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Guiyang and Beyond

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Guizhou – a province of cloud-quilted mountainous, deep river gorges and lost valleys. The remarkable topography here has shaped a myriad of minority cultures; peoples that to this day make southwest China one of the most intriguing places to visit. And these diverse people typically converge in Guiyang, the rambling capital at the heart of this unique quarter of the Middle Kingdom.

All that said, mottled Guiyang probably wouldn’t win any beauty contests. Indeed, in its current incarnation, the city closely resembles a concrete river that has burst its banks; gray tenements, factories, new high-rise and freshly laid roads swim between the verdant limestone hills that pepper the land. Yet this is a place of great historical and cultural significance that, for any curious traveler, affords a plethora of wonders to feast upon. 

The City

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It is perhaps prescient to base yourself in Huaxi District to the south of Guiyang’s old center. It’s a little far away from the main sites but quieter and more relaxed. The universities that are based here ensure a youthful vibrancy, not-to-mention plenty of cheap eateries. On the edge of Huaxi Park – a large public garden filled with pavilions and tea gardens that were famously visited by Premier Zhou Enlai and his wife in 1950, here you’ll find Guiyang’s sole YHA youth hostel. This is also where many of the minibusses leave for the surrounding historic villages and town.

However, before leaving town in search of left-of-field locales, first, make your way to the center of the city to get an angle on Guiyang’s historical roots. The city grew out of a need to placate the restive southwest. The Mongol’s established it as an administrative center in 1283 during the Yuan Dynasty and the remnants of the old city walls from that period can still be distinguished on the cross-section of Zhongshan Nan Lu and Wenchang Nan Lu. But it is two Ming Dynasty architectural gems that draw the happy-snapping crowds. The Wenchang Pavilion, near the walls, is a lovingly restored, seven-metre tall wooden gate tower-turned-breezy teahouse that was originally constructed in 1596. Along with a riverside promenade, just past the Qianming Temple on an arched bridge across the river, the second Guizhou gem is Jiaxiu Lou, a stunning 29-metre three-storey pavilion with the capacity to turn even the most conservative photographer into a shutterbug. 

Qingyan

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A short minibus ride from Huaxi delivers travelers to another piece in Guiyang’s narrative jigsaw, namely Qingyan Ancient Town. Established by the first Ming Emperor as a garrison town in 1378, it became an important station for envoys, postman, and merchants following a core trade route that linked several towns of the southwest, from Hunan to Yunnan. Qingyan soon evolved from a militia stronghold into a place with an identity and culture of its own – Buddhist and Taoist temples were erected (and even churches were established when missionaries arrived during the Qing Dynasty). Wealthy merchants built ancestral shrines and pavilions, while local epicures developed delicacies like Qingyan Tofu and Pot-Stewed Pig’s Trotter.

Today, of course, it’s open to tourism, with a mandatory gate ticket and knickknack stores aplenty. Exploring the cobbled backstreets quickly delivers you to a China-past, with some genuinely fascinating heritage sites to explore. Of these, you shouldn’t miss the wood and stone Longquan Temple, Qingyan’s largest, with striking woodcarvings depicting characters from the classics. Also, the Wangshou Palace, the town’s principle Taoist temple built in 1778, is centered on a fabulous taijitu motif carved on the stone floor. Statues of lions competing for supremacy and an ancient theater stage are some of the other intriguing features of this evocative temple. Those more interested in modern history, however, should head to the Former Residence of Zhou Enlai’s father, a quaint little hillside house imbued by a story of war and insurrection. 

Zhenshan   

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Guizhou’s ethnic diversity is key to understanding why distant overlords in Hangzhou or Beijing were so concerned with building walls and stationing troops in the province, as many minority groups proved less than willing imperial subjects. Indeed, a Miao uprising in the 1800s caused widespread chaos and bloodshed. Nowadays, of course, many minority people have become sinicized, adopting Han dress and customs and heading for the city in search of employment. But in the lakeside village of Zhenshan, not far from Guiyang, one can still experience something of the world that was. This is a Buyi minority town, one where local folk still adorned in traditional garb wander the winding stone streets, inhabiting ancient dwellings housed under distinctive slate roves. It’s a blissful locale, quiet if you don’t arrive during a festival period of the Tiaohuachang when locales pay gratitude to the Miao people with song and dance. A few homes have been converted into peasant family guesthouses and restaurants while boats depart hourly from the wharf taking visitors on a tour of the mountain flanked lake.  

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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