Although becoming more and more of a backpacker destination, this area also contains some hidden gems. Dozens of ethnic minorities, each with their own bizarrely psychedelic traditional dress, can be visited in villages or spotted at regional markets. Somehow only the least interesting of these tribal markets have made their way into the pages of the Lonely Planet, while all the most exotic ones with the most spectacularly dressed ethnic minorities remain almost completely unknown.
The main points of access for South West China are Kunming for Yunnan Province, Guilin or Nanning for Guangxi Province, Kaili or Guiyang for Guizhou Province, Chengdu for Sichuan Province or Xining for Qinghai Province. All are between 1 and 2 days train ride from Beijing and Shanghai, although there are also fairly inexpensive flights sometimes.
Yunnan and Guizhou are the best places for visiting colourful ethnic minorities, many of which can also be found in other neighbouring South-East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Burma. Their languages are unrelated to Chinese, they follow ancient animistic religions, they have mind-bogglingly colourful traditional dress that many wear every day and a lot are engaged in traditional and even nomadic livelihoods. Some of them number in the tens of millions.
Sichuan and Qinghai formed part of historic Tibet and in many parts Tibetan culture has been better preserved than in the Tibetan Autonomous Region itself.
Guangxi is notable for its well preserved traditional architecture in the form of Drum Towers and Wind and Rain Bridges.
No one here speaks any English, except for the staff in backpacker hostels in the cities. Unless you want to book an organised tour through them (which will not take you to the most interesting places) then you will either need some Chinese language or the willingness and persistence to get around by miming and the use of hand gestures alone.
Click here for my blog about the train journey from Shanghai to Kunming in Yunnan Province and my time spent in Kunming. It’s 1681 words and 24 photos.