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Cuckoo for Qingyuan

Branding itself "the garden of the Pearl River Delta", around 80km northwest of Guangzhou, straddling the Bei, or North River, is the Cantonese-speaking city of Qingyuan. What first appears as a cluster of mottled factories (many fast being dismantled to make way for new high-rise flats) was once an important river town on the imperial highway – the Bei is a tributary of the Pearl River to the south and thus connects Guangzhou with Shaoguan in northern Guangdong Province. So while malls and marauding traffic might define Qingyuan’s metropolitan pretensions today, the river is still the lifeblood of the county, feeding its predominantly agricultural surrounds while crafting a centerpiece through the fresh-faced urban district. It should, therefore, stand to reason that the principle sites of interest lie along the steep banks overlooking the deep jade waters of the River Bei itself. To experience what Qingyuan has in store simply hop aboard a boat at Wuyi Dock and ask the captain to sail east.

Feilai Buddhist Temple

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It takes the best part of an hour to get to Feilai, the first of Qingyuan’s fabled temples, but it’s a pleasant journey as you pass a few crumbling fishermen cottage before leaving the world of man in the boat’s wake. Like much of Guangdong, the landscape here is hilly, forested and ever cloaked in a warm damp mist. The occasional pagoda sequesters the green scenery that flanks the river gorge. Eventually the boat docks at Feilai, a Buddhist monastery with a recorded history of around 1400 years (though much has been replaced or renovated after a landslide in 1997). The turquoise ridge tiles of the temple roofs contrast delightfully with surrounding forest green and are best viewed from a hillside pavilion accessible via some well-worn mountain path. And should you arrive at lunchtime it is sometimes possible to dine on vegan delicacies fried up by the monks who still inhabit and worship in this hallowed quarter.

Feixia Daoist Temple

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After taking in, all Feilai has on offer your boat will motor forth to the far end of the gorge to the unremarkable jetty that services Feixia. But don't be disheartened. Here we find a Qing Dynasty complex dedicated to the veneration of Daoism. Though it only dates to 1863, there's a staggering 8km of flagstone paths linking pagodas, pavilions and prayer halls that scatter the scenic woodlands here. Entrance is RMB60 including an optional minibus trip up the mountain should you require it (though walking is doubtlessly more fun). There are two major temple compounds namely The Cangxia Ancient Cave, a muddled labyrinth of Daoist halls and pavilions, and the Feixia Ancient Cave, a distinctively more charming place, located in the wilds of the forest and guarded by menacing statues of Daoist saints. Occasionally an Ancient Orchestra Workshop performs captivating music on the guzheng and bamboo flute evoking the extraordinary soundscape of ancient China.

After the show, a stiff hike leads through the narrow streets and up beyond the temple complex to another great viewing platform; the aptly named Endless Sky Pagoda where even the most reserved traveler starts hitting snap on the camera. There’s a beautiful woodland path that backs down to the river via the Jinxia Buddha Hall. At the quay, there’s a floating market anchored to the bank, selling river born delicacies like toads, snakes and catfish. After you finished haggling, an adjoining riverboat-restaurant will cook up your produce for a surcharge.

The Body Temple

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Like most Cantonese locales Qingyuan is something of a foodie mecca with Fengyang Jerk, Shantang Tofu, and Lianzhou Whelk notable favorites. However, anyone visiting Qingyuan seems intent on sampling one above all, namely Qingyuan Chicken. Everywhere is advertising the local version of free-range poultry though multi-award winning Fen Zhong Huang on Renmin Er Lu is a notable favorite. The chicken is prepared in many ways, though serving it in a bowl of soup is a popular method. The good health of the birds, reflecting Qingyuan’s delicate natural environment, is said to be evident in the taste and health-giving qualities of the meat and many credit it with curing a multitude of ills.

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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