China Travel Guide
on Longji Titian, Longsheng
The high ridges of the Rongshui River Valley surround the township of Longsheng, which serves as a good base for exploring the adjoining countryside dotted with Zhuang and Yao villages. To the southwest is a steep range of 3,280-ft (1,000-m) high hills, known as Longji Titian (Dragon Backbone Terraces), whose lower and middle reaches have been covered in rice terracing by the Zhuang people. The Zhuang, who form the majority of Longsheng’s population, live in traditional wooden houses. On the hilltops lie a few villages, inhabited by the Yao, an ethnic community that consists of numerous sub-groups, some of whom still depend on hunting rather than farming. They are also especially skilled in embroidery, weaving, and dyeing. The Zhuang village of Ping An sits near the top of a ridge in the heart of Longji Titian. It offers basic accommodations in traditional wooden buildings, as well as walking trails leading to other settlements in the area.
Situated on the Rongshui River, Sanjiang was the base of resistance against the Japanese during World War II, when Danzhou, the former regional capital located 22 miles (35 km) south, was captured. Today, Sanjiang is the main town of a region central to the indigo-clad Dong community, which has a population of around 2.5 million. Typical Dong architecture, consisting of wooden houses, towers, and bridges, can be found in several villages up in the hills to the north. The hospitable Dong usually offer visitors their favorite douxie cha or oil tea, a bitter soup made with rice and fried tea leaves.
On the south bank of the river is an 11-story Drum Tower, the largest in the region. It was built in 2003, using entirely traditional techniques. The structure is supported by four 154-ft (47-m) pillars, each carved from separate tree trunks. The third story of the tower houses a large drum.
The small Fulu Buddhist Nunnery, situated on the hill behind, is a little unusual, since the Dong community is mainly Daoist. The nunnery’s three halls contain a mix of statuary representing both religions. Situated to the north of the river, the County Mu-seum stands next to the Government Guesthouse. The museum exhibits several scale models of traditional Dong architecture, photographs, and maps displaying Sanjiang’s strategic wartime role. Also displayed here are a number of colorful costumes worn by the Dong, Zhuang, and Yao communities during festivals.
wind-and-rain bridge, Chengyang
The most accessible Dong villages lie 11 miles (18 km) north of Sanjiang at Chengyang, a group of hamlets on the far side of the Linxi River, accessible by bus or minivan taxi from Sanjiang. Connecting Chengyang to the main road are over 100 bridges. One of the most exquisite is a fengyu qiao, a wind-and-rain bridge, dating from 1916. The 256-ft (78-m) long bridge, built from pegged cedar – no nails are said to have been used – took 12 years to complete. The roof is especially elaborate, with five raised pavilions, each built in a different regional style. These beautifully-built bridges not only served a practical function, but acted as shrines to river spirits as well. Most of the altars have now been moved to the riverbank, as the incense is considered a fire hazard.
Basic accommodations are available for visitors interested in exploring the ethnic villages and surrounding countryside. Each hamlet in Chengyang houses a small drum tower, while the surrounding fields are irrigated by bamboo pipes fed by huge, spindly waterwheels, also made from plaited bamboo.
The highland market town of Dutong lies two hours by bus north of Sanjiang, on a separate road past numerous Dong villages. Situated near the Hunanese border, it provides basic accommodations for visitors. A cobbled walking track leads uphill to Gaoding, a cluster of six drum towers and 100-or-so dark-roofed wooden houses.
Chengyang’s pretty rural hamlets
The Dong, who dwell in forested hill country where stone is of poor quality, make efficient use of timber. Nails are avoided, and even the largest structures are skillfully pegged together. As incomes rise in the region, there’s been a resurgence of traditional building with villages competing with one another to sponsor the construction of bridges and towers. Drum towers are usually square-based, with multiple octagonal eaves. Originally they served as watchtowers and rallying places for the village, many with adjoining theater stages for use during festivals. Elaborate, covered wind-and-rain bridges are also places for villagers to meet, and are believed to ward off inauspicious energy.
