(How NOT to) Go to Guizhou: the Hidden Beauty of China

“Go to Guizhou, the Hidden Beauty of China,” the TV advised me.

“No thanks mate – I already did, and it was kinda shit,” I replied.

I was sat in my Airbnb in Taipei, doing some work with the TV on in the background, half-watching a CNN panel pissing their pants about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s latest scandal. The frequent salvos of advertising that seem to make up half of CNN’s airtime were at that time pushing this ‘Go to Guizhou’ ad hard, bombarding their viewers with images of beautiful limestone karst formations stretching away into the mist and tiered waterfalls tumbling down cliffsides into emerald pools; colourfully dressed Zhuang or Yao villagers were shown giving performances of traditional music & dancing or serving up the local specialties; lush rice terraces were shown cascading down hillsides into dramatic river canyons.

(The video embedded above isn’t the CNN ad, but definitely contains some of the same footage so I’m guessing is the work of the same organisation)

It really did look like an amazing place on the screen – and to be fair, from what little I’d actually managed to see of it in the flesh a few months earlier, it really was that beautiful. But my own trip through Guizhou en route from Sichuan & Chongqing to Yunnan (and on to Southeast Asia) had proven to be a frustrating endeavour, the beauty mostly seen only through rain-spattered bus windows.

I’d arrived in Chengdu from the Tibetan Plateau after a failed attempt to visit Lhasa and points beyond, and was aiming for Laos and Thailand; this involves travelling via Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan, and would usually suggest a backpacking route through Sichuan and Yunnan provinces to get there. But I’d done that route before, and was looking to see something new; a dogleg route through Guizhou, one of China’s most overlooked corners (by foreign visitors and the rest of China alike) seemed like an interesting alternative.

So from Chengdu I’d revisited Chongqing (it was fascinating to see it again almost a decade after our hilarious hotpot experience there, to see how much it had changed yet somehow stayed the same), and then left Chongqing on the train to Guiyang (provincial capital of Guizhou); this was the old, slow type of train, with some lovely views as it trundled along river canyons and past looming mountain ranges. It was blissfully quiet for most of the 9-hour journey, until we stopped somewhere about 2 hours north of Guiyang where the train picked up a full complement of passengers. It got dark then too, making those last 2 hours pretty dull and uncomfortable (though hardly the worst journey I’ve experienced in China), so it was nice to finally arrive in Guiyang.

To the rest of China, the province of Guizhou is synonymous with the twin scourges of excessive rain and excessive poverty, the most backward part of the country’s backward interior, as boonies as it gets. Yet in Guiyang I found myself in a city as presentable as any other provincial capital in China, if not more so than most, and one that seems to have avoided the worst of the environmental carnage going on elsewhere; certainly not the most exciting of places, but I found it to be friendlier and more likeable than most big Chinese cities.

That said, it’s still a dirty great city mostly consisting of faceless concrete blocks, and it was Guizhou’s natural attractions I was keen to see, so I just stayed in Guiyang for a couple of nights to work out what I was doing – I stayed at Shu Hostel which is a decent place, and the manager (or owner maybe, I wasn’t sure) was a great source of information.

The province of Guizhou covers an area roughly the size of Cambodia, so there’s obviously far too much to see in just a quick run through; I figured I’d just pick one area to stop off and check out for a couple of days between Guiyang and Kunming.

Guizhou’s attractions are many, both natural and man-made; the mountains, limestone karst, river canyons, lakes and waterfalls provide great natural beauty, and the many hill tribe villages have become the focus of “heritage-based tourism”.

These sights are spread across the province, but those lying roughly along my route to Kunming were Huangguoshu Waterfall (near Anshun, a couple of hours outside Guiyang), and the Maling River Canyon and Wanfenglin Scenic Area of karst cones (both near Xingyi, roughly halfway between Guiyang and Kunming).

