Founded during the Yuan dynasty, NANNING (南宁, nánníng) was just a medium-sized market town until European traders opened a river route from neighbouring Guangdong in the early twentieth century, starting a period of rapid growth that saw the city supplanting Guilin as the provincial capital. Largely untouched by the civil war and Japanese invasion, it became a centre of supply and command first during the Vietnam War, and then a decade later when China and Vietnam came to blows in 1979. Following the resumption of cross-border traffic in the 1990s the city has capitalized on trade agreements with its neighbour, and today Nanning is a bright, easy-going place with a mild boom-town atmosphere and mix of leafy boulevards, modern architecture and a handful of narrow, colonial-era streets. There’s good shopping, decent food, a museum strong on regional archeology, and both international and domestic transport connections – in particular, over the nearby open border with Vietnam.
The border crossing lies about 170km southwest of Nanning beyond the town of Pingxiang. Through trains and buses into Vietnam plough past without stopping, but a couple of offbeat attractions – namely rare monkeys at Chongzuo Ecology Park and Hua Shan’s prehistoric rock paintings – might tempt you to spend a couple of days in the region before crossing the border on foot.
Chongzuo Ecology Park
Chongzuo Ecology Park
Chongzuo Ecology Park (崇左生态公园, chóngzuŏ shēngtài gōngyuán), a small spread of limestone hills and flat valleys, was created to protect the endangered and endemic white-headed langur (白头叶猴, baítóu yèhóu) whose entire population numbers just 700 animals. The reserve is 15km southeast of CHONGZUO (崇左, chóngzuŏ), a small city around halfway down the rail line between Nanning and Pingxiang. It’s easier, however, to get here by bus from Nanning’s Jiangnan station – ask the driver to drop you at the park gates.
There are 250 monkeys in the reserve, and your chance of seeing some – albeit at a distance, as they spend much of their time bouncing around clifftops – is good. They form groups of around ten individuals, headed by a single adult male; the black-bodied adults have white heads and tail tips, and spend much of their time eating leaves (though they also like fruit and flowers). The babies, however, are golden all over, darkening during their first two years.
Set in a beautifully isolated spot where tall karst peaks flank the Zuo River (左江, zuŏjiāng), waterfront cliffs at Hua Shan (花山, huāshān) are daubed with rock art associated with the prehistoric local culture. The access point is TUOLONG (驮龙, tuólóng), a single-street rail stop for the nearby town of Ningming. Once at Tuolong, make your way to the Tuolong Bridge Dock (驮龙桥码头, tuólóngqiáo mătóu) where you’ll find sampan owners for the run upstream to Hua Shan; allow at least five hours for the return trip, including time to view the rock art. It’s a placid journey up the Zuo, with buffalo wallowing in the shallows, people fishing from wooden rafts and tending family plots, and the banks thick with spindly-branched, red-flowering kapok trees. The boat docks just short of Hua Shan, where you pay the entrance fee before walking along a track to the paintings. Nobody has worked out a definitive interpretation of the 1900 sharply posed figures, but they include drummers and dancers, dogs and cattle, a dragon-boat race, men with arms bent upwards, a “king” with a sword and just two women, long-haired and pregnant.