The subtropical southwestern provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou are defined by limestone: local rivers are coloured a vivid blue-green by it; everywhere you look are weathered karst hills worn into poetic collections of tall, sharp peaks; and underground is a network of extensive caverns, some flooded, others large enough to fit a cathedral inside. Though something of a tourist phenomenon today, historically this rugged 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 mainstream 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 local economies 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 art. 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 cranes at Caohai in Guizhou’s far west.
Improving transport infrastructure means that travel across the region is fairly straightforward – though rural dialects are sometimes incomprehensible. Weather is fairly localized, though you should expect hot, wet summers and surprisingly cold winters, especially up in the hills.