If you're short on time, several Miao villages around Kaili can comfortably be visited as day trips. One of the most popular is Langde, a lovely traditional Miao village of about 600 people (all surnamed Chen), located 31km (19 miles) and a 45-minute ride south of Kaili. Dating from the late Yuan/early Ming dynasty, the village is divided into two sections. If your visit coincides with a tour group's, you may be greeted with songs and rice wine and treated to a bronze-drum dance performance in the upper village square, although you will also be asked to contribute ¥20 ($2.60/£1.30) for the experience. With its water wheels and wooden stilt houses made from local cedar, it is very interesting to climb up and down the steep paths within the village. Some find the place fascinating while others might think it claustrophobic and dirty. To get there, take the Leishan-bound bus for ¥6 (80¢/40p) and ask to be let off at Langde. From the main road, it's still around a 1.2km (1-mile) walk along the charming Bala River, through a number of smaller hamlets into the upper village.
More experienced travelers might find Langde to be a little bit too touristy and prefer to spend the day hiking the 20km (12-mile) loop into the mountains behind Langde and back around to the Bala River. Just below Upper Langde, a spectacular Miao-style bridge has been constructed across the river. This is a favorite swimming spot with local boys as well as with water buffalo. In fact if you go across to the rocks on the far side of the river, you can see the metal rings that have been driven into the stone so that that these beasts of burden can spend the sunny afternoons cooling off in the fast-flowing currents. About 4km (2 1/2 miles) farther upstream, a small limestone-diluted tributary the color of lemon sherbet joins the main clear blue stream, turning it into a delicious shade of honeydew-melon sorbet. The road (now more of a track) continues another 5km (3 miles) up to Nan Meng and all around, mini cascades surge down from on high to feed the river. Alerted to the presence of a passerby, cicadas go off like exotic car alarms, competing with the rushing waters below. Another couple of clicks will bring you to the tiny hamlet of Jao Meng. Here it is clear to see that the locals, in their shoes cut from recycled tires and hand-me-down clothes, are almost a world away from the overfed performers at Langde with their baskets of silver and fancy costumes. Up past the Mao River, you will emerge back onto the main road and can jump on a passing bus to go the 5 minutes back down to Lower Langde. There is even a reasonable hotel down here if you would like to stay the night rather than return to the big-city blight of Kaili.
Fifteen kilometers (9 miles) southwest of Kaili, the small village of Zhouxi is host to a grand lusheng festival every year around the 20th day of the first lunar month, when melodious pipes resound through a sea of silver headdresses. To reach Zhouxi, take a minivan taxi for ¥3 to ¥4 (40¢-50¢/20p-25p) from the corner of Huancheng Xi Lu and Beijing Xi Lu.
About 19km (11 miles) northwest of Kaili, the village of Matang is home to about 400 members of the Gejia people (the other Gejia stronghold is in Huangping Village). Once lumped in with the Miao, the Gejia were formally recognized only in 1993. Unlike the Miao, who are known to have strong constitutions, the Gejia toast with rice, not wine. Another distinguishing custom is the Caiqing dance (Caiqing Wu), with its characteristic stomping. The harder the stomp, the deeper the love between the man and the woman. Known for their batik and embroidery, the Matang Gejia are friendly and hospitable. Thanks to new highway construction, the road conditions out to Matang are more like a rigorous section of the Camel Trophy 4x4 race. What is left of the original road has been destroyed by overladen coal and quarry trucks. To get here, take a minivan taxi for ¥15 ($1.95/£1) bound for Longchang, as the road to Yudong is temporarily impassable. These can be found up at the junction of Da Qiao Lu and Guang Ming Da Dao opposite the Kaili Fa Dian Chang, next to the Industrial and Commercial Bank. The trip, while only 19km (11 miles) in theory, may take up to 3 hours as the bus heads down past the swage farm, the power station, and the coal gas refinery and then makes a huge loop to avoid an army of bulldozers and workers. We were stopped by three landslides and an overturned coal truck on this journey alone, so plenty of patience is required. Ask to be dropped off at Matang; it's a 15-minute walk to the village.
Located about 75km (45 miles) southeast of Kaili in Leishan County, Xi Jiang is the largest Miao village in China, with about 1,000 households. Nestled in a valley surrounded by lush bamboo forests, the village has hundreds of dark brown wooden stilt houses built into the side of a hill and, unfortunately for purists, a white concrete building (Xi Jiang's new school) smack in the middle of it all. No matter how deep you venture into the countryside, there is always ready cash available to build a school and a police station. Never mind that the peasants do not have running water or sanitation, as long as the youngsters can be indoctrinated and the adults watched over, the authorities are happy. Xi Jiang hosts a massive celebration during the Miao New Year Festival in the 10th lunar month with dances, bullfights, lusheng competitions, and other festivities around the buffalo pillar on the dancing ground but these days are mostly clustered around the basketball court. On the sixth day of the sixth lunar month (usually July or Aug), the New Rice Tasting Festival is another raucous celebration. Market days in Xi Jiang (every 7 days for the large market, every 5 days for a smaller market) are also very colorful, as villagers hawk everything from fish to fake hair.
Xi Jiang can be visited as a day trip with private car hire or overnight if you travel by bus. From Kaili, there are very infrequent direct buses. More reliable is the bus to Leishan (1 hr.; ¥30/$3.90/£1.95); from there, transfer to a bus for Xi Jiang (1 hr.; ¥15/$1.95/£1).
The best option among the town's very basic accommodations is the relatively new, relatively clean Cangzhen Lou (tel. 0855/334-8068), located down the main street from the old and decrepit Zhengfu Zhaodaisuo (Government Guesthouse). It has 30 beds at ¥30 ($3.90/£1.95) each, in different room combinations with bare concrete floors and communal showers and toilets.
About 94km (56 miles) northeast of Kaili, this little Miao village along the banks of the Qingshui River hosts two big festivals. The 3-day Longzhou Jie (Dragon Boat Festival), in the middle of the fifth lunar month, features dragon boats made from hollowed-out tree trunks that are decorated with a dragon's head and hold up to 30 rowers. Each of the nearby villages enters a boat in the race. This is certainly the place to see Zimeifan Jie (Sisters' Meal Festival), during the fourth lunar month, which is celebrated with lusheng dances, antiphonal singing, and plenty of opportunities for young Miao women, gorgeously bedecked with elaborate silver headdresses, to socialize with erstwhile suitors. Several months before the festival, many Shidong households will be engaged in making silver ornaments for the festival. Silver aficionados may wish to visit here at any time, as Shidong (in particular the neighboring hamlet of Tanglong) is renowned for excellent-quality silver. Traditional Chinese consider that attracting attention invites misfortune, but not the Miao. Some of these girls will wear more than 20 kilograms (44 lb.) of silver, engraved, embossed, stippled, and assembled into set pieces. While these ornaments are mostly for private use, it's possible to purchase pieces from enterprising villagers. Ask around.
For now, visit Shidong as a day trip from Kaili; the local accommodations currently available would make sleeping in one of those dragon boats seem like a night at the Ritz. Return buses to Kaili stop running around 2pm.