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A glimpse into the past

With their old alleyways, stone bridges and picturesque surroundings, China’s old towns are worth visiting at least once

China’s old towns have well-preserved architecture and photogenic environments

China’s old towns have well-preserved architecture and photogenic environments

You may have heard them referred to as old towns, ancient towns or ancient villages.

Wrapping your head around the variety of China’s highly treasured ancient towns, which can have different sizes, ages and settings, can be somewhat overwhelming.

But if you’ve ever had the delightful opportunity of spending time in China, and have visited some of these historic treasures, you may have noticed the similarities they share.

Photogenic environments

Ming and Qing architectural styles dominate the look of these old towns

Ming and Qing architectural styles dominate the look of these old towns

Well-preserved architecture and amazingly photogenic environments are often the biggest draws to these charming towns.

China’s ancient towns often harbour history spanning anywhere from a few hundred years to over a thousand.

Built in the traditional architectural style of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the ancient dwellings within the town walls are subjects of timeless intrigue. Old alleyways, stone bridges and red lanterns contrasted against black-tiled roofs are all essential features of a classic ancient town.

No matter what your travel aspirations are, you’ll find something special in every ancient town — be it in the ancient wells in Jiangwan or the beautiful willow trees in Zhujiajiao, two pristine destinations 20 km from Wuyuan and a one-hour bus ride from Shanghai respectively.

In Yangshuo, renting a bicycle and cycling to Fuli, 8km from Yangshuo (near Guilin City) is an excellent way to experience this ancient town. The town is surrounded by breathtaking mountains, gorgeous rivers and beautiful scenery, all variables that make every visit (or second visit) a unique experience.

A longer trek

Old alleyways contrasted against black-tiled roofs are classic features of an old town

Old alleyways contrasted against black-tiled roofs are classic features of an old town

While some towns require a longer travel time, creating a journey within a journey, others can be visited on a day trip from most major cities.

Zhouzhuang Water Town, a short 30 km from Suzhou City in Jiangsu Province, can easily be done as a day trip from Suzhou or Shanghai. This ancient town’s well preserved residential houses, said to be more than 900 years old, and gorgeous water canals have earned it the title “Venice of the East.”

If you’re on your way to Huangshan (Yellow Mountains) in Anhui Province, Xidi and Hongcun are two must-see ancient towns.

Interestingly, Hongcun was designed in the shape of an ox. A pond in the middle of the village captures gorgeous reflections of the surrounding architecture — a truly impressive sight.

Hongcun was also the location for one of the fight scenes in the famous film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

In a perpetually changing country such as China, ancient towns have become a way to escape from repetitive high-rise buildings, traffic and constant noise. They provide an opportunity to get a meaningful glimpse into China’s past — a reminder that once upon a time, things were different.

Writer’s note: The most beautiful places are easily spoiled by swarms of crowds. For a more memorable experience, avoid visiting during weekends and public holidays.

By Elaine Coetzee
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