Escape Shanghai: Explore natural and architectural wonders in the ancient village of Zhaoxing

Take a couple of days to see Guizhou's 800-year-old Dong village surrounded by curvaceous mountains and picturesque rice paddies

Photograph: Shutterstock
About 320km southeast of Guizhou province’s capital city Guiyang, people travel hundreds of miles to see Zhaoxing’s natural and architectural wonders. A gorgeous 800-year-old village lying in a valley surrounded by curvaceous mountains and picturesque rice paddies, Zhaoxing is home to one of the biggest Dong minority populations in China (housing roughly 4,000 people).

A stream runs through the heart of the village, lined by hundreds of traditional wooden huts on each side. Today the main street has been commercialised with guesthouses, restaurants and souvenir shops (all teeming with tourists when we arrive during Golden Week). But ducking-off down backstreets, I soon remember why we’re here.

Photograph: Yu Zhiming

Walking upstream, we pass covered wooden bridges and a signature architectural feat of the Dong community, the drum towers. Although many of these have been restored or rebuilt over the centuries (the history of Zhaoxing can actually be traced back as early as 1160), the half-pagoda-half-pavilion wooden structures remain distinctive with their white-grey tiles and have acted as a space for families to gather, entertain and to alert the community to dangers for centuries.

We continue our wandering, passing barns, snapping photos of baskets of rice dyed florescent pink, ready to be enjoyed with the local oil tea. We watch ducklings and dogs wandering idly through the streets – it’s the tranquility of rural living we’re looking for.

Photograph: Yu Zhiming

Working up an appetite, we stop by Liao Pang Zi Jia Niurou Fen for what will become two of my favourite local dishes, rice noodles served with crispy pork belly (脆皮香猪粉) and rice noodles with sour soup (酸汤 牛肉粉), before we settle in for the night.

Our next day’s mission becomes about how to avoid the crowds, so we wake up at dawn and hop on a bus to neighbouring Basha – a well-protected Miao minority village and home to China’s last tribe of gunmen. We visit the small Basha Village Museum, where we learn about the tribe’s spiritual connection with trees. Traditionally, a father plants a tree when a boy is born and when the child grows old and dies, he will be laid to rest in a coffin made from the wood of his birth tree. After the burial, the tribe will plant another tree on the tomb instead of a gravestone.

After a pleasant morning retreat, we return to Zhaoxing for lunch before heading out again. This time we make our way to a much smaller Dong village about 5km up in the hills called Tangan. Undisturbed by tourists, villagers go on with their daily lives – getting water from the well, rinsing fruits in the mountain stream and chilling under the drum tower.

Photograph: Yu Zhiming

As we start our hike back to Zhaoxing, we take in the scenes: A sheet of cloud hovers so low that it coats the mountain tops with a white woollen blanket, the landscape shaped by rice terraces, and we bask in complete silence. In three hours we meet only one other person.

Exhausted from the hike, we’re glad to arrive back in Zhaoxing despite the crowds – a warm light peers through guesthouse windows and even the pop songs blasting from the second-floor bar in our hotel don’t faze us anymore. It’s a picturesque little village and well worth spending a day or two – but I’d recommend steering clear during the public holidays.

Getting there Fly from Shanghai to Guiyang (from 700RMB round trip) and then it's a bullet train from Guiyang to Congjiang (110RMB). Finally, hop on a minibus from Congjiang which zigzags into Zhaoxing (20RMB).

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