(Somewhat) off the beaten track in China’s Guizhou

A European travelling in southwest China, you’re likely to visit the provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan. Guizhou? Probably not. Especially not in winter. With a more hectic travel schedule than usual, we squeezed it in and the region really made for a unique experience.

When we just arrived, we met one westerner at a bus station in Duyun, but after that we were completely alone with the Chinese for a week. We get looks everywhere in China, even in Beijing and Shanghai, but never have we felt as out of place as in Guizhou. There’s no point trying to count how many pictures we’ve posed for, let alone how many have been snapped of us in passing. There wasn’t much English spoken, but we still had quite a few conversations with curious locals wondering where we’re from, what we had seen in China and where we were going. We were even treated to a full day out by a friendly couple in Anshun.

We loved the countryside, but didn’t take much liking to the cities. We hated Kaili, disliked Anshun and only toured the train station area of the provincial capital Guiyang – an interesting and friendly place, though not one I’d ever think to describe as pretty or cosy. It’s possible Guiyang’s city centre is nicer, but we didn’t stay an extra day just to check.

The old town of Zhenyuan, however, is a pearl. It’s full of old stone houses, some nice bridges, impressive temples and the southernmost part of the Chinese wall. The main street is clearly geared at Chinese tourists, but behind it there are lots of wonderful alleys. Compared to many of the old villages and towns we’ve visited, where people are putting up large, new stone houses next to the classic wooden ones and where Starbuck’s hides behind traditional walls, this city isn’t changing that much and entire neighbourhoods remain untouched, though in good condition.

Go there for the nature

The landscapes in Guizhou are stunning. Wherever you look, there are mountains or hills, many of them still quite green, and in between you pass one cute village after another. Travelling in early spring, we saw lots of fields full of beautiful yellow flowers. The region has several waterfalls and many caves.

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Guizhou through a dirty train window. Bear with us with the image quality.

We visited the cave in Zhijin, one of the largest in China, during a long day-trip from Guiyang. (If you ever think of doing the same, go from Anshun and cut the trip by 1 hour 20 minute per way. You live, you learn.) We’ve seen caves in Belgium and Japan before, but this was something else. One massive chamber followed another during the 2 hour+ tour in Chinese everybody had to join. It was, surprisingly, rather tastefully lit and there were quite a few printed English explanations of the formations.

To top it off, the train trips were wonderful. We bought hard seat tickets, the cheapest you can find in China, and met lots of locals eager to chat and take a gazillion photos. On the way there, some women fed us eggs, checked our marital status and showed photos from their travels while an old toothless and sunburnt man with a white goatee, a wooden cane and long, carved pipe studied Christophe intently. On the way back, the ticket controller made a big show of telling us that if we had any problems, we could come to him, while the family next to us giggled when our eyes met.

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Leaving the train in Guiyang. Bye bye!

Our trip to the Huangguoshu waterfall – supposed to be the largest in China and, like the cave, very impressive – turned into another display of the kindness and generosity we’ve met in this country. Rui and Lung spotted us in the bus out and took us around in taxis between the sights, fed us and dressed us up in Miao gear, waited for us at the last waterfall that they decided to skip and finally covered our bus ticket back home. No matter how we tried to protest and pay something for them, we were told that we were guests in their country and they wanted to be good hosts. Imagine that back home.

Challenging food and transport

An important part of Guizhou’s population belongs to various minorities and their villages are interesting to visit. We hoped to see a few, but only managed one – the large Miao village of Xijiang – as some of the region’s famous street food sent us to bed with food poisoning. Guizhou won’t score high on our culinary chart as that put us off the street food for a while and that’s really THE thing to eat there, it seems. The Anshun delicacy of dog meat is another option. We were impressed by one of the local specialties, though: Fish in sour soup. It’s much better than it sounds.

Guizhou was more difficult to travel in than many other parts of China we’ve visited, but far from impossible. It just takes more time as you deal with more local busses, slow trains, mountain roads and large distances. Add a sizeable language barrier and you really feel a sense of accomplishment every time you manage to do a day-trip. Then again, that’s part of the charm, even though you might forget it when you’re on your ninth hour of travel and waiting time.

Finally, a note on the weather. I read about Guizhou being nicknamed Greyzhou and, well, we had about two hours of sunshine during our week in the province, but luckily not much rain. It wasn’t freezing, but since heating wasn’t a priority in most of our lodgings, we were grateful to still have our sleeping bags to crawl into. I hear summer temperatures in Guiyang are supposed to be excellent, though, in case you’re planning a trip.

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