒l find a few tourists wandering around these spots, engage in conversation, as fellow tourists can share some travel tips about the area.

TP 201905 china 08For a more local experience take a taxi to Jinjiangi village. Here lie three well looked after watch towers and you鈥檒l see locals doing every day chores and selling some traditional Chinese foods, which is worth a try. If your Mandarin-level is quite good, the locals will share stories about the castles with you, which can be a priceless experience.

 

Observing the watch towers of Kaiping is quite an experience, as they are awe-inspiring to look at and rich in historical background. A definite detour that is worth your time.

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