Ancient Guiyang villages take visitors back centuries
By Lu Feiran、Liu Xiaolin、Zhou Yu
Qingyan: Renowned ancient town
If you are tired of the water towns in southern China, with their cliched red lanterns, or the uproar in commercial ancient towns such as Lijiang in Yunnan Province, the old town of Qingyan in Guiyang will come as a refreshing change.
Built in 1378 as a military fortress, Qingyan was where the Ming (1368-1644) government stationed its army. Some 300 years later, a chieftan of a Bouyei tribe took control of it and developed it into a town, holding the major pass between today's Guizhou Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
To this day, Qingyan is a quaint destination with primitive simplicity, sitting tranquilly against Shuangshi Peak.
Ascending step by step to its grand front gate, I was overwhelmed by its solemnity. One of the four renowned ancient towns in Guizhou, Qingyan is entirely built from mountain stones. Even the houses, shops and other dwellings are made with stones and tiles.
Time slowed and uproar faded as I took a walk down zigzag stone alleyways that seem to lead nowhere but always take you on a new journey. The signature alleyway is Beijie, or Back Alley. You may find it quite familiar if you happen to have seen the 2002 film “The Missing Gun” by Chinese director/actor Jiang Wen. It features in one of the key scenes where desperate policeman Ma Shan looked for his gun that has mysteriously disappeared.
In the movie thriller, Qingyan seems like a bleak backwater: the sky always dreary; the stone paths and ancient memorial archways tumbled down; people passing by with sullen faces; vendors crying out for customers in hoarse voices ...
Yet the real Qingyan is quite the contrary.
Morning sun slanted on the stone path of the Back Alley that was still wet with dew; moss covers up the stone walls and roofs; tender grasses spear out through the cracks between the stones, lending vigor and vitality. Dogs lie basking in the sun while children joyfully rush by.
In a popular destination like Qingyan, it was quite a surprise to spot few squealing tourists following guides reciting the same pat speeches to their parties, nor countless repetitious souvenir stores selling similar stuff and playing the same sounds over and over again. Perhaps the best time to visit the old town is on weekdays.
For architecture lovers, Qingyan is an eclectic treasure trove. The unique double layered roofs of local dwellings, especially the stores, showcase folk wisdom. Since rainfall is abundant here in Guiyang, the shop owners came up with a second roof just like eyelashes protect the eyes.
The Bouyei and other minority ethnics, Han people and French missionaries have all left their stamp on the history and character of this place. Though there were bloody clashes between the locals and French missionaries in the 1860s, today Buddhist and Taoist temples stand in harmony with Catholic and other Christian churches in this town of 3 square kilometers.
Buddhist pilgrims pour into the temples on the first and 15th day of every month on the lunar calendar, while every Sunday Christians go to the church that stands opposite Chinese memorial archways.
Three of the eight archways in Qingyan have remained intact for more than a century. It is some kind of architectural miracle as they were all stamped directly into the stoney ground without any base. Take a close look at the vivid and delicate relief sculptures at the bottom of the pillars.
Other architecture worth a visit includes the Wanshou Palace, a guild-hall-turned-Taoist-temple.
A series of marvelous wooden reliefs adorn the theater stage in the yard that features well-known stories from the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280) such as the “Hongmen Banquet,” “Besieged From All Sides,” and “Surrounded On All Sides.”
Qingyan also accommodated many relatives of the Red Army during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).
The father of Zhou Enlai, China's first prime minister after 1949, once took shelter here, as well as Zhou's mother-in-law. Their former residences are preserved for sightseers.
For most locals in Guiyang, the most appealing part of Qingyan town is the food. Take a bite of braised pork knuckle and have a spoonful of rose bingfen (a jelly desert made with seeds). Do not miss the fragrant and sweet gaoba xifan, which is a mix of lotus root starch with steamed flour paste, topped with white sesame, rose petals and nuts. Sticky rose candy wrapped in white sesame and jilajiao (fried chilies with chicken) make great gifts for friends and family.
Address: Qingyan Town, Huaxi District, Guiyang, Guizhou Province
How to get there:
Take Bus Nos. 89, 90 and 109, and get off at Huaxi Station in Guiyang. Then take a mini van to the parking lot at the north gate of Qingyan old town. A single trip by mini van costs 3 yuan per person. Visitors can also grab a taxi to Qingyan. A single trip from downtown Guiyang to Qingyan takes more than an hour.
An admission package to 10 sightseeing spots in Qingyang, including the city wall, Wanshou Palace, and former residences of Zhou Enlai’s father and mother-in-law, costs 34 yuan.
Opening hours: All day
Zhenshan Village: Frozen in time
Zhenshan Village is a place where time seems to have stood still for many years. The way to Zhenshan Village is like any other in China’s third-tier cities.
