he grandmother wearing a traditional embroidered Miao dress lifted my shirt to expose my sweaty belly. Running her hand over its hair, she hooted “Sun Wukong! Sun Wukong!” While being compared to a monkey isn’t usually flattering, I consoled myself with the fact that at least the legendary literary figure is the Monkey King.
While it wasn’t a particularly hot day, my belly and I had worked up a steam tramping up and down the planted terraces, volunteering to help an old man haul his day’s pickings up to the village, drawing much amusement for my poor technique. At least I got a cigarette for my trouble and a man missing a few fingers was kind enough to explain why their homes all have bundles of twigs and feathers over their doors, as well as telling me how he gets on now his wife and daughter have moved to Guangdong Province.
This part of southeastern Guizhou, known properly as Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, offers not only the natural beauty of its rolling hills and plentiful picturesque villages, but also the chance to actually get to know people. In few other places have I met so many people eager to tell you about their lives and troubles.
The tourism industry has rapidly developed in the last decade, as local governments and big tourist companies have teamed up to pour cash into turning particularly promising villages into bastions of a kind of “minority tourism” – over 70 percent of the population are from minority groups, mostly Miao and Dong. Towns of pretty wooden houses which 10 years ago may have boasted a guesthouse or two and a few small restaurants now throng with crowds late into the night and pulse with that blaring electro-folk which businesses seem to think will lure you in.
However, there’s still more than enough on offer – both in the less touristy spots and the more developed parts – to make for a memorable visit of a week or more.
While you can get to Kaili, the seat of Qiandongnan, from Guizhou’s capital, Guiyang, by both bus and train, public transport after that point isn’t convenient – or, often, existent – so you’ll either want to rent a car or contact a tour company.
While the group option is undoubtedly the cheapest, you may find you will have to end up in the more touristy spots.
The drive is just a few hours, as despite being one of China’s less-developed provinces, Guizhou’s roads are generally in good condition.
In general, the villages and towns seem to be on a spectrum – the more the traditional architecture has been preserved or renovated, the more likely it is to be highly commercialized. Villages which have been largely rebuilt into more commonplace styles over the decades tend to be far quieter, but can offer you a peek into how people actually live – and people tend to be more willing to sit and chat.
The only exception I found to this, and a place any trip to Qiandongnan should try to include, is Dali Dongzhai in Rongjiang County. Nestled in a high valley, this Dong village is relatively light on tourists – as evidenced by the fact there’s few amenities to cater for them yet – but is still a remarkable example of traditional architecture, with a multilayer drum tower forming the centerpiece. The cries of a half-naked boy scared by a dragonfly floating around the village’s stream brought his mother and grandmother out to scold him, where we spent half an hour discussing life in the village and her envy at the guesthouse opening up next door, run by newly arrived Beijingers. Their arrival perhaps signals that Dali is also on its way to becoming busier.
Also, on the relatively-less-touristy end of the spectrum is Langde, in Leishan County. It’s split into two, lower and upper Langde villages. The lower village has fewer folky characteristics, but its free to get in and hosts a small museum of Miao culture that’s worth a drop in. The upper village is the focus of the local tourism, with tastefully restored oldstyle buildings clinging to a hillside.
One of the main draws of Langde is the chance to join a welcoming ceremony. Twice a day, dozens of the villagers will don their traditional costume and gather at the village’s entrance. To the backdrop of droning horns, you’ll be offered a dozen consecutive oxhorns of mild – yet potent – rice wine as you mount the steps into the heart of Langde. Afterwards, the villagers put on a show of dances and music in the cozy square, and there are more booze-horns. Polyphonic Miao choral music, with overlapping melodies, is something quite special, and a real highlight.
Besides a wander through the village, its worth stopping into one of the many homes that double as restaurants, where you’ll likely be greeted with some warm hospitality, decent grub and, if my experience is anything to go by, a 10-year-old boy will tell you more about his life than you can possibly wish to hear.
Far more commercialized, but still worth a visit to at least one, are Zhaoxing in Liping County and Xijiang in Leishan County. Both have multiple drum towers and covered “wind and rain” bridges, with Xijiang known as the largest Miao village in China with some 1,000 households. Try to get a room with a balcony view at the edge of Xijiang, where it’ll be quieter and you can enjoy a sundowner.
If the noise and crowds in the center of the towns get too much, visitors to Zhaoxing can walk the six-kilometer round trip up to Jitang Village, enjoying the quiet on the way up the tree-lined road that snakes up the hill. There’s just the one road connecting the village with the town, and it goes no further than Jitang, so hitchhiking up or down is quite easy.
In Xijiang, I’d make sure you also explore away from the built-up riverside area into the higher parts of the village, which are less busy and actually feel like a place where people live.
If there is a place which I visited that I’d urge you not to linger in – and that will likely appear on a premade tour agenda – is Wanda Danzhai Village, in Danzhai County. As the presence of a tourism and real estate conglomerate in the name may tell you, this is a particularly ersatz example of “minority tourism,” with a strip of hotels, restaurants and video-game arcades using the local aesthetic as a theme, though the nearby Gaoyao rice terraces and accompanying villages do offer some stunning views and interesting wandering.
As for timing, the province gets very hot in the summer, and its winters are known for being damp and chilly, so spring or autumn is your best bet. While we were visiting, people regularly expressed surprise it hadn’t rained for a whole week, so packing an umbrella would seem wise.