China Travel Guide

The Southwest

  • Sichuan & Chongqing
  • Yunnan
  • Guizhou & Guangxi

  •  
    The Southwest
    Dai women selling their produce at a market in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna
    Dai women selling their produce at
    a market in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna

    The Southwest at a Glance
    Some of China’s most evocative landscapes are found in the Southwest: the fertile Red Basin of eastern Sichuan, deep gorges along the Yangzi River, the mountainous fringes of the Tibetan Plateau, Xishuangbanna’s tropical forests, and the karst hills of Guizhou and Guangxi. Cultural highlights include the sites of Buddhist art at Le Shan and Dazu, and the remains of Ming city walls at Dali and Songpan. Ethnic minority communities include Tibetans in the west, Miao and Dong in Guizhou and Guangxi, Dali’s Bai, Lijiang’s Naxi, and the Dai of Xishuangbanna. There are wildlife preserves for giant pandas near Chengdu, waterfowl at Cao Hai, and elephants in Xishuangbanna; and trekking opportunities at Tiger Leaping Gorge, Emei Shan, and along the Lao border in southern Yunnan.

    The stepped and calcified Mirror Pools in Huanglong, Sichuan
    The stepped and calcified Mirror Pools
    in Huanglong, Sichuan

    Getting Around
    The major cities and destinations, such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Kunming, Guiyang, Guilin, Lijiang, and Jinghong, are all served by air. Train lines, though more restricted, offer fairly direct services connecting the provincial capitals with most of the larger cities. A comprehensive network of buses covers much of the region, with comfortable express coaches and surfaced roads linking key sites, though travel through remoter areas on local buses can be rough and slow going, particularly in Guizhou and Guangxi. It is also possible to spend a few days taking a ferry down the Yangzi from Chongqing, or to take a scenic day trip along the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi province.






    The Southwest at a Glance
    The endangered panda, indigenous to Sichuan
    The endangered panda, indigenous
    to Sichuan
    Fishing boats on the banks of peaceful Er Hai (Ear Lake) near Dali
    Fishing boats on the banks of peaceful
    Er Hai (Ear Lake) near Dali

    A Portrait of the Southwest
    The southwest’s stunning landscapes, from the impossibly steep limestone hillocks along the Li River, to the deep gorges cut by the upper reaches of the Yangzi, make it one of China’s most picturesque regions. The area’s ethnic diversity, evident in the traditional culture and lifestyles of its numerous minority communities, also adds to its attraction as an exotic tourist destination.

    The Southwest’s isolation has meant that for much of its past it has forged its own path. The area roughly covered by today’s Yunnan has always had closer ties with its neighbors to the south and east than with China’s traditional dynastic centers. During the period of the Warring States (475–221 BC), Zhuang Qiao, a Chu general, was sent here to subdue the tribes, but after a long campaign, he was impelled to stay, establishing the Kingdom of Dian at what is now Kunming in around 300 BC. For the next 500 years, the kingdom existed as a loose conglomerate of tribute-paying tribal chiefs.

    Worshipers wreathed in incense smoke at Chengdu’s main Daoist temple, Qingyang Gong
    Worshipers wreathed in incense smoke at
    Chengdu’s main Daoist temple, Qingyang Gong

    In the 8th century, the Kingdom of Nanzhao emerged in Dali, extending its territory into Vietnam and Myanmar. The dynasty grew wealthy on trade along the Southern Silk Route, until it was conquered by the Yuan emperor Kublai Khan in the 13th century. Through much of the Ming and Qing eras, the area that is now Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi was ruled as a colonized outpost, dominated by tribal chieftains.

    Bai women in traditional dress, Shaping
    Bai women in traditional dress, Shaping

    During the 1800s, the dispossessed, ground down by merciless warlords and extra imperial taxes, revolted in two major uprisings: the Muslim Uprising of 1856 (also known as the Du Wenxiu Rebellion) which lasted until 1873 and centered on Kunming, and the Taiping Rebellion (which lasted from 1850–1864) begun in Guangxi. Both uprisings were brutally suppressed by the Qing and colonizing forces, sending the region into a downward spiral of provincial obscurity and abject poverty. The Miao minority revolted again in 1870. When the Communists marched through during the Long March in 1934, they encountered a population ready for revolution and took on many recruits.

