If there’s one thing that defines the subtropical southwestern provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou, it’s limestone: most of the rivers here are coloured a vivid blue-green by it; everywhere you look are weathered karst hills worn into poetic collections of tall, sharp peaks; and the ground beneath is riddled with extensive caverns, some flooded, others large enough to fit a cathedral inside.
Though something of a tourist phenomenon today, historically this topography has proved an immense barrier to communications and, being porous, created some of China’s least arable land, with agriculture often confined to the small alluvial plains in between peaks. So poor that it wasn’t worth the trouble of invading, for a long while the region was pretty well ignored by Han China, and evolved into a stronghold for ethnic groups. But a period of social stability during the early Qing dynasty caused a population explosion in eastern China and an expansion westwards by the Han. Some of the ethnic minorities kept their nominal identity but more or less integrated with the Chinese, while others resisted assimilation by occupying isolated highlands; but the new settlers put pressure on available resources, creating a hotbed of resentment against the government. This finally exploded in central Guangxi’s Taiping Uprising of 1850, marking the start of a century of devastating civil conflict. Even today, while the minority groups have been enfranchised by the formation of several autonomous prefectures, industry and infrastructure remain underdeveloped and few of the cities – including Nanning and Guiyang, the provincial capitals – have much to offer except transport to more interesting locations.
Despite its bleak history, the region offers a huge range of diversions. The landscape is epitomized by the tall karst towers surrounding the city of Guilin in northeastern Guangxi, familiar to Chinese and Westerners alike through centuries of eulogistic poetry, paintings and photographs. Equally impressive are cave systems at Longgong and Zhijin in western Guizhou, while there’s also the chance of close contact with ethnic groups, particularly the Miao, Dong and Zhuang, whose wooden villages, exuberant festivals, and traces of a prehistoric past are all worth indulging. It’s also one of the few places in the country where you can be fairly sure of encountering rare wildlife: notably monkeys at Chongzuo in southwestern Guangxi; and cranes at Caohai in Guizhou’s far west.
While travel out to all this can be time-consuming, a reasonable quantity of buses and trains means that remoteness is not the barrier it once was. Language is another matter, as many rural people speak only their own dialects or local versions of Mandarin, which can be virtually incomprehensible. With geography encompassing the South China Sea and some respectable mountains, weather is fairly localized, though you should expect hot, wet summers and surprisingly cold winters, especially up in the hills. April and May, and September and October, are probably the driest, most pleasant months to visit the region.