Guizhou Province, 1,046km (650 miles) W of Hong Kong, 305km (190 miles) east of Kunming, or 320km (200 miles) southwest of Guiyang

Xingyi is now the capital city of Qianxinan Buyi and Miao Autonomous Prefecture and yet 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."

Xingyi county is located in the southwest corner of Guizhou province precisely at the point where the province's border meets Yunnan and Guangxi provinces. Although most of Xingyi, like most of Guizhou, is covered by mountains, the terrain here is particularly rugged even by Guizhou standards. The rivers of southwestern Guizhou flow southeast all the way to Hong Kong, but they are not navigable until well into Guangxi province. Therefore, until the 20th century, all transport to and from Xingyi went by human bearers or pack animals along well-worn paths. Despite its location, Xingyi county was not as isolated as many peripheral areas. Xingyi city was established at the site of the busy market town, Huangcaoba, marking the juncture of two important inter-provincial trade routes: Opium was introduced to southwestern Guizhou from Yunnan at the end of the 18th century and eventually became the main product exported out of Huangcaoba. In the 1890s, a visiting British consul described the bustling market at Huangcaoba as a rather wild and unregulated "free mart." According to his report, Huangcaoba had no banks, and very little money actually changed hands in the market. Most commercial transactions were conducted by barter, with opium serving as the most frequent medium of exchange.