A hundred kilometres northwest of Guilin the road winds steeply through some fine stands of mountain bamboo, and enters the southern limit of a fascinating ethnic autonomous region. With a rich landscape of mountains and terraced fields as a backdrop – best perhaps at Longji – it’s possible to hop on local transport and tour a rural corner of China that remains relatively unaffected by the modern world. Day-trips abound, but, with five days or so to spare, you can push right through the mountainous Dong heartlands northwest of Sanjiang into Guizhou province, a fabulous journey which takes you to the area around Kaili, similarly central to the Miao people.
Two hours west of Longsheng the road crosses a high stone bridge over the Rongshui River and lands you at small, dishevelled SANJIANG (三江, sānjiāng), capital of Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County. Most of the people here are Dong, renowned for their wooden houses, towers and bridges which dot the countryside hereabouts, most notably at Chengyang village to the north. Sanjiang’s own unmissable drum tower rises 47m over the river; this one is modern, but similar towers were traditionally used as lookout posts in times of war, or social areas in times of peace.
CHENGYANG (程阳, chéngyáng), 18km north of Sanjiang on the Linxi River, is an attractive traditional Dong village reached over a covered wind-and-rain bridge, an all-wooden affair built in 1916. The village forms a collection of warped, two- and three-storeyed traditional wooden houses surrounding a square-sided drum tower, and makes a pleasantly rural place to spend a day, walking out to smaller hamlets with similar congregations of dark wood and cobbles, many with their own, less elaborate bridges and towers. Look for creaky black water wheels made from plaited bamboo, somehow managing to supply irrigation canals despite dribbling out most of their water in the process. For views over the whole region, return to Chengyang’s main-road entrance and make the short climb to two pavilions on the ridge above, offering vistas of dark, gloomy villages nestled among vivid green fields.