Guangxi (广西, guǎngxī) unfolds south from the cool highlands it shares with Guizhou to a tropical coast and border abutting Vietnam. Up in the northeast, the pick of the province’s peak-and-paddy-field landscape is concentrated along the Li River, down which you can cruise between the city of Guilin and the travellers’ haven of Yangshuo. Long famous and easily accessible, this has become a massive tourist draw, but remoter hills just a few hours north around Longji and Sanjiang are home to a mix of ethnic groups, whose architecture and way of life make for a fascinating trip up into Guizhou province, hopping between villages on public buses.
Diagonally across Guangxi, the tropically languid provincial capital Nanning has little of interest in itself but provides a base for exploring Guangxi’s southwestern corner along the open border with Vietnam. Actually, since 1958 the province has not been a province at all but the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, heartland of China’s thirteen-million-strong Zhuang nationality. They constitute about a third of the regional population and, although largely assimilated into Chinese life today, there’s enough archeological evidence to link them with a Bronze Age culture spread throughout Southeast Asia, including prehistoric rock friezes west of Nanning. Nearby are three other major draws: the Detian Waterfall, which actually pours over the Vietnamese border; massive limestone sinkholes at Leye; and Chongzuo Ecology Park, home of the critically endangered white-headed langur, a cliff-dwelling monkey. Down on the south coast, Behai sports some decent tropical beaches and offers transport to Hainan Island.
Though subject to fiercely hot, humid summers, Guangxi’s weather can be deceptive – it actually snows in Guilin about once every ten years. Another thing of note is that the Zhuang language, instead of using pinyin, follows its own method of rendering Chinese characters into Roman text, so you’ll see some unusual spelling on signs – “Minzu Dadao”, for example, becomes “Minzcuzdadau”.