Not one of the places on most tourist trails through China, Guizhou is an underappreciated gem. Long beset by poverty, this south-western province is just beginning to come into its own and make the most of its considerable natural attractions, becoming well-known for its national parks with forests, waterfalls, and caves. Guizhou possesses dramatic scenery with jagged mountains and sweeping valleys. The rivers and streams that wind around these amazing geographical forms are a surprising, not to mention beautiful, blue-green colour because of large deposits of limestone. Unfortunately, the region is impoverished due to these very elements, which leave much of the land unsuitable for agriculture. Its other industries capitalise upon nature and include forestry, energy production, and mining for coal, limestone, and gypsum.

Of the 35 million people here, 65% are now Han, but Guizhou still retains a high and diversified proportion of ethnic minorities. These communities include the native Miao people, the Dong, Yao, Yi, Qiang, Bai, and Shui, among others.  55% of the area of Guizhou is set aside as autonomous regions for the ethnic minorities, many of whom choose to live apart from the mainstream Han culture in order to preserve their own fragile traditions. Guizhou is the perfect place to see these traditions, holding the greatest number of folk festivals in China and with a well-developed tourist trail that takes travellers in the very villages of these secluded peoples. In Kaili, the capital of the Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, the charming wooden drum dance takes place in summer. Young Miao women come to the capital with their families and dance to the music of the drums. Young men watch them, waiting and hoping to catch the eye of the loves of their lives. After nightfall, the young lovers begin to sing to one another to express their intentions. The local architecture is also an interesting sight: the Miao people built gravity-defying wooden houses in the mountains, while the Dong were experts at constructing wooden structures without any nails or bolts, creating drum towers and the so-called wind and rain bridges. These charming bridges were not only the obvious means of getting across rivers, but places for locals to sit and socialise. They are often filled with traditional paintings which tell stories from local folklore.

Guizhou’s poverty has left it out of much of China’s history but this same distance from national affairs has left the province with pristine national parks. One of the most famous sites in Guizhou is the Huangguoshu (‘Yellow Fruit Tree’) Waterfall. The biggest waterfall in China, it is 74 meters tall and 81 meters wide. Although spectacular at any time, it is best seen between May and October around 5 days after a heavy rainfall. Another popular attraction is the deep underground cave systems. The karst caves in the northwest of Zhijin County cover over 30,000 square meters and average 50-60 meters in height, reaching 185 meters at their highest point. Stalactites and stalagmites, which twist and turn into strange shapes, are often lit up with colourful lights, lending the caves an unearthly, positively lunar, aspect. Travellers are able to visit eight areas, which include 19 halls and 49 chambers with underground lakes and waterfalls. Near Anshun city is another spectacular cave, the Dragon Palace. Dotted with lakes and waterfalls, this underground cave system possesses an imperial dignity that reminded ancient visitors of the crystal palace of the Dragon King. Other famous caves in Guizhou include the Rhino Cave in Zhenning and Xingyi’s Flying Dragon Cave.

Like their neighbours in Chongqing and Sichuan, the people of Guizhou love spicy food and have a particular fondness for sour tastes too. The capital Guiyang is home to many food markets and stalls that stay open all night. Try the Silk Dolls (Siwawa), shreds of vegetables, fried soybeans and chilli paste, rolled up like babies in thin rice-flour wrappers and wash them down with a few glasses of China’s most famous alcohol, Maotai, which is produced in Guizhou. When trying the local specialities, however, take care to avoid the dog meat that is popular in this province, unless you are so inclined.

So, come to Guizhou for the solitude of nature and come for the experience of minority cultures but leave your expectations of glitzy, modern China for another province.

Writer: Leah O'Hearn