One of the most attractive Dong villages, sprinkled with fish ponds and bisected by a stream, Zhaoxing sits in a wide, flat valley and is famed throughout China for its impressive collection of traditional architecture (although there are a few modern buildings found on its outskirts). The town is divided into five sections, each inhabited by a different clan, and each possessing its own drum tower, theater, and wind-and-rain bridge. The original structures were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and although they have been rebuilt since, they are charmingly well-worn and impressively intricate. The bridges and theaters are embellished with mirror fragments and detailed moldings.
The Dong community here still makes and wears traditional dark-blue clothing, which is hand-beaten with wooden mallets until soft, and then varnished with eggwhite to ward off mosquitoes.
Numerous muddy tracks lead through the surrounding rice terraces. One trail leads 4 miles (7 km) uphill to the small village of Tang An, packed with wooden buildings. Jitang, 2 miles (3 km) south of Zhaoxing, is also worth the steep climb. It has some old drum towers that survived the vandalism of the early 1970s.
- 137 miles (220 km) SE of Guilin
On the north bank of the Xi Jiang, Wuzhou is a large town, adjacent to the Guangdong border. The town served as a staging post and trading center for Europeans during the 19th century, when goods were transported by boat between Guangzhou and the southwest. Numerous colonial structures remain in Wuzhou’s old eastern quarter, especially along the pedestrianized Dadong Shang Lu, where modern Chinese produce markets contrast with the formal European-style buildings.
The Snake Repository is the largest in China and is located northeast of the center in Shigu Chong. Up to half a million snakes, including cobras, kraits, pit vipers, and rat snakes, are bred on the premises to supply restaurants and the traditional medicine market. Snakes are revered for their flexibility and ability to slough off their skin, so their parts are primarily used to help cure arthritis and skin complaints. Summer is the better time to visit; in winter, the snakes tend to be sluggish and the stocks may be depleted.
- Yugai Lu, Shigu Chong
Longhua Si, Guiping
by mist-covered forest, Guiping
Located at the confluence of Yu and Xun rivers, Guiping is an unremarkable city surrounded by lush mountain scenery. Its importance as a regional center has recently declined, due to the cessation of river traffic during the 1990s. Its main industry is now sugar cane.
Guiping is renowned for its high-quality green tea, xi shan cha, which grows on Xi Shan (West Mountain), on the outskirts of town. The long leaves of tea are processed and rolled into what look like miniature black cheroots. They are steeped one at a time to produce a faintly bitter, yet refreshing brew.
Xi Shan itself can be easily ascended from town. The 2-hour hike, past tea plantations and through bamboo groves, passes a number of Tang-era Buddhist temples. Longhua Si, deep in the forest on the upper slopes of the mountain, was built during the Song dynasty and heavily renovated during the 1980s. It contains numerous Buddhist statues. The temples sell Xi Shan cha, which is said to be superior to that sold in Guiping shops. The summit offers splendid views of the river plains.
A 40-minute journey by bus from Guiping, the hamlet of Jintian lies 16 miles (25 km) north of town. From the bus stop, it’s a 3-mile (5-km) walk across rural fields to the location of the first headquarters of Hong Xiuquan’s Taiping Army. A museum here houses weapons, paintings, and maps recording the main events of the Taiping Uprising.
The Taiping Rebellion
After being defeated in the 1840–42 Opium Wars, China was forced to pay a huge indemnity to Britain. Taxation was increased, causing great hardship in poor rural areas such as southern Guangxi. People’s discontent with the weak Qing rule was fuelled by Hong Xiuquan, who formed a 10,000-strong militia, known as Taiping Tianguo (Kingdom of Heavenly Peace), at Jintian village in January 1851. Marching north, the Taiping captured Nanjing, making it their capital in March 1853. Influenced by Hong’s personal interpretation of Christianity, the Taiping initially planned the overthrow of the Qing dynasty along with traditional religions, aiming to establish an egalitarian society. However, poor military planning and Hong’s paranoia saw the movement falter. In July 1864, imperial forces wrested back Nanjing after a siege in which Hong died. It is thought that 20 million people were killed during the 13-year-long Taiping Uprising, one of the world’s bloodiest civil conflicts.
