The Switzerland Of China

Guizhou province has much to offer the adventuresome

By: Gary Bowerman

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Man working in Guizhou agricultural fields.
Not many first-time visitors to China stop by Guiyang, the capital of the southwestern Guizhou province. But that didn’t deter Chris DeLong. The Indiana-born entrepreneur is thinking long-term, and that’s why he opened Highlands Coffee the only American-style coffee shop in the entire province. His gamble is working.

“In our first nine months, we’ve had customers from 23 different countries and 19 different provinces in China,” DeLong said.

Highlands Coffee is tucked along a downtown side street, close to the new Sheraton hotel and just off Renmin Square the city’s communal heartbeat, dominated by one of China’s few remaining city-center statues of Chairman Mao. It’s a great location in an attractive, low-key city that as the gateway to Guizhou (pronounced Gway-jo) province is starting to welcome more tourism traffic.

One of China’s poorest provinces, Guizhou is also one of the most beautiful. It is sometimes called the “Switzerland of China,” because of its pine-forested alpine peaks, spectacular river valleys, lakes and waterfalls. Less visited than neighboring Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, Guizhou is an up-and-coming destination for adventurous travelers. Traveling here isn’t easy: The infrastructure is basic and a guide and a good Chinese phrase book are advisable, but the remote highland landscapes and sense of exploring untapped China offer a truly rewarding experience.

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Maio women in ethnic dress
Traveling east of Guiyang is highly recommended, as clients can explore the intriguing mountain villages of the Miao ethnic minority. I hired a driver from outside Guiyang airport ($100) for the stunning six-hour drive into the heart of rural Guizhou. Here, the green mountainsides are reminiscent of Switzerland, but also of South America. The intricate agricultural rice terracing of the steep mountain valleys reminded me of bus journeys through the Andean regions of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia.

After a bumpy but extremely picturesque drive, I arrived in the Miao village of Xijiang just after dark. Known as the Village of One Thousand Homes, it is the largest of a collection of Miao villages that cling to the undulating foothills. At night the silhouetted mountain backdrop promised a spectacular sunrise setting.

Having checked in at the Li Family Inn, a simple two-floored wooden lodge built into the hillside in traditional Miao style, I joined the owner, Mrs. Li, on her balcony for dinner. Within a few moments, this charismatic lady, wearing a traditional flower in her hair, was serenading me. At the climax of a Miao folk song offering thanks for a bountiful harvest, she presented me with two bowls of mijiu (strong rice wine), which I had to drink immediately. And then she sang another song, culminating in more mijiu. This welcoming ritual continued all evening.

At dawn, the view from Mrs. Li’s balcony was sublime. Xijiang awoke to find a gentle mist hovering over the dell. Dark timber cabin-style houses climbed up the lush green hillsides, backed by the mystical mountains that define eastern Guizhou including the largest of them all, Lei Gong Shan (Mountain of the Thunder God).

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A Miao village in Guizhou
Beside me, a Taiwanese filmmaker was photographing his wife as she modelled in traditional Miao ceremonial dress. Her body-length scarlet robe was embroidered with green, gold and blue detailing, but the most eye-catching feature was the headdress a solid silver crown topped by an engraved pair of oxen horns. High-grade silver is a regional specialty, mined from the picturesque hills. Walking along the quiet cobbled village streets later, I found a small cluster of stores selling ornamental bracelets, earrings, pendants and wine cups. The prices, even before the customary bargaining ritual, were incredibly cheap.

Xijiang is a relaxed, slow-paced agricultural community that cultivates several crops, including rice, corn, grapes, cabbages, spring onions and tangy red chilies, all sold each morning in the small square that doubles as the school’s basketball court. Confronted by such vivid scenery, the urge to explore is overpowering. Hiking across the hills and valleys is a pleasure: Well-worn pathways splice the rice terraces, and the misty peaks yield sweeping views across the dipping valleys and neighboring villages.

After a trying five-mile hike, during which we passed countless crop-pickers carrying baskets of freshly-cut grasses and herbs on thick bamboo poles, and a group of local children fishing in a rice paddy, we wound back along a river valley to Xijiang. As we did so, the skies above Mount Lei Gong thundered a mighty roar and the clouds burst open. As the icy rain poured down, we hurried back up the track it was time for some more of Mrs. Li’s soothing tunes and warming rice wine.


Sheraton Guiyang
49 Zhonghua Nan Lu

Xijiang Li Family Inn
(No actual address, but just ask for Li Jia Jiudian in the village)

China National Tourist Office
818-545-7507, Los Angeles office