Guizhou’s breathtaking scenery and historic sites

GuiyangThe cities of eastern China are regularly wreathed in smog, so for pastoral scenery and fresh air, many Chinese head south-west. Going on holiday is increasingly common for city dwellers, thanks to new airports and a growing motorway network. But this has put a strain on classic destinations such as Guilin (famous for its karst scenery) and lakeside Dali in Yunnan province, which are frequently crowded. The Guizhou region, with its cavernous gorges and ethnic minorities, offers an enticing alternative.

The economic boom enjoyed on China’s east coast over the past 30 years has left landlocked Guizhou behind. The upside for travellers is that the province long labelled “China’s poorest” remains unspoilt, with a wealth of uncrowded historic sites.

But now the Beijing government is trying to tackle wealth disparities across the nation by building transport links. A high-speed rail line opened in 2014 connecting Guizhou’s capital, Guiyang, with Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong, and more lines are planned to Chongqing, Kunming and Changsha.

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Kompong Cham – Cambodia’s East Gate

cam copyPhnom Penh is ground zero in a reawakening Cambodia. Gleaming SUVs navigate streams of tuc-tucs and motorcycles. Outside celestial Wats vendors hawk hats, sunglasses and “something special sir” on litter blighted streets. And in the riverfront bars, men reddened by too much Cambodia Beer and the fierce Cambodian sun, cavort like beasts freed from the confines of the zoo.

Yet this was not the wild we sought. We were simply passing through this feral borough of the global village, exchanging buses en route to what we’d heard was the least developed quarter of the country: Cambodia’s wild east.

Five hours traversing tarmac that had seemingly been smeared across the land like butter delivered us somewhat disquietingly to Kampong Cham – the so-called gateway to the eastern provinces. My travel companion Jack Bailey and I alighted the bus and resolved to stroll off the journey.

We walked past the bustling central market place, flanked by fading French architecture, towards the mighty Mekong River.  Kompong Cham proved more of a provincial town than a city per se. Though I’d read that it was the biggest conurbation in the east of the country, it only took us ten minutes to traverse it on foot.

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The Ancient Towns of Xiangxi


Shen Congwen was a prominent Chinese writer in the 1920s and 30s before war and chaos enveloped a generation. Though Shen hailed from a remote region in Western Hunan – a mountainous, ethnically diverse place known as Xiangxi – his stories concerning “the human spirit” found wide readership with the urban young in places like Shanghai. His writing painted a world where Han infantrymen rubbed shoulders with the exotic Tujia and Miao in a land of lush hills and jade rivers. Yet Shen’s Xiangxi is a paradise flawed, caught in limbo between ancient ways and an encroaching modernity. His stories are riddled with conflict and simmering with mute pathos.

His hometown of Fenghuang is a place where, as Shen Congwen once wrote, “Land was scarce, so most people’s houses were dangling-foot houses, half on land, half on stilts built over the water.” The writer’s grave is located on the outskirts of the river town in a quaint hillside memorial garden.

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My Life: Wu Qiang

Ink painting by Wu Qiang

Ink painting by Wu Qiang

RED DAWN I was born in 1967 in Zigong, Sichuan province. That was just after the Cultural Revolution began. I can recall red flags and mass movements. It was dazzling but the more intense things got, the poorer people became. You had to quote Chairman Mao even when you went to buy food. For example, if you wanted a turnip, you’d first say, “Mao Zedong thought for 10,000 years,” and then you could pay for it. Food became scarce and people ate anything. I had an aunt who would fry up cockroaches because there was no meat. Of course, we added Sichuan peppercorns and chilli peppers for flavour. I was nine years old when Mao died. Everyone was outside crying in unison. I thought it was funny and started to laugh. A policeman hit me and said, “Chairman Mao has died and you laugh?” But I wasn’t sure what it all had to do with me. Those times were like North Korea is today. I think Pyongyang must have studied China.

DOTS AND DIY The older brother of a friend of mine used to draw. He mostly drew pictures of Mao and other socialist images. He gave me a join-the-dots Mao portrait when I was six years old. I soon abandoned the dots and started drawing freehand. In primary school we had an art teacher, but he couldn’t really paint. Zigong was a poor place and education was very backward. The best learning you could do was by yourself. When I was eight years old, I’d saved up enough from my Spring Festival lucky money to buy a foreign art book. I learnt about light and perspective from it. In middle school, I spent my whole time painting and drawing because there was nothing else to do. The art teacher threw me out of his class because I contested his ability.

