he southwestern province of Guizhou is rightly regarded as a gem in the crown jewels of Chinese tourist attractions. The vast province is home to countless stunning natural features and minority towns and villages that set fire to the imagination. However, for many people Guizhou’s capital city of Guiyang serves as little more than a transit point, and this does a great disservice to Guiyang. Indeed, those who dedicate time to the city soon discover that Guiyang, a city of some six million people, is a worthwhile destination in itself, something the up-and-coming city, which is pushing green and high-tech development, would surely agree with.
First impressions of Guiyang, which lies on the eastern end of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, tend to be focused on the major official tourist attractions such as Jiaxiu Tower, Guizhou Province Nationality Museum and Guizhou Provincial Museum. A night-time walk around Jiaxiu Tower, a striking pavilion set beside a lake, its latest incarnation dating from 1909, should not be missed, and for those who are attracted to the ethnic cultures and history of Guizhou, both museums are world class. However, there is a lot more to Guiyang than first meets the eye.
One of the common complaints one hears from foreigners who have lived in major Chinese cities for a long time is that independent bars, clubs and restaurants have slowly given way to sleeker and more established brands, which lack the soul of establishments that have long since closed. One of the immense joys in Guiyang is that it remains jam-packed with small, independent and quirky social venues. The most well-known is probably the original Beersmith hidden in an alleyway off Qianling Dong Lu (or Drinking Street), which is a local icon. The quaint historic building, with raw and basic facilities, makes you feel as if you have discovered a genuine secret, despite its obvious popularity. Beersmith is a micro-brewery offering top quality ales in assorted varieties as well as international food. However, as tends to be the way, the success of the original venue has led to further (more polished) venues opening in both Future Ark, and a pre-bottled location on Xin Yinchang Lu. However, the entire area surrounding Qianling Dong Lu is still bustling with countless other boutique bars and restaurants serving every taste and budget, some so small that they can only seat half a dozen people, while others are clearly aiming for greater things.
After a night exploring the city, it is understandable that some will wake up with a sore head. Thankfully, the city feels like an oasis of fresh oxygen compared to many other big cities, and there are plenty of green and relaxing destinations within the city. Probably the most quintessential attraction is Qianling Park, which includes at its summit Hongfu Temple. As is so often the case in China, one can choose whether to ascend the mountain on foot or via a cable car. However, the ascent is not particularly challenging, and there are numerous beautiful sites en route, so it is worth at least considering making the healthier choice. The temple at the top is beautiful, but nothing architecturally unusual. What is unusual is that the area surrounding the temple is home to hundreds of wild monkeys. One needs to be seriously careful with belongings in the park, as the monkeys will swipe absolutely anything they think they can eat or drink. Despite endless warnings, people still seem to openly carry snacks and drinks, and the monkeys have learned advanced skills, such as how to bash a hole into a plastic cola bottle to retrieve the unhealthy, but deliciously sweet, contents. Nevertheless, despite the need to be careful, the park offers unique and fascinating photo opportunities, and a rare chance to get up close and personal with nature. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the monkeys to jump onto people, although these tend to be the bigger monkeys rather than the babies or children.
The integration of city and nature is one of Guiyang’s strongest selling points. As a result, some of the most popular attractions for visitors are the natural areas that lie on Guiyang’s frontiers. Probably the most spectacular is the Huangguoshu Waterfall, some 130 kilometers southwest of the city. It is a magnificent natural feature that deserves to be far better known, especially as it is one of the largest falls in East Asia at nearly 78 meters high and 101 meters wide. While the waterfall is the primary attraction within its eponymous natural scenic area, it is far from the only attraction. One could easily spend an entire day exploring the wetlands, rock garden and forests of the park, let alone the magnificent caves, which are amongst the largest and most impressive I’ve ever seen.
Another major attraction toward the south of the city is Tianhe Lake. This scenic area can be easily reached by private hire car or taxi and is an easy half-day activity for families to enjoy. However, it is not necessarily what visitors might be expecting. On the one hand, the park has a series of beautiful waterfalls and immaculate reed beds in which wild birds shelter. On the other hand, the entrance to the scenic area is awash with flashing lights, rides for young children, pumping dance music, water slides for young and old and even dancing fountains. It certainly seems like an odd way to welcome visitors into what is essentially a natural biome. Most frustratingly of all, throughout the park the management have felt the need to adorn nature with some of the oddest accessories. By the end of a long walk though, the plastic pink flamingos in the water seemed frankly tasteful, in comparison to the Cinderella pumpkin being pulled by reindeer, the tree filled with plastic parrots and the avenue of giant plastic eggs, one of which was inexplicably hatching a kitten. Nevertheless, don’t let these eccentricities put you off. Close your preconceptions, have some Dutch courage if you need it, and embrace the madness.
One final but unmissable Guiyang highlight is Qingyan Ancient Town. This Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) walled town on the outskirts of Guiyang tells an instant visual history that can be felt in every brick and every wooden beam. The city within the walls has maintained its authentic layout and most of its original buildings throughout the centuries. As a result, one can truly feel a sense of how life in medieval China would have felt. Nowadays the picturesque alleyways are home to craft shops and shops selling snacks and refreshments, however, as with almost everywhere in Guiyang, the prices seem incredibly reasonable. This makes Qingyan a perfect place to buy souvenirs, try local delicacies, and let your mind travel back in time, long before modern technology, to a fascinating ancient land.