See Kaiping's historic architecture

Travel to Guangdong for UNESCO World Heritage watchtowers

Until the early 2000s, many of the spectacular structures in the area around Kaiping, in Guangdong, had been neglected for decades. A UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2007 awakened the tourist market, before the buildings were thrust firmly into the spotlight thanks to Jiang Wen’s 2012 blockbuster Let the Bullets Fly. Built in the early 20th century by returning Chinese immigrants from America and Malaysia, the fortified structures provided the perfect backdrop for Jiang’s scenes of tussling warlords. Though you’re now more likely to do battle with a megaphone-wielding tour guide, the clusters of watchtowers and mansions still make for incredible scenes rising up out of the treetops.

In their heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, there were around 3,000 diaolou (watchtowers), but today only around 1,800 are left standing. Despite significant restoration efforts by local authorities, most of the structures remain in various states of disrepair. This, in part, is what gives the region its beauty – the watchtowers are arguably more striking when in decay than when they’ve been patched up.

The main areas to explore are found in and around four villages: Jinjiangli Cun (锦江里村), Majianglong Cun (马降龙村), Zili Cun (自力村) and Tangkou Zhen (塘口镇). The leaning watchtower in Nanxing Cun (南兴村) and the preserved gardens at Li Yuan (立园) are also popular destinations. One of the best ways to navigate the watchtowers is by bike; the Tribe of Diaomin hostel is a good option for bike rental and cycle tours.

Essential info

Return flights to Guangzhou from Shanghai start from around 650RMB with Ctrip. From Guangzhou, regular buses leave Tianhe Bus Station (located on Line 3 and Line 6 of the Guangzhou metro) to Kaiping, taking two hours and costing 38RMB. Upon arrival in Kaiping, you’ll be met by a swarm of pedicab and black-taxi drivers offering you tours and rides into the surrounding countryside.

Kaiping itself is a fairly run-of-the-mill Chinese town, so you’re best off taking a local bus to Chikan Cun (赤坎村), where you’ll find the Tribe of Diaomin hostel (126 Henan Lu; 0750 2616 222;

Located close to an impressive waterfront promenade dating back to the 1920s and ’30s, the hostel offers basic facilities with double rooms from 120RMB a night. They can also provide bike rental and maps of the area or help book tours to the nearby villages. Arguably the best way to navigate the watchtowers is to hire a bike and make your own way around the surrounding buildings.