Guiyang to Kunming, China by Road
By David Winship Taylor
Say China to most people and they will speak of the eastern third -- cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Or if well traveled, they may mention Qingdao, Nanjing and Guangzhou. Yet that leaves out much of China, such as the provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan to the south and Xinjiang and Quinghai to the west.
It is for good reason they are less well known as travel in these areas is much more difficult. But if you can get past the problems, a different China is revealed -- regions with natural beauty and people from ethnic groups other than the Han.
My work as a botanist recently took me to the coal region near the border of Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. I took Route 320, which is an old road connecting the cities of Guiyang and Kunming with the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the west.
During World War II, the road was an important connection between Burma and the southern reaches of China. It still remains one of the major car and truck routes, although travel by train or plane is much more convenient. I flew into Guiyang and departed from Kunming.
The vehicle we used was a diesel, Coaster minibus made by Toyota, navigated by an experienced driver. I recommend hiring a driver as the road winds like an angry snake and the forks are either unmarked or labeled in Chinese characters. In fact, it is difficult to rent a car without a driver in Guiyang.
Guiyang is a lively city with a flavor unlike that of eastern China, colored by the influences of Vietnam and Thailand. Although the city is old, there are not many historical sites.
Still, I recommend Jiaxiu Lou in the center of the city. One of the buildings is in the middle of the Nanming River. The river itself has beautifully planted, broad walkways and is reminiscent of Paris and the Seine. Along with the surrounding temple buildings, there are shops of local crafts. It is worth looking at the batik fabrics and the embroidered work of the Bouyei and Miao.
Leaving Guiyang, civilization fades away, and you enter an incredible landscape of sharp peaks of the Karst stone mountains surrounded by verdant rice fields. The land is sculpted by the farmers, with terraces of vegetable climbing unbelievable high up the mountainsides. Deep river valleys and lakes add character to the lush land. Progressing westward, the mountains become higher and the valley narrower.
It is this natural wonder that makes traveling by road worthwhile. It also gives you an appreciation of the importance of this road, or any road, to the local people. Although the motorized vehicles may take precedence on the road, the path is shared by people walking, sitting, drying grains and even sleeping.
Animals of all sorts including sheep, horses and even ducks are herded or guided along. The vehicles race along, horns blaring at any obstacle, the faster overtaking the slower at the most inopportune places as the road dips, turns and weaves its way through the mountains.
Guizhou is well known for Huangguoshu Falls. This group of rapids includes the largest waterfall in China, and one of the largest in the world. It is a common tourist attraction, although in this part of China, non-Asians are likely to get their share of stares.
The ethnic group of the area is the Bouyei -- small, beautiful people related to the natives of Thailand. The falls thunder and form a mist nearly as wide as the falls. If you plan to get up close to the roaring water, be prepared to get wet unless you have brought sandals and a raincoat or buy them from the vendors along the path. All around, small stalls sell local crafts -- all forms of batik fabrics, from clothes to wall hangings to backpacks.
Route 320 begins quite wide and tree lined. As the mountains become higher, the road narrows and makes long diagonal runs, interspersed with switchbacks, down to the valley bottom, where it crosses large rivers on stone bridges.
The remains of older bridges are stark reminders of the Japanese bombing during WW II as they attempted to cut the supply routes between Burma and China. Then the road zigzags its way up the other slope of the river valley. This is repeated again and again, such a long distance on the ground compared to the distance a bird would fly.
Guizhou and Yunnan are known for their scenic beauty, but they are also well worth visiting for their unique cuisine. Local foods are grilled meats on sticks, similar to shish kabobs, certain rice noodles called guo qiao mixian and tropical fruits. The foods can be spicy, with chili-based sauces, and share some roots with those from Sichuan. We lunched in Guangling, which is known for it preparation of dog. Dog is considered a "hot" food, thus best eaten in the fall and winter, yet it is available during the warmer months.
The meat was cooked in a hot pot of boiling water at the center of the table. Other ingredients were added throughout the meal including tofu, cilantro, lettuce and root vegetables. As the meal cooks, diners reach in with chopsticks, grasp a morsel and dip it the spicy sauce in dishes surrounding the hot pot. A Chinese fondue!
Another worthwhile stop is for some of the finest (and most expensive) tea in China. Gui Long tea can be tasted in a roadside shop near where it is grown. The tea shrubs can be seen on the terraced slopes. This green tea sells here for about $10 a pound -- at least half the price elsewhere.
Twelve hours later, we arrive at the town of Hongguo where the large Panjiang Median Power and Coal Mining Company is centered. The town is typical of rapidly developing China -- a combination of old village buildings and new construction. The new buildings line a tree planted boulevard that begins and ends in the mud of a road under reconstruction.
Coming into Hongguo, we ran into major road improvements. Earlier we met with occasional road crews working to maintain the road from the relentless monsoon rains. These improvements were much worse, and to the uneducated eye, looked like the method was to destroy the old road and then simultaneously, in a dozen different places, build a new road.
It is painful to travel the 30-kilometer route, the bus lurching slowly from stone to stone. No doubt the new road will be better, but in the meantime, be prepared for mud, deep holes, and large stones to slow your way. As we left the last mining town the road improved, but it was not until we crossed into Yunnan province that we could get back up to speed.
As we got near the border with Yunnan, the soil changed to a crimson red. Small brick kilns appear and the buildings were frequently made of brick instead of limestone. The hills also changed becoming more rounded. The farming is less regular and deeper into Yunnan, trees appeared on the tops of the hills and mountains.
Lunch again gives us a chance to sample local food in Chajing. Owned by local people, the Yi, and the restaurant servers wore native dress and performed native dances throughout the meal. Again, we were served a hot pot, but with a locally cured ham and many other items added including mushrooms, tofu, bean curd skin and a variety of vegetables.
Another specialty was sticky rice cooked in bamboo sticks. Open the bamboo and eat the rice directly from the hollow stem. We also tried the local rice wine and many toasts were offered as foreigners are rare here.
Yunnan also has a number of well-known sites. We detoured to the south to the Stone Forest. Although a very commercial tourist site, with people from many countries, the formations are fascinating. The limestone has weathered to form sharp pinnacles of many shapes and small caverns. It is well worth getting off the main trails to explore on your own. Many of the rocks are named based on their shapes. If the names interest you, hire a guide, one of local Sani people.
Eleven hours later, we arrive in Kunming after passing by beautiful Lake Dian. Initially the commercial sections seem to indicate another industrial city. Yet as you get downtown, you find a cosmopolitan vibrant city. It is alive well into the night, the neon signs lighting the roads. If you have a day to recover, spend it exploring the local sites. I recommend the Yuantong Si. This Buddhist temple is a peaceful respite within the busy city. It is a monastery, so you will see monks and the faithful in prayer and chant while the smell of incense perfumes the air. Even though the temple initially seems crowded, a little exploration reveals quiet empty areas where you can recover from the long trip from Guiyang to Kunming.
David Winship Taylor is a botanist who travels abroad to find new fossils.