Exploring Hidden China From Hong Kong

Go Over the Border to See China at its Most Authentic

Diaolous Kaiping

Kevin Poh/Flickr 

Edited by Mike Aquino.

Once you’re in Hong Kong, it’s hard to resist the urge to stick your nose over the border and say you’ve seen China.

Most tourists visiting from Hong Kong choose to book day trips to Shenzhen or overnight stays in Guangzhou. They both have their appeal, but China’s cities are increasingly modern, high rise and international – hardly representative of traditional China at all.

In short, if you want to experience the more traditional character of China, they aren’t your best choice.

Instead, try one of the lesser known cities along the Pearl River Delta or in eastern Guangdong. Few people know about the ferry connections Hong Kong has into China along the East and West Rivers. You’ll not only be introduced to UNESCO protected diaolou, limestone mountains and the best tea houses in China – you’ll also get a chance to cruise past rice paddies and see skyscrapers spurting from the jungle!

01 of 06

Zhaoqing: The Almost Imperial City

Dinghu Mountain Resort
Jacque C (photo.e7go.tw)

Strangely unknown to international tourists despite its proximity to Hong Kong, the beautiful natural haven called Zhaoqing has long been a local tourism destination – and day-trippers from Hong Kong are slowly taking notice.

You’ll know you’re near Zhaoqing when you see the mountains ascending from the rice paddies on the city outskirts. Explore the Seven Star Crags to find limestone peaks picturesquely positioned on the shores of Star Lake, as well as Buddhist temples and Taoist icons at the water’s edge.

Ding Hu Mountain Resort offers a wilder setting where you can hike jungle clad peaks and enjoy wider views across the resort’s mist-filled valleys.

The city of Zhaoqing itself is also worth a closer look. Formerly a temporary imperial capital during one of China’s warring periods, Zhaoqing’s temples and pagodas date back more than five hundred years.

The Macau-based Portuguese established their first mainland Christian mission in Zhaoqing. The museum documenting the mission is set inside the 15th-century Red Mansion, from where the last of the Ming Emperors also ascended to the throne.

Reaching Zhaoqing from Hong Kong: by train, a single round trip each day goes between Hong Kong and Zhaoqing, taking four-and-a-half hours to get there.

Several bus trips commute between Hong Kong and Zhaoqing daily, taking between four to five hours to get there.  

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02 of 06

Kaiping: UNESCO Listed Towers

Kaiping watchtowers

Once you’re here, you’ll wonder how they have kept Kaiping a secret for so long.

Stretched out across the Nantan River, Kaiping will one day be famous for its diaolou, or watchtower guardhouses. Now more than 100 years old, most of the diaolou have a little peeling paint but almost all are still standing – and recently listed by UNESCO.

Found scattered around the city and clustered in the villages in the surrounding countryside, the oldest diaolou are stone built Ming era towers that were used to keep look out for bandits and pirates. Yet, while the Ming towers are the oldest, they aren’t the most interesting!

In the 20th century, many returning Chinese immigrants built their own interpretations of the towers, inspired by their travels in the West. Today, you’ll find over 1,500 guardhouses featuring the turrets of a German castle, flared colonial arches, or a minaret inspired by Islamic architecture.

There are organised tours from the city centre that will take you to the three or four villages that have the most diaolou.

Reaching Kaiping from Hong Kong: by bus, two round trips each day go between Hong Kong and Kaiping, taking four-and-a-half hours to get there.  

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03 of 06

Jiangmen: Sizzling Saunas and Hot Springs

Gudou Spring Resort
Gudou Hot Spring Resort

Modernity and history stand cheek-by-jowl in Jiangmen, where skyscrapers jostle heritage buildings on the regular.

Travelers looking for a glimpse of China’s breakneck pace of development will love the city’s skyrocketing skyline; history lovers will get more than enough ancient temples and historic forts to keep their cameras busy.

The historic waterfront district, where the British and French once dealt in opium, has been especially well preserved, with restaurants and cafes now making the most of the fancy colonial fixtures and fittings.

The area’s hot springs are exclusive to Jiangmen. Find bubbling mountain water and saunas at the slightly time-worn Gudoushan Hot Spring resort. Avoid Golden Week, and where possible weekends – Jiangmen can be absolutely packed at those times.

Reaching Jiangmen from Hong Kong: Chu Kong Passenger Transport Company offers several bus/ferry round trips between Jiangmen and Hong Kong, taking up to three hours to complete.

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04 of 06

Shantou: Old Townhouses and Tea in Abundance

Shantou old town
Thomas Timlen/Flickr

It might still be in Guangdong, but Shantou feels very different from the rest of the province. With their own language and cuisine, the Teochew people of Shantou have a story all of their own.

Shantou was one of the original treaty ports opened to Western powers, and one of the original special economic zones of the People’s Republic of China. As you move past the city’s newer business districts and trading towers, you’ll find run-down British-built villas, French-built churches, and traditional wooden store fronts and walkways, the latter still in use by locals.

For history as told by Shantou’s present overlords, head to the Cultural Revolution Museum for a straight-faced introduction to one of China’s most tumultuous periods.

Shantou is also the number one city in China for drinking tea. Lovingly served Gongfu style, the tea houses here are the best in the country. Settle in amid the musty shelves and thick wooden chairs to try local brews and have your hand held through the tea stewing process. Not that tea drinking is dying out. Late night and downtown you’ll find the pedestrianized streets busy with youngsters grabbing a cup.

Reaching Shantou from Hong Kong: A direct bus travels 6-8 hours from Hong Kong International Airport to Shantou once daily; traveling to Shantou from Hong Kong is fastest (but not the cheapest) by air. 

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05 of 06

Huiyang: Scenic Stretches of Seashore

Xunliao Bay in Guangong

Eastern Guangdong is less built-up than the skyscraper-infested skylines out west. Other towering things will catch your attention here: forests and mountains, all fringing some of the most stunning stretches of coastline you’ll ever see.

One of the best stretches is Daya Bay, just south of Huiyang City. There are nearly 100 islands scattered across the bay, most of which are uninhabited, and you’ll never be far from a stretch of golden sand.

The further you can get away from Huiyang, the remoter and prettier the bay becomes. The jungle-clad hills slipping into the South China Sea, and the odd crumbling fisherman temple, all add a little color.

The best of eastern Guangdong’s beaches can be found on the east side of the bay. Head to Xunliao Bay for some fine stretches of golden beaches and swanky resorts drawn to the sands.

Staying a few days? Travel another hour or so south and you can visit the Gangkou Sea Turtle Reserve, set on a stunning beach with a dramatic mountain backdrop.

Reaching eastern Guangdong from Hong Kong: Several direct buses travel 2-3 hours from Hong Kong to the nearby city of Huizhou.

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06 of 06

How to Get to These Hidden Destinations in China

Jetfoil in Victoria Harbour Hong Kong
Bernard Spragg. NZ

While the Hong Kong to Guangzhou ferry is the most enjoyable route to these destinations, there are alternatives. Guangzhou is the region’s transportation hub and you’ll find daily direct buses to all of the destinations listed.

Western Guangdong is also well served by fast trains, and several destinations are connected to the track. If you do find yourself stuck in finding a route, try one of the China Travel Service travel agencies found throughout Hong Kong - they will be able to point you in the right direction.

If you are travelling to China from Hong Kong, you will need a full Chinese visa. You can apply for a Chinese visa in Hong Kong.

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