an outdoor market, Nanning
Nestled in the southern half of the province, only 120 miles (200 km) from the Vietnamese border, the Guangxi capital of Nanning is somewhat removed from the rest of the province. Founded in the Song dynasty, Nanning became the provincial capital in 1912, until it was occupied by the Japanese forces during World War II. Reinstated as the capital in 1949, Nanning later served as an important center for supplies going to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In 1979, relations with Vietnam soured, and China went to war with its southern neighbor; Nanning once more became a military stronghold. Today, the city is expanding rapidly, partly as a consequence of cross-border traffic, which resumed in the 1990s.
Nanning makes a useful transit point for those heading to Vietnam or towards sights located in the southwestern corner of the province, such as Detian Falls and the Zuo Jiang. Nanning itself has only a handful of monuments and sights, but is a nice enough place with a laid-back atmosphere and many bustling markets. It is also the main city of the Zhuang minority, who make up over 60 percent of the population.
The busy shopping district of Xingning Lu, with its well-restored European-style buildings, is a reminder that Nanning was opened to foreign trade in 1907. The Provincial Museum on Minzu Dadao has a display of over 50 antique bronze “Dongson” drums in many different styles, some of which are about 2,000 years old.
On Renmin Dong Lu, Renmin Park is planted with a variety of tropical plants such as giant taro, heliconias, bird-nest ferns, and philodendrons. To the east of the city on Chahua Yuan Lu, Jinhua Cha Gardens exhibits the rare Golden Camellia, only found in the mountains of Guangxi and quite possibly now extinct in the wild. Unusual for a camellia, its petals are large and rather tough.
- Minzu Dadao
- 0771 281 0907
- 9am–5:30pm daily
Named for an archeological site in Vietnam, the oldest Dongson Drums are over 2,200 years old. They appear to have originated in Thailand or Vietnam, from where their use spread across Southeast Asia. The characteristic narrow-waisted drums are made from bronze, and reach up to 3 ft (1 m) in height, in styles that vary greatly from region to region. In Guangxi, timpani are marked with a 12-pointed star, and are often decorated with frog figurines, while their middles are finely chased in stylized designs of warriors in boats wearing feathered headdresses. Originally used as storage vessels, later, as Ming historians observed, they came to symbolize chiefly authority amongst the Zhuang. They were played during agricultural ceremonies, and still feature as percussion instruments in some festivals amongst Guizhou’s Miao community.
- 62 miles (100 km) SW of Nanning
- to Ningming
- to Ningming
- sampan to Hua Shan from Ningming
- contact the Nanning tourist office for river tours
- Longrui Reserve
A river tour up the peaceful Zuo Jiang in a sampan hired from Ningming, a small settlement on the railroad between Nanning and Pingxiang, takes visitors past prehistoric rock art and towering karst scenery. Produced almost 2,000 years ago between the Warring States and the late Han period, the paintings of over 2,600 human figures are scattered across 70 locations along the river. Painted in red-brown ferrous oxide, they mainly depict mass shamanistic ceremonies. The designs show marked similarities to those on bronze Dongson drums that were found in Vietnam and southern China. It is believed that the artists were the Luo Yue, ancestors of the indigenous Zhuang.
The first paintings are about 12 miles (20 km) upstream from Ningming, but the largest concentration is situated at Hua Shan (Flower Mountain), about three hours or so along the river. A steep cliff rising 33 ft (10 m) above the water is covered in as many as 1,200 stick figures, mostly male, engaged in what appears to be a ritual dance. A frequently recurring symbol is a small circle, thought to represent a bronze drum, around which several figures seem to dance with their arms raised as if to invoke the gods. A few carry swords or ride on the back of beasts. Only two of them are clearly women, depicted with long, flowing hair. Other figures include dogs, a horse, farmers, and rowers in a dragon-boat race. A shaman, identifiable by his elaborate headdress, appears at the center of all this activity.
