Old Version
Outside In

Ink or Swim

Find how the backwater of Shangqiwan has a place in China’s early engagement with the West, dive into caves, pools and gorges, and dip into the history of inkstones

By Michael Jones Updated Nov.1

Qixingyan Scenic Area, Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province, March 3, 2019 (Photo by VCG)

When Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci arrived in Zhaoqing on September 10, 1583, it was already a major trading center on the Pearl River, far more important than other settlements in Guangdong Province such as Guangzhou, then known as Canton. Ricci had sailed to Zhaoqing from the Portuguese settlement of Macao, which he had reached a year earlier in 1582. Ricci arrived in Shangqingwan Village in Zhaoqing at a small wooden wharf and soon established a Catholic church. Both the wharf and the church survive to this day, although the tiny traditional village seems rather unassuming considering its importance in history. Ricci was eventually expelled from Zhaoqing in 1588, although he went on to become the first European to enter the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1601 when he was invited by the Ming Dynasty Wanli Emperor, who reigned from 1572 to 1620. Ricci founded the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the oldest Catholic church in Beijing. In a change to established customs, the emperor even allowed Ricci to be buried in Beijing. He assigned a Buddhist temple as the location of the burial plot, which later became Zhalan Cemetery.  

While Zhaoqing may no longer command the same prominence among Chinese trading cities, its history and natural beauty continue to make it a fantastic destination for tourists, travelers and historians.  

Gorges and Inkstones 
In addition to Shangqingwan Village there are numerous popular activities to entertain tourists in Zhaoqing. For more adventurous and active visitors, Zhaoqing’s Palm Valley Jungle Off-Road Base provides fascinating and scenic routes for off-road driving. Options for the adventurous include buggies for two people and individual quad bikes. Typical routes last for 90 minutes and take visitors 20 kilometers over hills, through jungle, and around hair-raising bends. To improve the appeal of the valley, the off-road base management have planted over 200,000 plants and trees from over 1,000 species. When combined with the natural topography of the area, visitors spend as much time enjoying the views as they do feeling the adrenaline rush of racing.  

However, it is worth noting that typical routes include traveling through wet and muddy areas, meaning that visitors are strongly advised to bring a change of clothes, including shoes. Aside from off-road racing, the base includes opportunities for water sports including speed boats and flying surfboards. However, for those who would rather enjoy a leisurely walk, Zhaoqing has plenty of options. One of the most popular is Antelope Gorge. The gorge is located between Antelope Mountain and Lanke Mountain. Antelope Gorge, Dading Gorge and Sanrong Gorge are collectively known as the Xijiang Three Gorges. Antelope Gorge stretches over 10 kilometers, much of which can be explored on foot. The convenient pathways offer a chance to get some low-intensity exercise, while admiring the passing river traffic, and the natural beauty of the forests. The paths are well maintained, and so the walking route is suitable for those who enjoy a gentle hike without too much physical exertion. The routes do include small changes in elevation, although these are accomplished with manageable steps.  

Another popular attraction in Zhaoqing is Purple Cloud Valley. The valley sits southeast of Zhaoqing City and is only accessible via ferry. Visitors must first reach the designated car park before joining a queue for the ferry service, which sails upstream and crosses to the opposite riverbank. The ferry journey only takes around 10 minutes, and they run regularly. Like so many places in Zhaoqing, Purple Cloud Valley has a rich history, having a long and prominent role in the local mining industrial heritage. The valley still has an ink-stone pit, from which Duan ink-stones were extracted before being processed locally. Duan ink stones are considered to be the greatest of China’s four famous ink stone types, and many people argue that the very best Duan ink stones come from there. Nowadays, most visitors arrive to enjoy the peace and tranquility of nature, rather than the hard work and manual labor of industry. The entrance features a number of restaurants, shops and man-made swimming pools. These pools are fed directly by the wild mountain streams that flow down the valley from the rainforest covered hills above. These pools are understandably popular in the fiery heat of Guangdong’s tropical summer. However, even more popular are the natural pools that dot the river itself. There are attractive narrow paths along the banks of the small river, together with ornate bridges. This allows visitors to wander for up to an hour through the forest, searching for a small river pool, where they can cool off in private. Many of the pools are shallow, making them safe for young and old visitors alike, while a smaller number of the pools offer a little more depth for gentle swimming.  

Caves and Calligraphy 
However, perhaps the most enjoyable way to spend time in Zhaoqing derives from a rather more simple pleasure, namely the relaxing experience of appreciating a delicious meal with a stunning view. In the center of metropolitan Zhaoqing are Xinghu Lake and Qinglian Lake, nestled within the Zhaoqing Qixingyan Scenic Area. On the east side is the “village” of Yanqian. Yanqian does indeed have the romantic feel of a small village, but is in reality adjacent to the center of the metropolis. Opposite Yanqian are the Seven Star Crags, often referred to as Little Guilin. The cliffs include 531 inscriptions, most of which represent beautiful examples of calligraphy. There are numerous religious idols sculpted into the rocks, mostly of a Buddhist and Taoist nature. The crags include many caves, some of which feature underground rivers that are substantial enough for boats to traverse. One of the crags can even be climbed by those with plentiful energy. Although the stairs are very steep, the views from the small pavilion at the top, overlooking the scenic area, the other crags, the lakes and central Zhaoqing, reward the physical effort in abundance.  

This central area of Zhaoqing offers both the most attractive natural scenery within the area, and the most convenient access to services. It includes a few high-quality hotels, including four- and five-star hotels from international brands. Many of these sit adjacent to a large public square, which is popular with families and convenient snack and beverage traders. Visitors can take a leisurely walk along the edge of the lakes, and through the scenic area for hours. The vista is simply breathtaking, and at nighttime the various crags are lit up in a stunning manner, which is surprisingly sympathetic to the raw natural beauty of these geological forms. Yanqian Village is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, including international establishments, most of which have outdoor seating and roof terraces. This ensures that the location is perfect for friends or couples who wish to embrace the al fresco lifestyle after a tiring day of exploring historical sights, hiking, swimming and racing. 

The Catholic church in Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province, established by Matteo Ricci (Photo by Michael Jones)