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Introducing Kāipíng

Scattered throughout the countryside about 140km southwest of Guǎngzhōu are a collection of remarkable watchtowers called diāolóu. These towers, which display an eclectic mix of European architectural styles from Roman to rococo, were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Chinese returning from overseas. Because of political instability, many of the towers were built as fortresses, meant to keep out bandits and later protect residents from Japanese troops. Each was built with sturdy walls, iron gates, and ports for defence and observation. Out of the 3, 000 original diāolóu, only 1, 833 remain. They are slowly being developed for tourism. The towers are unique to Guǎngdōng and can only be seen in the counties surrounding the town of Kāipíng.

The best way to see the diāolóu is to head to Kāipíng and from there rent a taxi or take public transport out to the countryside. The largest collection of diāolóu are in the quiet village of Zili (; Zìlì Cūn), about 20 minutes from Kāipíng. Here, 15 crumbling towers, some tilting precariously, rise ominously above a cluster of ancient homes. If you walk to the rear of the village, you’ll see Míngshí Lóu (), the tallest tower, which is open to the public. This was once the most prosperous home in the village. On the top of the building are four towers known as ‘swallow nests’, each with embrasures, cobblestones and a water sprayer, which was used against bandits. From the windows you’ll see a stretch of unspoiled countryside dotted with rice paddies, fish ponds and the jagged outlines of diāolóu in the distance.

Another collection of diāolóu worth visiting is at Li Garden (; Lì Yuán; admission Y40; 8am-5pm) in Tángkǒu county, about a 15-minute taxi ride from Kāipíng. The diāolóu here were constructed in 1936 by Mr Xie Weili, a Chinese emigrant to the United States. Authorities have transformed this area into a park for tourists, and though admission is steep, it’s a convenient way to see some diāolóu in an organized setting. Most of the towers are open to the public and have explanations of their history in English. Some have been left in their original condition to chilling effect, abandoned after residents fled from invading Japanese troops. Left behind are the remnants of smashed-up furniture and quilts torn to shreds by bayonets, among other things.

Other noteworthy diāolóu include Déng Lóu(), a five-storey tower built in 1920 called ‘Light Tower’ because of its powerful searchlight. There’s also Nánxìng Xié Lóu, or ‘The Leaning Tower’ of Nanxing Village, which tilts severely to one side, with its central axis over 2m off centre. Built in 1903, the seven-storey tower has survived numerous typhoons and earthquakes, but may still topple any day.

Also worth a visit is Ruìshí Lóu() located behind Jinjiangli Village, about an hour from Kāipíng. One of the most marvellous of the towers, it has nine stories with a Byzantine-style roof and Roman dome supported by elaborately decorated walls and pillars.