As the plane descended into Guiyang, we passed over the terraced hills and limestone karst formations the region is known for. The cloud formations mirrored those of the land mounds. Clumps of clouds were reflected in the dollops of earth. These mounds – no one could mistake them for mountains – were interspersed with tiny villages that appeared more modern than I had imagined remote villages to be. Several of the formations had already fallen victim to limestone quarrying, and often what looked like an impressive peak on one side was merely a concave sliver on the other.
Guiyang is the capital of Guizhou Province, one of the poorest regions in China. The province relies heavily on timber production and its famous Moutai liquor to boost the GDP, and the tourism industry is relatively undeveloped despite the gorgeous local scenery. Guiyang hopes to reverse this pattern with its new claim to fame as “China’s best summer resort,” a designation bestowed upon the city last year in a nod to the area’s mild summer temperatures. This is where the CRI delegation comes in.
At a welcome banquet later in the evening, Vice Mayor Li Zhong gave us an overview of the itinerary, and invited us to explore anything that interests us about Guizhou. I took the invitation literally, and asked if I could tour the Moutai factory. My request was denied on the basis that the factory is 600 kilometers away, though I was assured that the water used to make the popular libation is “sparkling, crystal clear.” I think the invitation was extended within the parameters of the set itinerary.
After dinner, I headed out for a jog to stretch my legs and get a feel for the layout of the city. By happenstance, two blocks from the hotel I came across the only bar in town with live music and resultantly, a large English-speaking crowd. The manager, known affectionately as CD, is known for her skill at convincing foreign bands to come play in the city. As one Scottish patron told me, “No one outside of China has ever heard of Guiyang, but she get them here.” CD directed me to Guiyang’s nearby snack street, which puts Beijing’s snack street to shame. The atmosphere was festive, and despite the fact that only around 300 foreigners live in the city, I was able to slip from booth to booth relatively unnoticed. If not for the tremendous amount of food we consumed at dinner, I would have been seated on a stool sampling silk pancakes in a heartbeat.

A tremendous thunderstorm last night left many of us bleary-eyed and badly in need of caffeine this morning. Instead, we had beef noodles at Huashi Wang, a mid-sized shop that claims to be Guiyang’s “king” of noodles. Afterwards, we loaded up the bus and set out on a two-hour drive to Kaiyang County in central Guizhou.
Kaiyang County is relatively remote, and is accessible only by an exceedingly windy road recently recovered after the area was upgraded to state-level protection. The scenery along the way is stunning, a patchwork of terraced fields and the gentle curves of the Qinglong River. This morning, a heavy fog obscured many of the mountain peaks and last night’s rain intensified the colors of the surroundings. It felt like a movie set from a Chinese version of “Lord of the Rings.” The bus continued climbing to the Shili overlook, from which we could see the Olympic ring pattern the nearby villagers had designed into the crops to show their support for last month’s sports spectacular. After snapping the requisite photos, we took private cars down the mountain to the Matou Ancient Village, which the State Council designated as a state-level historical site in 2006. Here, villagers can acquire satellite hook-ups and other modern conveniences indoors, but must retain the original appearance on the exteriors of their homes to retain preservation funding.
Matou Village was constructed by the Buyi minority group during the Yuan Dynasty, and was soon overtaken by Mongolian settlers. After a feudal land dispute ended in a military standoff, the Mongolian men fled, leaving their wives and children behind to an unknown fate, He Xianong, director of the Kaiyang County Cultural Heritage Museum, said. The Yuan government invited the Buyi to resettle the area, and a mix of Buyi and Han people now inhabit the village.
After a brief tour of the village, we stopped for lunch at a neighboring Buyi town, where we were greeted with bamboo pole dancing and “sister-in-law bean curd soup.” The soup is a curious mix of extremely fresh tofu and spices ranging from onion and chili flakes to sugar to vinegar. Naturally, we washed it down with a glass of warm soy milk. From there, we took a tour of the riverside flour and rice mill and a 10-room guesthouse that looked to me like the ultimate retreat from the world. When the water isn’t high, visitors can raft down the river that was rushing along today.
No celebration of ethnic minorities would be complete with just the Buyi people, so our last stop of the day was a Dong village accessible only by a fantastically unstable rope bridge. Some of my colleagues were decidedly less excited about the bridge than I was, but we all arrived on the other side in one piece. The standout feature of the Dong village is the vast lotus pond criss-crossed by cement bridges. Most visitors to China have contemplated a lotus pond at some point or another, but few can say they’ve actually stood in the middle of one. With the aforementioned scenery in the background, this made for an awe-inspiring visual standpoint. The Dong people were kind enough to cook a simple dinner for us, and with their songs still ringing in our ears (and the bridge swaying beneath our feet), we started back toward Guiyang, and a good night’s rest.

