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Top 10 ancient cities: China's best kept secret

China is a vast country with innumerable tourist destinations. If you are getting tired of going to the hot spots like Sanya, Lijiang and Pingyao, and want to get away from constant stream of tourists, the following 10 destinations are good choices for you. These ancient towns are sure to please your senses with the rich culture of ancient China.

  Bing'an Ancient Town, Guizhou

  Located next to the Chishui River, Bing'an used to be an important gateway between Sichuan and Guizhou during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Excluding the newly constructed suspension bridge, the town was only accessible by boat. This heritage of inconvenient transportation has preserved the town's traditional culture and structures.

  It was difficult to locate an area of flat land to build residents' houses because the town was founded in a mountainous region. However, locals quickly adapted existing technologies, such as stilted houses with wooden frames, to satisfy basic military and economic needs. If viewed from across the river on the highway, a large number of three-to-five storey houses supported by hundreds of logs can be seen. There are four stone gates on each side of the town, making Bing'an more a solid castle than a town.

  The new suspension bridge spans the Chishui River. Standing in the middle part of the bridge, you may get a panoramic view of Bing'an town and the lofty mountains around. It is the best location to take photos.

  Along the bluestone slabs covered with moss, the old buildings shaded by woods take you back in time to ancient China. Recording the history of the town, the old houses, walls and eaves look like faded pictures.

  Pianyan Ancient Town, Chongqing

  Located in Chongqing, southwest China, Pianyan Ancient Town was a business center in ancient China, with a history of more than 300 years. The town sits between two extensions of Huaying Mountain, with the winding crystal Heishuitan River flowing by.

  Time passed, but the streets, architecture, culture and customs of the town have remained and are well-preserved. Simple but elegant, the buildings along the streets have never been renovated, and maintain their original look.

  In addition to the bridges, rivers, old streets and historic houses, which are similar to other ancient Chinese towns, the most unique attractions in Pianyan Town are the Yuanyang Bridge, Couple Trees and Female Smith Forge.

  Yuanyang Bridge was built at the intersection of the mainstream and a branch of Heishuitan River in 1809, during the Qing Dynasty. Two Ficus trees stand on either end of the bridge. As time passed, the two trees grew toward each other, and their branches and roots have been twining together, like an embracing couple. This was the reason why people called them the Couple Trees.

  There was a smith forge in the town. Different from other smith forges, a woman worked as a blacksmith in this forge, which created a beautiful scene in the town.

  The Wu Temple, Book House, Opera Tower, Stilted Houses by the river and the ancient street paved with blue stone slabs are also worth a visit.

  Qianyang Ancient Town, Hunan

  Many people know of Fenghuang, but there are still a number of other old towns in Hunan province. Qianyang is one of them. Surrounded by water on three sides, Qianyang was once a famous business town on the southern Silk Road, which was an important transportation channel before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) linking China to south and west Asia.

  With a history spanning 2,200 years, Qianyang Ancient Town was established in 202 BC, 1,400 years earlier than Dayan Ancient Town of Yunnan and some 900 years earlier than Fenghuang Ancient Town.

  The town is a successful model planned and established based on its terrain following Feng Shui, a Chinese system of geomancy believed to use the laws of both Heaven and Earth to help one improve life. There are many alleys in the town, and each of them is connected in a T-shape, which looks like a perplexing maze. The design is a combination of traditional architecture with Chinese philosophy. Today, the town's original layout, alleys and the ancient architecture complexes of Ming and Qing dynasties are still well preserved, which is an exception in modern China.

  Various temples, ancestral halls, opera halls, guild halls, academies, shops, hotels, residential houses and villas can be found in the town. The tall firewalls, the bended eave corners, the wood-frame windows decorated with carved patterns and the plain counters record the town's long history. Most buildings are of one or two stories, built using either wood or brick.

  For thousands of years, local residents have created a unique folk culture, including local operas, music, dances and artwork such as woodcarving handicrafts and bamboo baskets. The Mulian Opera, an integration of folk stories, sideshows and acrobatics, was recognized as the “living fossil” of Chinese opera art by the UNESCO.

  Heshun Village, Yunnan

  Four kilometers away from Tengchong county, Yunnan province, across a paddy field and a stone bridge, is Heshun village, an ancient and beautiful south China village.

  Tengchong used to be an important stop on the ancient“southern land silk road” which was a trade route linking Burma, India and China's Sichuan and Yunnan. Heshun sits beside the road. During that time, a large volume of cigarettes, alcohol, silk and tea from Yunnan were exported, and cotton, jade ware and jewels were imported from Burma. Many people from Heshun went to Burma and the neighboring countries for business.

  Today, this traditional village has preserved much of its rich heritage, and the architecture and folk customs that existed before the Ming and Qing dynasties still flourish in Heshun. It is amazing that there is such a splendid Chinese village in the border area. The classical ancestral halls, temples, memorial archways, pavilions, stone fences and folk houses with white walls and black tiles record the flourishing history and traditional culture of the village. The poplar and willow trees by the river and the beautiful lotus flowers in the ponds make the garden scene of the countryside even more charming. The beautiful scenery has attracted many painters, photographers and film directors.

  The village is also the birthplace of many well-known scholars. The old traditional building by the entrance to the village is a village-level library with the longest history and richest collection of books in China.

  Sideng Street, Yunnan

  Located in Shaxi town of Yunnan Province, Sideng Street is the only bazaar along the tea and horse route that survived the wars and chaos throughout the centuries.

  From the neolithic age to Ming and Qing dynasties, the tough geography and environment around the town made it an important communication center on the route. People had to pass the town before heading north to Tibet and south to the Central Plains. As time went by, Shaxi became a distribution center where businessmen from Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia exchanged goods. Fur and feathers and Tibetan herbs were transported on horseback from Tibet to the town and exchanged for much-needed goods like salt and tea.

  Sideng Street was one of the busy bazaars in Shaxi Town and the only well-preserved trading center along the historic route. It was included in the 2002 World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites on October 11, 2001 by the World Monuments Fund.

  In today's Sideng Street complex, the Bai ethnic-style buildings, with the structure of shops in the front and yard in the back, are standing alongside the stone-slab roads. In the east of the complex, there is an intact ancient theater built during the Qing Dynasty, a stage and a pavilion with three layers of eaves. In the west of the complex, there is a Buddhist Temple from the Bai ethnic group called Xingjiao Temple. Built in 1415 during the Ming Dynasty, the temple has more than 20 murals painted by Zhang Bao, a famous Bai painter. It is a miracle that the architecture of the temple is still in good condition after 600 years.

  There used to be three gates of Sideng Street complex, but now only the east gate remains. The imprints of horses' hoofs can still be seen there.

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