Visiting China’s Venice: Zhenyuan, Guizhou

Visiting China’s Venice: Zhenyuan, Guizhou

Zhenyuan old town

I’ve learned to be skeptical about destinations whose claim to fame is their imitation of other locations.

Zhenyuan 镇远 in Guizhou, China, then, ought to have rung the alarm bell. Venice is one of a kind and its distinct Italian flavor makes it nearly impossible to imitate well.

I’ve also learned to be forgiving, however. Everyone’s got to market somehow. Zhenyuan has its own inimitable charm, which is predicated on its remote location and patchwork of natural/ancient sites.

Zhenyuan downtown
Zhenyuan’s old, cobbled streets

Let’s now dig into the specifics of visiting this obscure, Chinese-Venetian double.

Getting to Zhenyuan

China’s best and most convenient transport system is its network of high-speed rails. From anywhere in the country, then, you’ll want to book a ticket to Kaili, Guizhou 凯里、贵州.

From the Kaili station you can book an expensive cab to take you straight to Zhenyuan (the drive takes 2 hours).

Kaili train station
Outside the train station in Kaili

If you’re looking to save, however, then grab a cab and tell the driver to take you to the local Kaili bus station. You’ll need to say it in Chinese because Guizhou cabbies do not speak any English. The word for bus station is Gong Jiao Che Zhan 公交车站(pronounced Gong Jee-ow chuh jahn).

You can buy your Zhenyuan tickets at the station or have a Chinese friend help you get them in advance. If you’re arriving late in the day the bus may be sold out, so it’s advised to get them online if possible. Otherwise, plan on making it to Kaili by early afternoon or simply spend a night in the city.

Zhenyuan Attractions

Gelato, lazy gondola rides, the Rialt.. no, actually, Zhenyuan has none of these.

What it does have is spicy hotpot, a litany of riverside bars, plenty of (regular) boat rides, temples, hikes, and river rafting.

Rafting near zhenyuan

I stayed at the Zhang Nan (name in Chinese: 秋江晚渡-江南苑) hotel, one of the higher end get-ups in the city. It was still relatively cheap (300 yuan) and, like other hotels in the area, comes partnered with tourism services which are available at the desk.

I’d recommend it for the old-style paneling in the rooms, the smoke-free options, and the complimentary tea.

Hotel in Zhenyuan
Interior of my riverside hotel

Unlike the real shebang, this Chinese Venice only features one large, meandering river. the ancient-style buildings brush up against the bend to create the stunning visual effect that allows the city its appellation.

Boat ride on the Wu Yang river

The Wu Yang river splits Zhenyuan old town in two, and tourist boats are plenty and cheap. Hop on one of the larger barges for a laid back, slow ride, or charter one of the smaller vessels to stop at sights for you along the way.

ZHenyuan old style boats

Sample the local cuisine

Guizhou cuisine shares much with its lauded cousin, Sichuan. Spicy and sour are Guizhou’s premier flavors, so sample both in one dish with Suan Tang Yu (酸汤鱼, or sour fish soup – it’s not really a soup but more of a hot pot with a whole fish. I do not like fish but enjoyed this dish anyways).

View from one of the many riverside restaurants
View from one of many riverside cafes

Another healthy staple of Guizhou is siwawa 丝娃娃, which are essentially fresh spring rolls that the customer rolls as they eat. The siwawa places in Zhenyuan also serve wonderful Guizhou street food, but your palette must be well-prepared for the inevitable burn of local spicy peppers.

Find the best restaurants by the river at the North side of town. This is also where you’ll find the bars and coffee shops.

Go river rafting

Gao Guo He 高过河 (another river in the area) is Guizhou’s most eminent adventure-rafting destination.

Don’t be fooled by the crowds and ease of access – near-vertical cataracts and white water swells will keep you on the edge of your boat.

Gao Guo He rafting
Rafting on the Gao Guo He

The easiest way to get to Gao Guo He is from the Zhenyuan local bus station. Though you’ll be harangued by people selling tours to this river on the side of the street, it’s easiest and cheapest to grab a bus for 30 yuan and buy your ticket once at the river.

The price is 130 yuan for Chinese and 110 for foreigners with all amenities included (besides a locker).

You’ll be on you own in the raft, so be ready. The paddle is just a long stick. Thankfully, there are guys posted at the more hardcore bends to pull you out should you fall in the river.

View on the way to Gao Guo He

The drive to Gao Guo He is a trip in itself – keep your eyes peeled for the colorful agricultural staples of the local Miao and Dong people. You’ll pass some genuine Miao villages on your way, which are differentiated by their distinct wooden houses.

See the Great Wall

The Great Wall? In Southwest China? Upriver on the Wu Yang sits the Southernmost section of China’s Great wall. It’s not the ‘real’ one, but rather a close cousin erected during the Ming dynasty.

Instead of protecting from Mongols and Huns this wall protected the Han from the local Miao tribes. They still have a strong presence in the area but have chilled out quite a bit since ancient times.

Final thoughts on the area

It’s only local Chinese who call this place ‘China’s Venice’. I don’t see much point in the nick-name because Zhenyuan is already one of China’s most showy and history-shrouded old cities.

Its local cultures are well-preserved and blend seamlessly with the glizty bars and restaurants that dot the Northern river front.

Zhenyuan by night

Zhenyuan is one of those towns that reminds you why China is awesome. It’s far enough away to be a journey and boisterous enough in its identity to reward the trepidation that traveling Southwest China requires.

Venetian or not, this jewel in the heart of one of China’s poorest areas allows visitors a glimpse of a country that can’t be encapsulated by the industrial identity it has assumed over the past 30 years.

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