Tourists turn tables on China's wondrous watchtowers

15th Aug 2013

China's cultural sites don't come more striking than the diaolou of Kaiping - for centuries used as watchtower buttresses to raids and flooding.

Today, tourists have turned the tables as it is they who are doing the watching.

Visitors on city breaks to Kaiping in Guangdong Province marvel at more than 1,800 of these multi-storey buildings, which are usually made from reinforced concrete.

The structures, which dot the metropolis's surrounding rice fields, are considered one of ancient China's most significant collections of freestanding treasures.

Kaiping offers the best of both worlds - beautiful landscape and a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing without the usual crowds associated with these tourist traps.

In fact, Kaiping's 600,000 visitors last year are usually numbers other Chinese cities see in a week.

Nevertheless, the city offers a unique and tranquil travel experience that doubles as a history lesson on unique Chinese architecture.

The multi-story watchtowers were constructed at the start of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Kaiping became a leading hub of overseas settlers at the turn of the last century.

Several Kaiping natives eventually returned to the properties with newly acquired wealth, and built diaolou with Western influences absorbed into the architecture.

Residential diaolou became a method for owners to flaunt their riches through flamboyant designs.

Along with the ancient diaolou's historic import, the unparalleled fusion of Chinese and Western architecture was a key reason for UNESCO's decision to confer World Heritage Site designation upon the structures in 2007.

Baroque, Roman and Gothic effects are obvious in several watchtowers.

Local builders sometimes worked from pictures on postcards that were sent from abroad, creating distinctive designs.

Holidaymakers can glimpse the greatest example of a luxury diaolou at Li Garden in the Beiyi Xiang district, built in 1936.

This 11,000-square-metre complex comprises one diaolou, six villas, two gardens, waterways and bridges.

The garden has 20-metre (65ft 7in) steel pillars, a massive, birdcage-shaped golden pavilion and a green pond for turtles.

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