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A traditional saying describes Guizhou (贵州, guìzhōu) as a land where there are “no three days without rain, no three hectares without a mountain, and no three coins in any pocket”. This is pretty accurate: Guizhou records the highest rainfall in China and has a poverty ensured by more than eighty percent of its land being covered in untillable mountains or leached limestone soils. Chinese influence was established here around 100 BC, but it wasn’t until the government began settling Han migrants in the province during the seventeenth century that the local ethnic groups began to fight back, resistance culminating in the Miao Uprising of 1854–73, which rivalled the contemporary Taiping insurrection in terms of chaos and bloodshed. Sixty years later the region still hadn’t recovered: Red Army soldiers passing through Guizhou in the 1930s found people working naked in the fields and an economy based on opium, and it’s only in the last decade that Guizhou’s population has exceeded numbers prior to the uprising.

Still, ethnic identity and romantic landscapes have become marketable commodities in China, and Guizhou is beginning to capitalize on its two major assets. The province’s most visible minority groups are the many branches of Miao, concentrated in the southeast around Kaili; and the Bouyei, who are based around the provincial capital, Guiyang, and the westerly town of Anshun. The Miao in particular indulge in a huge number of festivals, some of which attract tens of thousands of participants and are worth any effort to experience. As for scenery, there are spectacular limestone caverns at Longgong and Zhijin, both accessed from Anshun; impressive waterfalls at Huangguoshu – again near Anshun; and everywhere terraced hills, dotted with small villages. Naturalists will also want to clock up rare black-necked cranes, which winter along the northwestern border with Yunnan at Caohai Lake; and at least have a stab at seeing the reclusive golden monkey, which lives in the cloud forests atop Guizhou’s single holy mountain, northeasterly Fanjing Shan.

While Guizhou’s often shambolic towns are definitely not a high point of a trip to the region, Guiyang is comfortable enough, and conveniently central to the province. A couple of other places worth a visit in their own right are the historic northern city of Zunyi, which is steeped in Long March lore; and Zhenyuan, over on the eastern side of the province, which features some antique buildings squeezed along a beautiful stretch of river. Expect to spend more than usual on accommodation; there are still widespread restrictions on where foreigners are allowed to stay in Guizhou, sometimes limiting options to only one hotel per town.

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