Huangguoshu looks stunning – it’s China’s largest waterfall and Guizhou’s most famous attraction, and is apparently well set up for tourist visits with accommodation options in Anshun and good transportation connections from there. I should really have gone there first, then on to Xingyi, but I was on a tight budget and in a bit of a rush so opted to head directly to Xingyi – I was more interested in Maling Canyon & the limestone karst than I was in Huangguoshu falls, plus Xingyi is roughly equidistant from Guiyang and Kunming, making it an obvious place to break the journey being around 4 hours from each – at least, in theory…

But, of course, ‘in theory’ and ‘in reality’ are two different things. The bus trip from Guiyang to Xingyi was fine, bar the absurdly inconvenient location of Guiyang’s long-distance bus station out on the edge of the city – a common strategy for newer bus stations in China, to reduce inner-city congestion. A sensible system and it’ll work fine once the Guiyang subway extends out there, but until then it involves a long bus ride and is a bit of a pain in the ass!

The fun & games really got started though once I arrived in Xingyi; as had happened two weeks earlier in Xining, I fell foul of China’s longstanding but until recently unenforced laws requiring hotels to have special foreigner licences. Traipsing through the cold evening (it was November and Xingyi is a thousand metres above sea level) from hotel to hotel around whatever bus station it was I’d been dropped off at (I really wasn’t sure where I was, and couldn’t get online) I was repeatedly turned away, until finally the front desk staff at one of them asked me to take a seat while they made a call.

So I took a seat for ten minutes, glad to be in out of the cold and next to a heater, and got a bit of a surprise when a PSB van turned up; three burly armed cops demanded my passport and told me to get in the van. What the living fuck?! Is this me disappearing into Chinese detention for a spot of ‘correctional treatment’, culminating in a forced TV apology for my democratic ways? Well, no, probably not; I hadn’t been up to any political agitating. But I wasn’t too keen to get in a PSB van without knowing what was going on; the cops spoke no English, and the hotel guy spoke just a little more. But that was enough for him to say the PSB were there to help me, and there didn’t seem to be anything else for it, so I got in the van. They then drove me miles across town to the Xingyi Yike Hotel, which was, as had been the case in Xining, a far pricier place than I was intending to stay at. I had no idea if there were any other cheaper hotels where I’d be allowed to stay though, and in any case these PSB guys weren’t going anywhere until they’d seen me check in, so I just had to suck it up and pay. As it turns out, if you check Hotels Combined for Xingyi there’s actually a decent number of options in town – 7Days Inn is a good bet if you’re trying to keep costs down; there are also a few options in Wanfenglin, so that’s probably the best place to stay if you’re there for the scenery.

Not only was it painful to pay that much for a room, it stuffed up my plans for visiting Maling Canyon and Wanfenglin the following day as I was now nowhere near the bus station, and the poor English at the front desk (and my poor Chinese) meant I couldn’t work out the local transportation from the hotel, other than to just take taxis everywhere. Given that I’d just blown way more than I wanted on accommodation, and would have to do so for two more nights to check out both scenic areas or one more night to check out just the canyon, it all started to seem like it wasn’t worth it; in the end I decided to be satisfied with having seen Guizhou’s karst through the bus window, and having snatched a glimpse of Maling Canyon from the highway when the bus had crossed the Malinghe Shankun Bridge the previous evening, and so I checked out and, thus defeated, headed for Kunming.

My photos from this journey are virtually unusable, snapped through bus windows on a broken camera, but here’s a couple which at least give an idea of the spectacular scenery:

Scenery in Guizhou

Limestone karst along the highway

Crossing one of the incredible bridges in Guizhou

Crossing the Malinghe Shankun Bridge

Speaking of bridges, check out this list of the world’s highest bridges – of 91 bridges on the list, fully 40 are in Guizhou, and of the 33 on the ‘under construction’ list, 15 are in Guizhou. Also give this video about the new Beipanjiang Bridge a watch:

That gives you some idea of how dramatic Guizhou’s scenery really is – definitely a place with sights to see, and no wonder it’s being pushed as a tourist destination… but then, it’s all well and good saying ‘Go to Guizhou’ and promoting it as a destination for international visitors when you don’t even allow most of the hotels in one of the main sightseeing areas to accept foreigners!