Along the drive into the mountains, you can see small restaurants, motorcycle stores, furniture shops with a large advertising board with perhaps a not-so-famous Hong Kong movie star’s smiling face on it. But as soon as the car stops at the entrance to Zhenshan Village, it feels like you have traveled back in time for at least a few decades.
Old and dark black houses here are made of half stone and half wood. It was difficult to tell which kind of wood they use because it has turned a smoky black after all these years. Some of the windows don’t even have glass in them. Old-fashioned oiled paper is used between wooden bars to protect the residents from wind and rain. Water vats, narrow lanes with stone steps and wooden carvings on the house beams all suggest a traditional lifestyle.
Zhenshan Village was originally built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). An official surnamed Li was assigned to relocate his troops here. He married a local girl surnamed Ban from the Bouyei ethnic group after his wife died.
Today most of the residents in Zhenshan Village are still surnamed either Li or Ban, just like 400 years ago, and 70 percent of them are Bouyei people.
“The old houses you see today are almost the same as 400 years ago,” our tour guide Wei Bao said. “Although they’ve been renovated, we tried to keep them in the same old style, without any modern changes.”
The stone boards locals use to build their houses are as thin and smooth as tiles. It looked as if they have spent a lot of time polishing those stones. However, the stone boards are natural. According to the guide, the people quarry them from nearby mountains by peeling off the first layer of weathered material. Along the stone paths inside the village, we could see several piles of this kind of shale, waiting to be used for renovations.
A small temple stands at the entrance to the village. Two old men — perhaps monks — were playing Chinese chess as we stepped into the temple. They did not even bother to look up as they were concentrated on the board.
The temple — dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) but renovated in 1995 — is quite different from those in the cities, which are packed with people praying to Buddha for good fortune. This temple, built to worship the God of War, has become a place for annual get-togethers on holidays and festivals.
The village is not very big. Only three or four stone paths are the main roads in it, and a stone wall guards the whole village. One of the paths leads to a large opening toward a large water reservoir. A fisherman was steering his small boat on the reservoir, trying to catch some fish. The houses facing the reservoir are much more modern compared to the ones we first saw. Many of them were built to be half residence, half restaurant or hostel. The newly built ones follow the same style of stone and wooden structures, but with modern windows and balconies. The village is not a tourism hot spot. The local government tries to keep it as a live Bouyei lifestyle museum.
Address: Zhenshan Village, Huaxi District, Guiyang
How to get there:Take Bus No. 211 from Hebin Park in Guiyang to Shiban station, then walk 1.5km to Zhenshan Village. Or take the tourist bus from Huaxi Park. 3 yuan per person
What’s more: A boat cruise on the reservoir costs 5 yuan per person for an hour. Local hostel rooms cost around 20 yuan/person.
Xiangzhigou: Home to an ancient secret
Although hidden in a deep mountain valley, Xiangzhigou is not so cut off from the outside world. It’s about an hour’s drive from downtown Guiyang.
Surrounded by peaks and ridges, a clear creek named the Baishui River runs through the valley in Xinpu Town. The bamboo forest that covers the valley conceals a 1,000-year-old secret: an ancient paper-making technique.
Xiangzhigou literally means the valley of incense paper as the paper made in the village is usually for paper offerings. All the families here have their own unique formula for making paper from scratch. The formula is passed from generation to generation, but only within the family.
Paper-making was invented by Cai Lun, a eunuch in the East Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), three brothers surnamed Peng, who were the descendants of Cai, moved to Xiangzhigou, bringing Cai’s technique with them.
Over the following centuries and up to the present day, that technique has never been lost nor changed. Even many of the villagers who leave their hometown to seek more opportunities in the city still spend several months making paper.
Xiangzhigou is a tranquil place in winter and autumn. Most of the villagers who remain at home are children and senior citizens. Visitors seldom go there during these two seasons, and sometimes the only sounds you hear are from geese and chickens.
But when Baishui River is in full flow in early summer, the valley starts to get busy. The thumping of bamboo and the boiling of paper pulp echoes through the valley along with the sound of arriving tourists. The villagers will let visitors have a try if they ask but, trust me, no one will be able to pull off a sheet of wet paper from a board at their first attempt.
Cai’s paper-making process has 72 stages and the whole production takes three months — no electric machines are involved, it’s all made by hand. The 72 stages are still followed in today’s Xiangzhigou, with the only difference being the change of the original material from wood to bamboo. Even though modern technologies have arrived in the village, they have had no effect on the paper-making tradition.
No one knows how long the technique will survive, no one knows when villagers might decide that it’s time to move on. But for now, the wooden workshops and barns are still there, watching over a valley that remains in touch with its past.
Address: Xiangzhigou, Xinbao Village, Wudang District, Guiyang
How to get there:The Jinyang Long-distance Bus Station has buses to Xiangzhigou. It’s about an hour’s drive from downtown Guiyang.