Our last day in Guiyang began with a visit to the Wang Yangming memorial in northern Guizhou.Wang was a high official (the equivalent of the defense minister today) during the Ming Dynasty who was exiled to Guizhou at the height of his career for criticizing the emperor. Finding himself in what our guide described as a “backward area at the time,” Wang devoted his time to self-evaluation and educating the locals. His work during this period is noted for its criticism of Confucianism, the prevailing school of thought up to that point, and he established a form of New Confucianism that emphasizes action and is now popular in South Korea and Japan. His later career centered on military strategies, though it is unclear whether any of these were ever implemented. He often ruminated over these plans in a cave at the back of the memorial property, and the evidence is still there in the calligraphic carvings on the cave ceiling and walls. The day was drizzly and dreary, and the same is true of the cave. It’s hard to imagine anyone producing anything other than a corpse in there, but the carvings do speak for themselves.
We made an extended stopover at the Guizhou Giuyang Golf Club, which managers there say is the only golf course in Guizhou province. The paint on the clubhouse had clearly seen better days. Our purpose here was unclear, and doubly so for the entourage of television reporters and crew we acquired somewhere along the way. After watching the manager whack a ball off toward the forest, I retreated to the terrace of the driving range for a cup of tea and a conversation about the Red Guards with the trip leader. Our handlers returned to herd us to the dining room for lunch, where the foreign staff politely avoided pigs’ feet soup to the strains of “I Will Always Love You” and “Auld Lang Syne.” On a positive note, I suppose the fact that Guizhou now has a golf course – and a privately owned one at that – speaks volumes for the level of progress the province has achieved in recent years.
I donned a rain poncho for the next portion of events, a trip around the new wildlife park in the region. The supposed highlight of the park is a 20-minute elephant show involving five sad-eyed elephants bicycling, spinning like tops, and walking the balance beam. The audience was amused as the elephants kicked basketballs at a fellow reporter to tunes straight off of “Jock Jams,” but the elephants appeared less so. After the show, I walked into the ring to pet the star, and two of the grooms immediately lifted me onto the elephant’s trunk for a photo op. I enjoyed this, though with more than a twinge of guilt. That guilt was compounded when I walked around to the back of the building, where the other elephants now stood enclosed in cells so small they could barely turn around. The other animals in the park, including the 20-plus tigers – the most I’ve ever seen in one zoo – had lovely habitats, so I wondered what the real deal is with the elephants. Hopefully, I had been misinformed, as my conversations in Chinese don’t always yield the most accurate information. After we returned to town, I heard from one of the locals that the animals at the park were all rescued from horrific conditions at a (since closed) zoo elsewhere in the province.
For dinner, we stopped off at a Miao-run hotel and dining complex for sour fish hotpot and another round of singing ethnic women enthusiastically pouring rice wine down our throats. Anyone who hasn’t tried Guizhou cuisine needs to do so as soon as possible. The hotpot was absolutely delicious, the sort of thing one would want on a blustery winter day, and a perfect culinary end to our time in Guizhou. Tomorrow, we board the 8:50 a.m. flight back to Beijing. The fresh air and lush vegetation will be sorely missed.

Writer’s Note: This series originally appeared under my byline on the CRI Web site. The State Information Office and local tourism boards routinely organize “fact-finding missions” on which reporters are shunted around from minority village to scenic site to extoll the wonders of a given area. Real journalists tend to avoid these trips like the plague, but I work in state media, and thus attend from time to time. By necessity, these passages focus on the sunnier aspects of Guizhou, as I was not allowed to write anything negative about the trip. If I had been, I would have discussed being hounded by two busloads of local reporters treating us as if we were the story, among other things. More on that later.