West of the Pearl River

The west of the pearl river delta stretches from Guangzhou down to Zhuhai. This month our resident weekender columnist explores what lies between the two and why it’s worth visiting.

Situated roughly halfway between the Guangdong capital and the border with Macao, Zhongshan can be considered one of the humbler cities compared to its daunting siblings. The city owes its name to arguably one of the most important figures in modern Chinese history—Dr. Sun Yat Sen who was also known by the alias of “Sun Zhongshan.” A column could be dedicated alone to the inspirational revolutionary who was born over 150 years ago, but he is undoubtedly best remembered for his role in the eventual overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Nowadays Zhongshan is the beating heart of the LED lighting industry in the PRD and its modest population of just over 3 million realizes an average GDP of over 220 billion RMB. In its attempt to keep up with its neighbors, Zhongshan CBD has bloomed, resulting in the construction of the International Finance towers at 220 meters each and the recently completed Perfect Eagle tower at 238 meters. These will eventually be dwarfed next year when the 305-meter-high International Trade Tower in Guzhen Town is completed. Business district aside, one can revel in exploring the numerous forest parks or visit one of the several museums dedicated to Sun Yat Sen’s memory.

I personally like strolling along the river bank in the city center at night and always feel captivated when I gaze at Zhongshan’s illuminated Ferris wheel.

I personally like strolling along the river bank in the city center at night and always feel captivated when I gaze at Zhongshan’s illuminated Ferris wheel reflecting from the water. The inner-city area features many restaurants dotted around and you haven’t truly experienced Zhongshan until you have visited the notorious “Friends” bar. The different areas in the city have their own distinct food delicacies. I particularly enjoyed trying something known as “jian dui” which was a strange inflated ball covered in sesame seeds containing a gooey, sweet substance inside.

My next destination was set on the historic town of Kaiping, which is an outlying district of the smaller nearby city of Jiangmen. Known mainly for its hot spring resorts and tallest peak, Guifeng Mountain, I also discovered Jiangmen is the birthplace of Andy Lau (Hong Kong’s most commercially famous actor), along with celebrity chef Ken Hom. A further short bus journey was needed to reach Kaiping, which is renowned for its “Diaolou,” or fortified multi-level towers constructed in the outer village areas.

Built during the early Qing dynasty and reaching their peak of construction during the 1920s, there are still approximately 1,800 of the original 3,000 buildings preserved, primarily in the areas of Tangkou, Baihe, Chikan and Xiangang. The examples of “Qiaoxiang” architecture were erected by local villagers primarily to protect against robbers and bandits. On my recent endeavor, I found myself in the small village of Zili, near to Li Garden in Tangkou and wandered with intrigue as I explored inside many of the buildings, some of which had their original furniture and pictures preserved.

As it was a weekend, there were a lot of tourists around, but this didn’t affect the experience as there were numerous buildings to investigate. I think only people with an interest in history or an appreciation for architecture will really understand this place. The nine diaolou in Zili are the largest number among the four villages designated as UNESCO sites and feature a fusion of Chinese and Western architectural structures, rising somewhat surrealistically over the nearby rice paddy fields.

Next, I took a closer look at Chikan, with over 600 late Qing and early Republic Tonglaus (tenement buildings) continuously spanning 3 km onto the riverside stretch of Dixi Road. The area is often used for filming historical movie scenes. Chikan has two libraries, both introduced about ninety years ago. As the story goes, both were established by rival clans who lived in the village at that time. After a final peruse, I found a quaint little restaurant that offered some delicious, yet slightly pricey, braised pork.

Sightseeing over it was time to head back. There are a few options from Kaiping to Dongguan, depending on where exactly you need to go. Two involve getting a bus to either Guangzhou East or South train stations, from where you can get the train to Shilong or Humen respectively. The other involves getting the bus back from Zhongshan, but be warned; the Humen bridge can be an unforgiving beast at times and should generally be avoided unless you like sitting in traffic. The final and more fun option is the car ferry to Shatian, but I would only advise this for people driving themselves.

Kaiping is a relatively inexpensive and easy task even just as a daytrip and one that is quite unique in our region. However, I personally suggest staying in Zhongshan first overnight to really get the most out of the trip!