Secret Shenzhen: Nantou Ancient City

Secret Shenzhen: Nantou Ancient City
By Alastair Dickie ,

Close to the now defunct border crossing between Bao'an and Nanshan Districts lies a part of Shenzhen that, were it not tucked discreetly out of the way, would stick out like a sore thumb. Amongst Shenzhen's glitzy high rise buildings and shimmering skyscrapers lies a true historical gem.

Nantou (or Nam Tau in the native Cantonese) is an ancient 1,700 year old walled city lying at the heart of what used to be Bao'an County. Way back when Shenzhen was a small dirt smear along the southern Chinese coast, it was a prosperous village that was of such strategic importance to warrant special protective walls built to help ward off Japanese pirates. It is of much greater modern historical significance as well, as after the first Opium War was won by the British Empire, Hong Kong island was signed away by a few Chinese mandarins in a small government building within the city's walls.

A forgotten city

Today it seems very much like Nantou has been forgotten by most of the city dwellers. A museum was opened a few years back, but nobody went so it was quickly mothballed. Nantou doesn't really appear on many maps, and very few of Shenzhen inhabitants seem to know it's even there. In fact, you could walk right past the walled entrance (which is actually just set back off Shennan Avenue, arguably the biggest road in the whole city) and not even notice.

On one side of the street is a giant Wal-Mart accessed by one of those leviathan foot-bridges that Chinese urban planners seem so fond of, and on the other are a few nondescript looking buildings bordered by a couple of scratchy pieces of grass. However, if you are of a curious or bone-headed disposition and you decide that these nondescript buildings look like they might be not so nondescript, you will find something truly unique.

Nantou's South Gate is located near the corner of Shennan Avenue and Nanxin Road, and you enter through a beautiful old stone-walled tunnel built into the wall. Then everything turns chaotic. Obviously, the ancient Chinese didn't really build their cities with cars in mind, so the minute you pass through the gates you are hemmed in from all sides by street vendors, other pedestrians, shop fronts, restaurants and all other manner of Chinese life.

A real taste of China

Although it is extremely busy, it is also a pleasant change to the normal "busy" that seems to typify Shenzhen (neon lights, car horns, pounding music from giant promotional speakers), and even though all the trinkets and junk on offer are just the same as anywhere else in the city, it just feels a little bit more authentic. There are no brand name shops here, the restaurants are all tiny family-owned hole-in-the-walls, and even though Nantou is just north of foreigner-thronged Coastal City, here you will be greeted with almost comical stares as you try and squeeze your large laowai frame past the locals.

The "city" is fairly small, and it is quite easy to walk its circumference in about twenty minutes (less if everyone didn't keep getting in your way), but it is twenty minutes well spent. It is the perfect place for someone who is perhaps beginning to forget they were actually in China at all. So much talk is bandied about regarding "old" and "new" China, but in Nantou you can actually feel it. Right next to ancient walls that have seen their inhabitants through numerous Mongol hordes, Dynasties and Empires are Chinese kids running around with Power Ranger toys. Next to examples of pre-millennium classical Chinese architecture are throngs of teenagers bounding up and down a basketball court wearing Kobe Bryant vests and Air Jordans.

Getting there

If you want to really see China at its most juxtaposed, this is the place to come. You can get to Nantou in any number of ways. Perhaps the easiest is to take a taxi from any of the nearest Metro Stations (Shenzhen University, Taoyuan or Da Xin on the Luobao line) and tell the driver to go to Nantou Ancient City or Nan Tou Gu Cheng (南投古城). The journey should take no more than five minutes. There is also a huge bus stop right outside (presumably for the Wal-Mart, not for the city), but it makes for easy access. The stop is Nantou (南头) and is serviced by a huge number of buses: 42, 78, 201, 204 and 226 amongst the most frequent.

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Keywords: Nantou ancient city traditional Shenzhen things to see Shenzhen history of Shenzhen


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