Despite being a popular destination with domestic travelers, Guizhou (贵州, Guìzhōu) remains largely unknown to travelers outside China – and what a travesty of justice. The province has two of the country's largest and most spectacular natural features – a waterfall and a cave – while outside the capital, Guiyang, it's pretty much green hills and valleys, flowing rivers and limestone formations to the horizon.
Guizhou's people are as diverse as its environment. Around 37% of the province’s population consists of more than 18 ethnic minorities. Flitting around the Dong and Miao villages in the east of the province is like an anthropological dream sequence. Nearby is the ancient riverside settlement of Zhenyuan, as striking as Guilin to the south, where Chinese tourists chuckle into their hot-and-spicy sour fish soup that they still have it all to themselves.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Guizhou.
The karst hills of the Wanfenglin Scenic Area raise up like the knobbly back of a sleeping dragon, surrounded by charming villages, carefully tended rice paddies and winding rivers lined with banana trees. In February and March, golden rape flowers carpet the floor between the peaks, while in summer purple azalea flowers punctuate the endless green. Highlights include the riverside Upper and Lower Nahui villages, inhabited by people of the Buyi ethnic minority, and the spectacular Wanfo Temple built into a karst hillside. Even though there is, in theory, an entrance fee (¥80), this wasn't enforced during our visit. There is also a shuttle bus (¥50) that whisks visitors around key areas of interest, including a spectacular viewpoint across the area. The absolute best way to experience Wanfenglin, however, is under your own steam – it's easy to hire an electric scooter (¥50 per day) or bike (¥15 per day) for a couple of days of glorious independent exploration, a rarity in Chinese scenic areas.
This forested mountain (1138m) has the astonishing Wulong Temple at its summit. A refreshing hike through the trees takes you to the summit, where you can explore the various rooms of the temple. When descending from the temple keep an eye out for a small shrine along a narrow trail, where a statue of one of the 18 luóhàn (Buddhist statues) sits grumpily all alone. His skinny frame is the result of generosity in giving food to others; he also bestows good fortune on all. Further below rises a 21m-high and 500-year-old gingko tree festooned with ribbons, while other trails disappear into the trees. Tiantaishan is a 30-minute walk from the entrance to Tianlong; follow the signs. Alternatively, take the shuttle bus.
Sleepy Wudong doesn't get many visitors, due mostly to its remote location in a valley in Leigong Mountain rather than any lack of appeal – it's actually an extraordinarily pretty place. Founded 400 years ago by families fleeing nearby war, the village retains its traditional wooden buildings as well as a 200-year-old water mill, the oldest in the county. The village is at an elevation of 1300m above sea level so you might feel the effects of the altitude here. While some effort has been made to open the village to tourism (it has English language signs, including a helpful map of nearby walking trails, while local guides can arrange homestays here), you're more likely to bump into an elderly local than another traveller.
The Maling River Canyon is a geological wonder, a 74km rift in the earth's surface caused by the surging Maling River and its groundwater. Paths down each side of the canyon and two suspension bridges allow you to do a loop of the valley, taking you past just some of the 100 waterfalls that crash down into the river below. The charmingly named Rainy Banana Corridor takes you behind the largest cascade, Huanglong Waterfall, which during the rainy season reaches a width of 23m. Elsewhere, fantastical rock formations, created after millennia of water erosion, have been named after the things they (vaguely) resemble, while prehistoric-looking ferns dangle down the canyon's damp walls.
Guiyang's best attraction is a temple complex hidden inside Qianling Mountain Park to the north of the city. Near the top of 1300m Qianling Mountain (黔灵山, Qiánlíng Shān), Hongfu Temple dates back to the 17th century and is reached via an easy 40-minute walk (or a cable car if you don't feel up to it). The on-site monastery has a decent vegetarian restaurant in the rear courtyard.
Built in a natural cave on the face of a karst hill at the very southern tip of the Wanfenglin Scenic Area, the Wanfo Temple is spectacular. Originally built during the Ming dynasty, the current temple opened in 2007. The cave that houses the Buddha Sakyamuni and his two disciples is said to be able to hold 10,000 people. There are wonderful views of the karst landscape from the cave.
After serving under the Ming emperors, who paid their army wages, the residents of Longli were largely abandoned by Qing dynasty rulers who had other military priorities. As a consequence, activity in the town shifted to education and Longbiao Academy was just one seat of learning set up to serve local scholars. The building's surrounding stone walls are exquisitely painted with brightly coloured murals and calligraphy dedicated to the pursuit of learning. Inside, there's an interesting map depicting Longli at the height of its military power.
This combined hilltop fortress and temple emerges surreally from the summit of Tiantai Mountain like something out of a fairy tale. If it's closed, ask the guard kindly and the doors will likely be opened for you. In a hall at the rear sits a lithe figure of Guanyin, illuminated by a guttering candle; a further hall displays exhibits relating to local dìxì theatre. Afterwards, climb to the Dayuetai terrace to gaze out over the glorious countryside.
Qianling Mountain Park, in the northwest of the city, is more forest than park. It's a great escape from the crowds and city noise and has some lovely paths up to the Hongfu Temple. Qianling is known locally as 'monkey park' and you're certain to spot some of its furry inhabitants, not least because many visitors to the park feed them. Note that feeding these supposedly wild macaques is not technically allowed, although no one enforces this rule.
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