Panlong, a tiny hamlet on the river between Ningming and Hua Shan, has gorgeous views of the rural peaked landscape. Lodging is available here in a handful of pretty wooden buildings. Paths lead from Panlong through the Longrui Nature Preserve, meant to protect the very rare white-headed leaf monkey. A sighting of these black-and-white primates amongst the dense forest and undergrowth is unlikely, but its rugged paths are well worth exploring.
The Zhuang Community
With a population of around 18 million, the Zhuang form China’s largest ethnic minority. Most live in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, although there are also communities in adjoining provinces and Vietnam. They speak their own language, which uses the Roman alphabet instead of Chinese characters. Visitors will see bilingual road signs all across the region, particularly in Guilin and Nanning. Apart from their language, it is hard to distinguish urban Zhuang from the Han Chinese, although in the country the men often dress in turbans and black pyjamas, while the women wear blue embroidered jackets. The Zhuang are mainly animistic, which explains the lack of Buddhist and Daoist temples in Guangxi. One of their most famous festivals is Buffalo Soul Day, held in honor of the Buffalo King’s birthday on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month (Apr/May). On this day, all buffalos are washed and groomed, fed a special rice dish, and given the day off work.
Surrounded by vast fields of sugar cane and the jagged hills so typical of this region, Pingxiang is a busy market town and the railhead for the crossing into Vietnam. Visitors require a valid visa to enter Vietnam at the border crossing, Youyi Guan (Friendship Pass), another 9 miles (15-km) away. The current border was demarcated as early as the Ming era, and a good stretch of the original 33-ft (10-m) stone wall still stands, along with a restored watchtower and gateway under which visitors pass. The tower’s second floor houses a diorama of the area and offers views into Vietnam. An early 20th-century European-style building on the Chinese side was built by the French when they controlled this region, known then as Indo-China. For those crossing into Vietnam, the rail line for Hanoi resumes 3 miles (5 km) away on the far side at Dong Dang.
- 93 miles (150 km) W of Nanning
- via Daxin to Shuolong, minibus from Shuolong to falls, 10 miles (16 km)
A spectacular set of broad cataracts dividing China from Vietnam, Detian is the second largest transnational waterfall in the world, after Niagara Falls on the US-Canada border. The two attractions, however, have little else in common. Detian does not possess the sheer force of Niagara, but is more gently beautiful, falling in stages over rocks and around islets, and surrounded by an emerald karst landscape of jagged hills and plowed fields. It is possible to swim in the broad pool beneath the falls, and to take a bamboo raft into the spray near its base. Remember that a border runs through the center of the river – do not stray too far across. A road running along the top of the falls leads to a stone tablet from the 1950s that marks out the border in both French and Chinese.
- 93 miles (150 km) S of Nanning
- to Hainan Island
A tropical port city of about 400,000 people, Beihai is one of the departure points for ferries to Hainan Island. Many of the city’s residents are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, whose expulsion from that country in the late 1970s sparked a brief attempt by China to invade its neighbor.
Established over 2,000 years ago, the city prospered during the Han era, when it was a busy port. The old Colonial Quarter on the northern seafront along Zhongshan Lu, is a 1.2-mile (2-km) stretch of narrow lanes and quietly disintegrating 1920s plasterwork, at least one former church, and several colonnaded shopfronts where a heady fish market is often held.
About 2 miles (3 km) west of the center farther down Zhongshan Lu is the Hainan Ferry Port. Lying beyond is a small harbor crammed with motorized junks, rusty cargo ships, and battered trawlers.
Beihai’s other attraction, Yin Tan (Silver Beach), lies 6 miles (10 km) south of town. Although it has a range of resorts and restaurants, Yin Tan’s monotonous stretch does not compare with the lovely beaches of Hainan.