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Guizhou Province, 450km (270 miles) NE of Kunming

Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province, is a natural fortress. The capricious weather and the hostile topography, giving Guiyang the resemblance of a castle in the mist, would seem more at home in Transylvania. Few Han Chinese even knew these strange lands existed before the famed geographer Xu Xiake traveled here in 1636 as part of his 30-year trek exploring China's sacred mountains (on foot and unescorted!). Again and again he was confronted by "massive, labyrinthine heaps of rock towering wavelike into crests or busting out like petals, dizzying in their effect as they jostle and surge toward the sky!"

"Imagine a series of quaintly shaped hillocks littering a landscape that is also pockmarked with deep depressions," explained 17th-century explorer Francis Garnier. "No valleys or mountain ranges. No general sense of direction. The streams flow to all points on the compass. Every step would have led us up against some impossible piece of terrain."

By that time the empire had relocated so many eastern Chinese colonists to this unforgiving land that the province's population had soared from 65 million to 150 million. A series of rebellions was dealt with mercilessly by succeeding generations of Tunpuren, or Han military colonists. Eighteen thousand Miao were killed in 1732, with almost the same number executed and a similar number enslaved. More than 100 years later the scenario was repeated. The governor of Guizhou wrote that the province had lost nine-tenths of its entire population in just 2 decades, either massacred or exiled to the hills of northern Laos, Burma, and Thailand.

Guiyang remains an important strategic possession in a land where even the locals claim that there are "never three days of sun in a row, never three acres of flat land and never three people with any money." Despite some development, Guizhou has remained an impoverished backwater compared to its neighbors. Incomes and literacy rates are well below the national averages, and many villages still lack basic infrastructures such as roads and electricity.

A closer look at the map reveals how these proud, defiant peoples have been dominated and humiliated by Chinese colonists. Name after name stands out like marker flags on a campaign plan: Anshun (Peace and Submission); Liping (Pacification of the Li); Zhenyuan (Pacification of the Distant Tribes); Guiding (Pacification of Guizhou); Luodian (Extension of Imperial Power); and Kaili (Village of the Victory Song).

As for the Han Chinese contribution, Guiyang itself is a place many travelers can't wait to get out of, if they make it here at all. Today, gray, dreary buildings still dominate the disarray of so-called development, and the city is staggering to cope with its growing population of over a million people. Happily for visitors interested in exploring Guizhou's ethnic minority cultures, having to stay over is not as dreaded as it once was. The city is now an essential jumping-off point to see the unique native cultures, as different to the Han Chinese as the Native Americans are to the 21st-century descendants of their European conquerors.