    Limestone peaks coated in vegetation, Li River area
    Limestone peaks coated in vegetation,
    Li River area

    Sichuan, the region’s largest province, has long been a part of China – the enigmatic bronze-working Ba culture flourished here around 1000 BC, with its capital at Sanxingdui, north of modern Chengdu. After the fall of the Han dynasty in AD 220, the province’s fertile eastern part became the agriculturally self-sufficient Kingdom of Shu during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 221–63), whose wealth sponsored great religious works under the Tang and Song dynasties such as the huge Buddha at Le Shan. Sichuan remained a crucial outpost during the ensuing eras. Chongqing, its major city, was targeted for heavy industry under the Communists and is today the world’s largest municipality, breaking away from Sichuan in 1997. It’s from Chongqing that the Three Gorges Cruise down the Yangzi begins, still the main reason to visit the city.

    Sichuan’s heavily populated eastern plains give way to the sparsely populated foothills and Aba Grasslands plateau, inhabited mainly by ethnic Tibetans. On the fringes of this frontier, the last few remaining pandas live in what is left of Sichuan’s bamboo groves. For a fashionable metropolis, the capital of Chengdu is surprisingly laid-back, a characteristic that is best seen in the many teahouses found in parks, temples, and old courtyards.

    Yunnan stretches from the Tibetan foothills in the north, where the headwaters of the Yangzi gather strength, to Xishuangbanna and the Laotian border in the south, through which the Mekong flows. Today, Yunnan is quickly becoming one of the country’s foremost tourist destinations. North of Kunming lie the pretty towns of Dali and Lijiang, surrounded by villages inhabited by the indigenous Bai and Naxi peoples. Xishuangbanna’s landscape and culture, on the other hand, are reminiscent of Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. The regular markets, where minority people gather, are very colorful.

    A major tourist site, the Tropical Botanical Gardens at Xishuangbanna are also where research into tropical forest ecosystems takes place.
    A major tourist site, the Tropical
    BotanicalGardens at Xishuangbanna
    are also where research into tropical
    forest ecosystems takes place.

    Most tourists head to Guangxi for the stunning karst landscapes surrounding Guilin and Yangshuo. The charms of Guizhou and Guangxi lie, however, in the less visited areas of hilly rural landscape, peppered with wooden villages and in-habited by minority peoples – the Miao in particular are renowned for their ultra-sociable festivals. The region’s poverty, due to its poor farmland, has allowed natural sights such as the magnificent Detian Falls, and the lush Maling Canyon to remain beautifully untouched.

    Colorful bracts of bougainvillea
    Colorful bracts of bougainvillea

    The Flora of Southwest China
    Southwest China has the greatest variety of flora in the whole country, and Yunnan Province in particular can claim the diversity prize, having some 15,000 species of plant, or about half the country’s total. Many garden plants originate from this part of China, including the ubiquitous rhododendron and magnolia. The reason for this richness lies in its unique geography: in a very short distance the environment changes from high altitude mountain plateau to moist subtropical jungle on the Tropic of Cancer in the south, with isolated valleys that restrict access and cross-pollination in between.

    Mountains and Valleys
    The landscapes of this region are dominated by seemingly endless vistas of mountain ranges and deep valleys. In northern Yunnan, western Sichuan and southwest Tibet lie the headwaters of three of the world’s great rivers: from west to east, the Nu Jiang (Salween), the Lancang Jiang (Mekong), and the Jiansha Jiang (Yangzi). All originate high in the mountains of Tibet and Qinghai.