So anyway, having seen Guizhou’s beautiful mountains and canyons through the bus window, but not actually managed to visit any of them, I made for Kunming; fittingly though, even that proved harder than expected. The bus departed 30 minutes late, then with some major construction taking place on the highway we took some crazy back roads through the mountains, and it took several hours more than it should have; there was also a random change of bus, the passengers with all our luggage waiting on the dusty roadside for half an hour to be picked up (though this was actually something of a relief as the first bus had an absolute swarm of flies buzzing around inside, landing repeatedly on ears and noses). This all led to a very late arrival at Kunming’s East Bus Station (not yet connected to the city’s subway system), and I then had to deal with a bunch of shitbag taxi drivers trying to rip me off before managing to work out the bus to get downtown. To top the day off, the guy at the hostel had no idea about my reservation and I ended up in a crappy room with no hot water, just because. But that was just one of those days.

So, between the accommodation and transportation misfires, I didn’t have a great visit to Guizhou, though the massive potential for tourism in the province was obvious. I should also mention the region’s delicious cuisine, which is very spicy and also very diverse due to the ethnic diversity; the street snacks in the market were awesome. The people are also kind & friendly – shout-outs to the guy I chatted to on the train who pointed me the right way at Guiyang Station, and to the random girl who stepped in to help me flag a taxi in Xingyi just as my blood was starting to boil.

Had I had more time to be flexible / a bigger budget / done my research better and booked ahead, things would’ve gone better, sure, but I was travelling on the fly after other plans failed to work out and, at least for the time being, Guizhou isn’t as easy as other parts of China for winging it. What I will say for sure is that it’s a gorgeous place, and were it a country in its own right I reckon it’d be world-famous for being a beautiful one. Hopefully the accommodation situation will improve over time (including more options for budget travellers), and once the transportation catches up with eastern China it’ll be much easier to get to and around Guizhou. Until then, perhaps the best way to visit Guizhou (or Xingyi, at least) is by train from Kunming, and do a cycle tour of the area – like these guys did

Though you probably won’t have to wait long for the transportation to improve; shortly after I passed through Guizhou the new bullet train line opened from Guiyang to Kunming – too late for me to use, but could be helpful for you (not to mention everyone who lives there). Guiyang is also already connected by bullet train to Guangzhou and Shanghai, with another line north to Chongqing under construction. Update: the Guiyang-Chongqing line opened in early 2018, cutting the travel time from 9 hours to 2h15m.

According to this Wikipedia entry on the new Zhaozhuang Bridge, Xingyi is also getting a metro system – this should make things much easier for checking the area out. Furthermore, I guess that by the time most people ever read this, the Xingyi – Kunming highway which my bus couldn’t go on will be spick & span and in service, and Kunming’s Line 3 should have opened (it was supposed to open in June 2017 Update: it opened in August 2017) to connect the East Bus Station to the rest of the system, and the journey from Xingyi to Kunming will be a breeze.

Such is China in the early 21st Century; the gleaming tendrils of the high speed rail system feeling their way out to the darkest corners of the interior, new highways burrowing through mountainsides and soaring across canyons, China building and blasting and paving its way with concrete. Travel there at this point in time is often still very frustrating, especially in the interior which can sometimes feel like going a decade back from the coast, but even when it doesn’t go to plan it’s always fascinating.

So, yeah, Guizhou is indeed the ‘Hidden Beauty of China’, and if you have time for something extra between, say, Yunnan and Yangshuo, perhaps you should consider going. Just be prepared for possible frustrations, and have a flexible enough schedule & budget to deal with them.

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