With its magnificent waterfalls and Miao villages, Guizhou in Southwest China is well worth a visit
I can hear the murmur of the rapids as I walk alongside the jade-green river that runs through the Longgong scenic area in Guizhou.
Soon, white-water foam appears and I figure that these rapids are the tail end of the Dragon’s Gate Waterfall, which is said to resemble a white dragon emerging from its crystal palace.
Another 50 metres on the waterfall looms into view. With its furious speed and lashing spray, it looks like a snowstorm.
Originating from an eerily tranquil lake, the cataract explodes from a height of more than 30m. Its roar has been likened to 10,000 horses galloping.
It is a brush with greatness. Not one, but two rainbows appear in the spray of the waterfall, in apparent homage to the Dragon King of Chinese mythology.
By the end of the day, I will have spotted a third rainbow at another waterfall, a record for me.
Still in awe, my travel companions and I take a lift conveniently located next to the waterfall up to the mirror-like Heavenly Pool.
We clamber into a narrow boat that bumps against the sides of a rocky tunnel as we glide into the Dragon Palace Caves, the heart of the Longgong scenic area, a 60 sq km nature spot.
The caves feature limestone and karst formations, as well as stalactites and stalagmites in gnarled, alien shapes that are lit in different colours in each cavern. It is a surreal scene albeit marred by twinkling lights etching a cartoonish red dragon on one wall.
In Guizhou, the mystical sits easily with the mundane. The name of the provincial capital, Guiyang, means “precious sun”, an allusion to the region’s mild weather, where strong sunshine is a rarity.
Yet in this phlegmatic province, with its gentle, silvery light, I find myself chasing rainbows in China.
A famous saying portrays Guizhou – agricultural, mountainous and one of China’s poorest provinces – as a region “without three li (Chinese miles) of flat land, three days of fine weather or three coins to rub together”.
In recent years, however, the province has been catching up, with investments in roads and big data. Maotai liquor, Guizhou’s signature brew, distilled from sorghum with an alcohol content averaging 53 per cent, is served at state banquets.
In the capital Guiyang, officials of yore decreed the building of Jiaxiu Tower, or First Scholar’s Tower, a three-storey Ming Dynasty monument, to encourage excellence in the imperial examinations, which led to a cushy bureaucrat’s job.
Coincidentally or not, Guiyang produced at least three top scholars over the centuries. The tower, located on Fuyu Bridge, or Floating Jade Bridge, became a symbol of the city.
Despite the pretty names, the 420-year-old tower, which has been rebuilt several times, looks worn and faded.
Another Guiyang attraction, Qianling Mountain Park is a pleasant green space with pockets of calm, despite the footfall of thousands of visitors.
Guiyang, with its low-key attractions, is a launchpad for more interesting day trips. Waterfalls and other scenic spots abound, while ethnic minorities, who account for about 40 per cent of Guizhou’s population, showcase their culture further afield in villages and settlements.
The Huangguoshu (Yellow Fruit Tree) Waterfall National Park lies about a 40-minute drive from the Dragon Palace Caves.
The falls near Anshun town in western Guizhou are among the largest in East Asia. Multiple streams cascade, merge and diverge from a height of more than 70m.
We join the uphill sprawl of people heading for Shuiliandong (Water Curtain Cave) at the back of the falls, when I spy my third rainbow of the day melting into the foot of the falls.
Rainbows form when sunlight and water droplets commingle. This usually happens in rain, but also in the spray of a waterfall. The drops act like a million prisms, refracting, reflecting and otherwise splitting light into its constituent colours.
The droplets produce a rainbow at an angle of about 42 degrees to the observer’s eye. I move closer. Gradients tilt and the rainbow teleports to a different part of the falls.
Another sensory adventure awaits when we visit the 1,000-Household Miao Village of Xijiang in southeast Guizhou, three hours from Guiyang.
About 50 minority groups, such as the Miao and the Dong, live in the province. They celebrate myriad colourful festivals, many involving courtship rituals for the youth.
The Miao village we visit, comprising more than 1,200 households, is touted as the world’s biggest village of the ethnic minority, who number more than eight million in China. It is described as an open-air museum and visitors are introduced to Miao traditions, beliefs and performances.
Dancers sway to the strains of the lusheng, a reed pipe that can be 3m high. One man trills birdsong from a flimsy whistle made from leaves. A soaring choral performance gives me the chills. The women wear masses of prized silver, their necklaces and head-dresses jingling hypnotically.
Symbols from the rich oral tradition of the Miao are sewn onto their famous embroidered clothing. Butterfly motifs reflect their creation myth of Mother Butterfly, which laid 12 eggs from which humanity and the rest of the world emerged.
The Miao are also known elsewhere as the Hmong. Their diaspora has spread as far as the United States, where Hmong refugees from Laos resettled after the war of the US against communist forces in South-east Asia.
The souvenir shops sell specialities, such as ox-horn combs and peanut candy, against a backdrop of traditional wooden homes built on hillsides, some with air-conditioning units. A pig, cut into pieces with its head sold intact, is laid on the ground for sale at a roadside market stall. It seems too real.
According to legend, Prince Grigory Potemkin, a lover of Russian empress Catherine the Great, set up fake villages with pasteboard facades when the 18th-century ruler visited Crimea.
I am reminded of the term Potemkin village, named after the Russian statesman, which denotes an impressive appearance concealing something undesirable.
I wonder how much is hidden here.