    Magnolia (Magnolia campbellii), with its showy pink flowers, is native to the Himalayas and China. It was discovered by George Forrest, a Scottish plant hunter, in 1904 but was not brought into cultivation until 1924. Camellias, of which there are many beautiful garden species, are grown mainly for their lovely flowers. Also, more than 200 kinds of tea in China are based on Camellia sinensis. Poppy (Meconopsis integrifolia) grows high in the mountains of southwest China at 8,850–16,7306 ft (2,700–5,100 m), its foliage protected by soft silky hairs. First collected by renowned botanist E.H. Wilson, the poppy is used in traditional medicine.
    Magnolia (Magnolia campbellii), with its showy pink flowers, is native to the Himalayas and China. It was discovered by George Forrest, a Scottish plant hunter, in 1904 but was not brought into cultivation until 1924. Wild rhododendrons grow in this region, a center of diversity for many plants. Most of the modern hybrid garden forms originate from wild species introduced from southwest China. Many slipper orchid species thrive in the alpine meadows of the Sichuan mountains above 7,800 ft (2,400 m) and Cypripedium tibeticum is one of the most attractive. Camellias, of which there are many beautiful garden species, are grown mainly for their lovely flowers. Also, more than 200 kinds of tea in China are based on Camellia sinensis. Poppy (Meconopsis integrifolia) grows high in the mountains of southwest China at 8,850–16,7306 ft (2,700–5,100 m), its foliage protected by soft silky hairs. First collected by renowned botanist E.H. Wilson, the poppy is used in traditional medicine.
    Typically dense patch of natural tropical forest in Jinghong, southern Yunnan
    Typically dense patch of
    natural tropical forest
    in Jinghong, southern Yunnan
    The jungle floor is carpeted with ferns and shrubs while above, lianas and figs drape and strangle tree branches. Mists and monsoon rains constantly dampen the air, so epiphytes (plants growing on trees) flourish.
    The jungle floor is carpeted with ferns and shrubs while above,
    lianas and figs drape and strangle tree branches. Mists and
    monsoon rains constantly dampen the air, so epiphytes (plants
    growing on trees) flourish.

    Tropical forest or jungle
    A rare habitat in China, jungle covers only about 0.5 per cent of the country, but it contains 25 per cent of the species. One of the largest remaining areas lies in the southwest, in Xishuangbanna Prefecture, Yunnan Province. Here, there is a rainy season between April and October, the annual rainfall is about 60 in (1,500 mm), and both humidity and temperatures are high. Jungle is also found on Hainan Island, and in southern Guangxi Province.









    Dragon’s blood (Dracaena cochinchinensis) plays an important role in traditional Chinese medicine. Its red, blood-like sap is collected and used in a variety of preparations to improve the circulation of the blood. Endangered in the wild, it is now being planted to ensure supplies continue. Pomelo or Chinese grapefruit (Citrus maxima) has been cultivated in southern China for thousands of years. The flowers are followed by very large fruits with green rind and sweet, juicy flesh. The red dwarf banana, (Musa coccinea), is one of the prettiest banana plants and is popular in gardens. About 6.5 ft (2m) tall, it has bright red flowers that last up to two months. It is now scarce because of over-collection and habitat destruction. Musella (Musella lasiocarpa), closely related to the banana, is a beautiful but rare plant in Yunnan and Guizhou Provinces. It is low-growing and has a dense yellow flowerhead, reminiscent of a globe artichoke.

    Famous Plant Hunters
    The beginning of the 20th century saw a number of intrepid botanists and explorers set out to discover and bring back new and exotic plants from around the world. Among the most famous were George Forrest (1873–1932), E.H. Wilson (1876–1930), Joseph Rock (1884–1962), and Frank Kingdon Ward (1885–1958). Although only one of the early pioneers, Kingdon Ward achieved renown exploring and collecting botanical specimens in Yunnan Province just before and after World War I, and also later in Tibet. Among his most celebrated discoveries are several rhododendron species. In the 1920s he brought back seeds of the beautiful blue poppy Meconopsis betonicifolia, which inspired the title of the most famous of his many books: The Land of the Blue Poppy.

    Eggplants and yard-long beans
    Eggplants and yard-long beans
    Fruits and deep-fried snacks on sticks, typical of the Southwest
    Fruits and deep-fried snacks on sticks,
    typical of the Southwest

    Regional Food: The Southwest
    Subject to hot summers and mild winters with plenty of rain, the Southwest enjoys year-round crop growth, making it one of China’s “rice bowls.” The Sichuan basin also yields a wealth of subtropical products such as fruits, tea, and herbal medicines and its spicy cooking has become the region’s dominant cuisine. By contrast, the cooking of Yunnan is underrated despite some wonderful produce; while the cuisines of Guizhou and Guangxi lie somewhere between Sichuanese spiciness and the subtle, delicate flavors of the Cantonese kitchen.

