Country Roads

By Stephen Ewashkiw | January 13, 2014

8277 km so far.

After yesterday’s successful experiment with taking a smaller back road, we decided to try our luck again today. We mapped part of our route from Kaiping to Enping along small roads that would keep us off the bigger, and busier, G325.

wooden buildings in enping china

Extraordinary street on the outskirts of Kaiping.

If the first half of the day went well there were a couple of options available to keep us on smaller roads for the remainder of the day.

many cycling backroad in china

Back road between two ponds, near Kaiping.

This being the Pearl River Delta, there are tributaries everywhere, so it is possible we will ride down a road and end up at a river with no bridge across it, but the maps we have checked show our planned route should be possible.

All Along The Diaolou

When we got to Kaiping, Jane had noticed on the map something called the Kaiping Diaolou Villages, so we decided we should look into these. It turns out many people from this area left and headed to the West during the 19th century, but after making their fortunes, many came back in the early 1900s.

When they returned, the land was beset by raiders who would steal anything and everything they could get their hands on. So, taking their inspiration from the castles of Europe, the returning settlers built houses in the style of watchtowers, which in Chinese is diaolou.

Diaolou watchtower home.

Diaolou watchtower home.

They lived communally with up to 29 families sharing one large diaolou. The lower floors were divided into living quarters, while the top two floors were used to keep a lookout for bandits.

If bandits were spotted they would flee the home, lock it up tight, and sail away on a boat, only to return when the coast was clear.

In 2007, after decades of neglect, UNESCO named a selection of the diaolou villages a World Heritage Site. This gave them an infusion of money for restoration. Not all the towers fall within the designated UNESCO site – many more are dotted around the countryside here.

Because we are on our bikes, we got a close up look at a few of the more rustic diaolou, which are still inhabited, before we got to the official tourist area. These were the first ones we saw, and they are spectacular. Quite different from any homes we have seen in China, they rise up and tower over farm fields and rivers.

dilapidated building enping china

Unrestored diaolou, near Kaiping.

Some of the diaolou in the restored area are still homes, but others are just tourist sites. None that we saw today were open to view inside. Narrow alleyways of houses surround the diaolou and are also still inhabited. It must feel strange to live in a tourist site that sees upwards of 3 million visitors each year.

Tourists wander through the alleys, poke their heads in your windows, and take pictures of you as you go about your daily chores.

Yes, I am talking about me.

Fresh Fowl

We had lunch at one of the diaolou. It is home to a family who run an outdoor restaurant. The customers and staff were all Chinese and were very excited to have foreign guests. We met a nice family from Guangzhou. The father of the group told us we should try the potatoes, and then proceeded to make sure the staff brought us some.

He hopes to one day visit Banff. We told him it really is as beautiful as he imagines. I hope he gets there.

The family ordered a chicken dish as part of their meal. One of the women went to the chicken coop just next to the diaolou and scooped up a live chicken.

Restaurant chicken coop at the Diaolou Villages.

Restaurant chicken coop at the Diaolou Villages.

About 10 minutes later, it was cleaned, cut, cooked, and served to the family. Now that’s farm-fresh.

Family enjoying lunch at the diaolou villages.

Family enjoying lunch at the diaolou villages.

Speaking of chickens, the back roads we biked along today were filled with birds of all kinds. Countless varieties of chickens, ducks, and geese filled acres of dusty land and swam in man-made reservoirs. Yet more reservoirs were present to receive the tons of poop these animals produce. We must have, quite literally, ridden past millions of birds today.

This is the first large-scale farming we’ve really seen in China, and though these animals were outside and not too crowded, it still made our stomachs turn to see (and smell) it.

The whole time we were very aware of H5N1, and have made a deal that if either one of us starts to feel ill in the next week, we will immediately go to the local hospital. Since we have both fully recovered from our Shanghai/Hong Kong bout of illness, we think our immune systems should be working well, so we’re hoping a hospital trip won’t be necessary.

Soundtrack: Eazy-E, It’s On (Dr. Dre) 187um Killa | Wilco, A.M.  

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