Zhenyuan: Best bits of China in one town
When it comes to the southwest of China, the old towns of Dali, Lijiang and Yangshuo attract the most visitors.
But Zhenyuan, a 2,000-year-old river town in under-appreciated Guizhou province, offers adventurous travelers the chance to see something a little different.
It is featured in few travel guides, which is a surprise.
The old streets of Zhenyuan are not as commercialized as the towns mentioned above.
What makes it really stand out is the way it gives the visitor a taste of other great qualities of China, all within a short ride or hike outside town.
The Wuyang River cuts through Zhenyuan and hills and mountains tower over the town. At the northwest edge of the town is the entrance to the southernmost section of the Great Wall.
Many Chinese themselves don’t know that there’s a southern section of the Great Wall so close by.
Zhenyuan’s section of the Great Wall may not be connected to the ones known and loved just outside of Beijing, but it is part of a 300-kilometer wall that extends east into Hunan province that protected the Ming Dynasty from the local Miao ethnic tribes more than 500 years ago.
The views over the town are spectacular. During spring and summer the surrounding terraced rice fields outside Zhenyuan are the stuff of landscape photographers' dreams.
For those not inclined to climb 200 meters of stairs to visit the Great Wall, a more pleasurable experience is a gorge cruise.
Just 15 kilometers outside Zhenyuan there are gorges similar to the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.
Wander into any travel agency in town to sign up for a Wuyang River boat cruise along a 35-kilometer stretch of impressive peaks, cliffs, caves and waterfalls.
It provides a good look at beautiful gorge landscapes for those that can't make it to the Three Gorges or don't want to spend five days cruising up the Yangtze River -- increasingly difficult to do with droughts and low water levels.
I’ve done both cruises, and unless you’re well schooled or primarily interested in Chinese dynastic history, the Zhenyuan version is just as good.
All of the fun isn’t outside town though. Back in the heart of Zhenyuan, history and architecture buffs will love the extensive laneway system of ancient temples, shops and homes.
Many have been tastefully restored to their former glory and the architecture in the area is typical of Miao, Dong and Han ethnic groups who live together.
A stroll throughout the narrow lanes is reminiscent of the disappearing hutong laneway communities of Beijing. This is people-watching at its finest -- families sit outside their homes to eat, drink, play, sing and dance.
There are also ancient wells, piers and docks along the Wu Yang River that tell the story of Zhenyuan's cultural and economic importance in the imperial past.
At night, the town is lit up in garish colors.
Guizhou cuisine may not be as popular as its spicier Sichuan cousin, but for anyone unable or unwilling to sacrifice their taste buds to the almighty chili pepper, Guizhou food features a sweet-and-sour flavor with liberal use of tomatoes and just a touch of chili peppers.
The local favorite dish is the hot and sour fish stew made with locally caught freshwater fish.
The dish won’t burn your tongue off like Sichuan’s spicy boiled fish, but it's not for the meek either.
The dish served in Zhenyuan that is the most fun would have to be si wawa.
This is tapas-like meal consists of 18 small dishes of seafood and fresh and pickled vegetables which are served with a small wheat pancake (just like the Peking roast duck pancake), and you make your own wraps.
For the best al fresco tables in town, head down to the north side of the river at lunch or dinner hours.
Also on CNNGo: 10 of China's spiciest dishes
The closest airport is in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province. From Guiyang airport, head to the main train station and buy a ticket to Zhenyuan. The journey takes about four hours.
It’s best not to take buses as they are unreliable and slow due to the dangerous mountain roads.
There are many guesthouses along the south and east side of the river all for under RMB 300 per room. Make sure you get one with a nice balcony so you can wake up to the scenic bridge.