    Sichuan
    The cuisine of Sichuan has the reputation of being richly flavored and peppery hot but, in fact, a lot of Sichuanese dishes are not hot at all. After all the chili is a relatively recent import from the Americas that was not widely cultivated here until the 19th century. According to Sichuanese chefs, chilies do not paralyze the tastebuds, but stimulate the palate. Each dish should be a balance of flavors such as sweet, sour, bitter, hot, salty, aromatic, and fragrant. When the palate is stimulated by the heat of the chili, it becomes sensitized and can appreciate even more flavors at the same time. The most famous regional spice is the Sichuan peppercorn (hua jiao). This dried flowerbud has an aromatic, lemony heat that makes the mouth tingle, even numbing it against the chilies’ heat. The final secret of Sichuan food is the purity of the salt collected from the mines of Zigong.

    Vegetables on sale in a street market in Guizhou
    Vegetables on sale in a street market
    in Guizhou

    Yunnan
    Yunnan’s tropical climate means the province is a haven for vegetable lovers – lotus roots, bamboo shoots, beans and garlic shoots. Several products distinguish Yunnan on the map of gastronomy – firstly the highly-prized pu’er tea. Dried into bricks, this is strong and black and often taken as a medicine. Just as famous is Yunnan ham, which rivals the ham from Jinhua in Zhejiang. Unusually for China, Yunnan is also known for its milk products especially a type of goat’s cheese.

    Stall selling zongzi, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves
    Stall selling zongzi, parcels of sticky rice
    wrapped in bamboo leaves

    When the rain finally stops, a profusion of mushrooms fills the hills and forests of the region, sending the locals out to collect these delicacies. Finally, the tropical climate means that all sorts of exotic fruits grow here and many turn up in the area’s dishes.

    Guizhou & Guangxi
    Relatively poor provinces, Guizhou and Guangxi are known for their famine cuisine especially among the minorities, but despite the stories the average visitor will be hard pressed to find bee grub stir-fries and the like.

    Fiery hotpots are a specialty of Guizhou, including those made with dog but these can easily be avoided if not wanted. The cooking here is spicy and sour. The province’s most distinguished product is Maotai. A strong spirit distilled from Sorghum and other grains, it is drunk at formal occasions.

    Guangxi cuisine includes Cantonese-style sweet and sour dishes along with more rustic Zhuang minority food. Zongzi are also a favorite and the pyramids of sticky rice can be savory or sweet.

    On the menu
    Aromatic & Crispy Duck Quite different to Peking Duck, this is marinated, steamed, and then deep-fried. A special version – Tea Smoked Duck – is created when it is smoked with tea, cypress and camphor wood chips.

    Twice-cooked Pork Another traditional Sichuan dish that is extremely popular. The secret is that the pork is first boiled, then stir-fried till tender.

    Steamed Beef in a Basket Spicy beef coated with ground rice and steamed – served in the bamboo steamer basket.

    Toban Fish A whole fish deep-fried then braised with chilli, garlic, ginger, scallions, soy, sugar, wine, chili bean paste (toban jiang), and vinegar.

    Ants Climbing Trees Minced pork with rice vermicelli – the minced pork forms the “ants” and the vermicelli the "trees".

    Fresh water chestnuts
    Fresh water chestnuts

    Regional Dishes and Specialties
    Most visitors to China will at some time come across versions of Kung-Po Chicken and Ma Po Doufu. However, outside Sichuan it is likely to lack the depth of flavors and balance of textures of the original. Each region of China has its own “preserved vegetables” but Sichuan’s is among the best – a pickled mustard root in a spicy sauce. Yunnan’s “Crossing the Bridge Noodles” is said to have been created by the wife of a Qing dynasty scholar to prevent the noodles cooling on the way to her husband studying in an island pavilion. This consists of a chicken broth with a hot, insulating layer of oil on top served with noodles, slices of ham, vegetables, and egg to be added to it at the table. Another specialty is Steam Pot Chicken cooked with vegetables and often medicinal herbs; as it steams a flavorful broth is created in the pot.



    Kung-Po Chicken: the best-known Sichuan dish; Kung-Po was an official from Guizhou, but his chef was Sichuanese. Ma Po Doufu: pock marked tofu – is a classic dish that combines ground meat, tofu, and chilies in a ginger broth. Hot & Sour Soup: this dish, when made properly, derives its pungency solely from the use of ground white pepper. Fish-fragrant Aubergine: “fish-fragrant” is a cookery term indicating that the dish used to be a recipe for fish.

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