"The most interesting part of China, from a geographical and ethnological point of view, is the West -- geographically, because its recesses have not yet been thoroughly explored, and ethnologically, because a great part of it is peopled by races which are non-Chinese." In describing the attraction of southwest China for a few iconoclastic foreigners in 1889, British consul Alexander Hosie may as well have been describing the region's appeal today for hundreds of thousands of travelers, both foreign and Chinese. Considerably more explored than in Hosie's day but still retaining large swaths of undiscovered territory, today's splendid southwest is beginning to attract its deserved share of attention and is fast becoming one of China's major tourist destinations.
For starters, this region, encompassing the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi, is home to some of China's most spectacular mountain scenery. As the Himalayan mountain range in northwest Yunnan gives way to the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau to the southeast, the scenery changes from the awesome 5,000m-high (16,400-ft.) glacier peaks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain range to the lower, but no less beautiful, famed limestone hills of eastern Guangxi. Three of Asia's mighty rivers -- the Salween, the Mekong, and the Yangzi -- cut parallel paths all within 150km (90 miles) of each other in the northwest mountains before they flow their separate ways, creating in their passage some of the most breathtaking gorges and lush river valleys in the country.
Even more appealing is the fact that this region is easily the most ethnically diverse in China. Twenty-six of China's 56 ethnic groups can be found in the southwest, which claims about 45 million of China's 100-million-strong minority population. If geography is destiny, then this inhospitable mountainous terrain, to which many ethnic minorities were historically displaced by earlier expanding Chinese empires, has not only helped create a vibrant kaleidoscope of peoples, languages, and cultures, but it has helped some of these cultures maintain their unique traditional ways in the face of encroaching modernization. At the same time, shared borders with Sichuan, Tibet, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Vietnam have allowed the region to absorb and integrate the colorful and diverse influences of its neighbors.
Historically, this area has undertones of the Wild West, with the Miao and other minorities replacing the American Indians. Although the massacres and genocide have been going on for hundreds of years, French missionary Father Paul Perry summed up the situation coldly and bluntly in 1871. "The Chinese government is determined to obliterate these aboriginal peoples by a systematic policy of repression." The policy seems to have succeeded, as the indigenous populations are indeed now the minorities, driven relentlessly into these remote mountains by never-ending waves of Chinese colonists.
A traveler can easily spend years in this region and not exhaust its offerings. Between the obvious draws of Guilin, which ranks as one of China's top five most popular destinations, the backpacker mecca of Yangshuo, and the increasingly popular trifecta of Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang, is a legion of other delights awaiting discovery. Travel can sometimes be arduous and distinctly lacking in luxury, but for those willing to forgo a few creature comforts the reward can be a journey of discovery, unveiling some new names that are touting themselves as destinations of tomorrow such as Fengshan and Leye in Guangxi and Shaxi in Yunnan.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, hours listed for attractions and restaurants are daily.