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Rhythm & Xues

BeishanBeishan’s Zheng Road is anything but idyllic. It may be the main street in this part of Zhuhai’s Nanping town (about three kilometres northwest of the Macau border) but it is really no more than a lane, with a cracked pavement and soupy pools of black rainwater through which litter drifts. A makeshift abattoir-come-butcher shop operates beneath a tarpaulin; a tiny room houses a mahjong parlour. Overhead, electric wires knot with telephone lines. Remarkably, some remnants of China’s majestic past remain: a few Qing dynasty buildings, ramshackle and forlorn, sit between “kissing” houses – charmless low-cost tenements quickly (and often illegally) built so close together it is said that neighbours can kiss.

“Everyone here is from outside,” says Mr Peng, a migrant worker from Hunan province, over a steaming bowl in one of the street’s eateries, a Chongqing noodle shop, explaining why no one here appears to speak Cantonese. “The local people rent us the houses, they’ve already moved to new housing.”

A short distance away is some of that new housing: Huafa Century City is a modern waterside development of luxury apartments, Western-style coffee shops and European brand-name stores. Closer still is a construction site on which, it is claimed, will rise Zhuhai’s swankiest mall: Huafa Shangdu.

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Goodbye Old Canton

Photo by An Ge










It’s hard to miss the Canton Tower. At 600 metres, it stands high above Guangzhou and represents all that is new in ol’ Canton.

After an ear-popping ascent, one can savour macarons at the Lutece French revolving restaurant and, from the world’s second-highest observation deck, look out over Guangdong Museum and Guangdong Science Centre, both of which were built within the past decade. If you look hard enough (and if the city’s pervasive smog has desisted), you might even see the 53-metre tall, Ming-dynasty Chigang Pagoda, which is indicative of how towers looked before the mainland opened up to the world.

Chigang is one of three fung shui steeples scattered around the Pearl River that were intended to bring fortune to the people of the city. Canton Tower, by contrast, advocates the religion of modernity, as evidenced in the Science and Technology Marvel Tour Hall, on the 109th and 110th floors.

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Shenzhen’s craft beer brewing scene takes off

In July, Shenzhen independent craft brewery Bionic Brew celebrated its second anniversary. A horde of thirsty expats and local beer enthusiasts descended on Bionics’ tiny backstreet bar to listen to live music and down made-in-Shenzhen lagers, ales, stouts and pilsners, as well as a commemorative pink ale, created by master brewer Dmitrii Gribov.

Although American owner Joe Finkenbinder recalls little of the evening, what his hangover cannot obscure is that he, above all others, has succeeded in fermenting a Shenzhen beerscape. And when one winds the clock back, it becomes apparent that it took far more than yeast, hops and malt to turn this mercantile migrant town on to a quality brew.

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The expats living the quiet life in rural southwest China

Trading city life for remote villages in the South China Karst region might seem an unlikely choice for expats but, as Thomas Bird discovers, some wouldn’t have it any other way.

The South China Karst is a region of extraordinary topography – a land defined by limestone crags, seemingly otherworldly in their gravity-defying composition. The karst may be nothing more than a product of several millennia of limestone dissolution, but it’s easy to grow misty-eyed when confronted with this natural spectacle.

Historically, this area, which spans the provinces of Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan, was a hotbed of ethnic insurrection and separatist movements. The region proved so difficult to pacify that the Chinese have long dubbed it “the land of a hundred barbarians” and even today, ethic minorities, as well as local Han, eke out lives as removed from mainstream affairs as one can be in today’s China.

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Mao-stalgia: red tourism in Zunyi, China

Gazing over a map of China, Zunyi appears far from the fray. The city is situated in the middle of landlocked Guizhou province, in the remote, mountainous and ethnically diverse southwest. Yet despite its obscurity, almost everyone in China has heard of Zunyi.

This is because in early 1935, the battle-weary Red Army held a meeting in Zunyi that would change the course of history. It was during the fabled Zunyi Conference that Chairman Mao Zedong negotiated his way to the emerging Communist party’s top spot. Today, with China more market-orientated than Marxist, this small Guizhou town is keen to exploit its red credentials, catering to the troops of sightseers now on the march across China.

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Calling the shots: photography festival lights up Lianzhou

Lianzhou is not on many tourist itineraries but, thanks to the efforts of one woman, once a year it becomes a hive of activity, as photographers from all over the world descend on the Guangdong town, writes Thomas Bird.

In Yuexiu, Guangzhou’s historic centre, is a jumbled neighbourhood of villas, some predating the Communist revolution of 1949. Down a back lane, one of these fine old houses bears a bright polished sign that reads “Lianzhou Foto” in bold capital letters.

Inside, all is fierce activity: an enormous Epson printer is running off glossy poster-sized images; editors are resizing photographs on desktop computers; interns are racing about nervously while full-time employees complain of sleep deprivation.

When Duan Yuting, founder and director of the Lianzhou International Photo Festival, arrives, she looks sleep-starved but spirited. The few weeks leading up to an event showcasing more than 140 photographers from across the globe are understandably hectic, but Duan appears to be comfortably in control.

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