Southwest China Guide

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SW chinamap West 23
Southwest China consists of 4 provinces, which are all great travel destinations: Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan. All four include significant minority populations, which the Chinese refer to as "minority nationalities." Most of these people still live in their traditional communities with distinct languages and cultures. However, those nationalities living in the larger cities have become more integrated into Han Chinese society. The geology of the area ranges from mountains, glaciers, gorges, karst landscapes and beautiful stone formations with rivers cut through them to flat areas like the Sichuan basin and humid subtropical areas like Yunnan and Guangxi. The countryside specifically is incredibly diverse.

Sichuan Province

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Why go?

1) Western/party friendly Chengdu 2) Authentic Tibetan Areas 3) Many beautiful mountains/gorges 4) Ancient villages 5) Some decent museums and other historical sights

Spicy Food, Spicy Women, and Pandas

Sichuan Province, historically called Shu, is geographically split between the flatter Sichuan basin in the east, and the mountainous Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to the west. This province is also home to different minority groups including Tibetan autonomous counties. Chengdu is a wealthy and highly developed city, but it is the pandas, spicy food, historic mountain temples, and beautiful landscapes that draw tourists to the province.
Capital - Chengdu
Population - 85 million
Landmass - Size of California
Minority groups - Yi, Zang (Tibetan), Qiang, etc.
Must see:
1) Jiuzhaigou 九寨沟    2) Emei Mountain 峨眉山    3) Leshan Giant Buddha 乐山大佛
4) Langzhong Ancient Town 阆中    5) Kangding 康定
Best off the beaten path:
1) Tiantai Mountain 天台山    2) Bifeng Gorge 碧峰峡

Other Top Spots

National Park/Scenic Area
Qingcheng Mountain 青城山, Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海, Glacier Park 海螺沟
Ancient Town/Historical Places
Hanging Coffins 洛表, Jianmenguan 剑门关, Dujiangyan 都江堰
Huanglongxi 黄龙溪, Pingle 平乐
Minority Nationality Places
Danba 丹巴, Panzhihua 攀枝花
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Bamboo Sea 蜀南竹海

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Tiantai Mountain 天台山

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Huanglongxi 黄龙溪

Yunnan Province

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Capital - Kunming
Population - 45 million
Landmass - A little bigger than Montana
Minority groups - Yi, Bai, Dai, Miao, Naxi  (about 25 in total)
Yunnan is a favorite holiday destination for Chinese tourists looking to escape the big cities and experience nature along with some cultural diversity. The province is home to roughly 25 different minority groups, some with their own unique language and culture. The climate varies from cooler mountainous regions to areas with almost perfect year-round temperatures  and the southern part is very tropical.
Trip 1 (February 2013)
(1) Lijiang 丽江 (2) Dali 大理 (3) Kunming 昆明
My first trip to Yunnan was an amazing three weeks traveling experience with three good friends. We saw the most popular sights, and we had a great time everywhere we went. Yunnan is a lively, cheap, and relaxed place. The weather is warm and sunny almost all year, and the scenery can be truly awe inspiring. It's one of my favorite places.
Trip 2 (August 2016)
(1) Lugu Lake 泸沽湖 (2) Lijiang 丽江 (3) Dali 大理 (4) Kunming 昆明
For me, Lugu Lake was the best part of the trip. It was the best food, best scenery, and least crowded place we went in Yunnan. The best grill your own restaurant and best grilled whole chicken I have even eaten in China were both at Lige village on Lugu Lake. This lake is a must!
Trip 3 (January 2017)
(1) Kunming 昆明 (2) Jianshui 建水 (3) Jinghong 景洪 (4) Mengzhe Waterfall 勐遮
This was a relaxing 10 day trip in early January to see the area of southern Yunnan called Xishuangbanna 西双版纳, in the local language. Famous for a tropical climate, elephants, nature preserves, and minority nationality culture, this is a great place to just relax or do a variety of outdoor activities, like riding on a motorcycle rickshaw through the rough and bumpy farmland to a secluded waterfall.

Places to Visit

(1) Lugu Lake 泸沽湖

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This is one of the few places that lives up to its reputation for being beautiful, clean, and relaxing. We spent two nights in the small picturesque town on the northwest side of the lake called Lige 里格. There's a colorful peninsula jotting out into the water with some small cafe's and hotels. The best food I had on the trip 1) a small stand grilling chicken near the peninsula was amazing and cheap! five dollars for a whole chicken. 2) There was a grill your own restaurant that had specialty chicken, pork, beef, and lamb dishes. The second town we stayed at was the big town on the lake called Luoshui 落水. This town had about a dozen lakefront bars and restaurants. We tried frog for the first time, and it was pretty good. Another Luoshui highlight was the Mosuo minority nationality museum dedicated to one of the last matriarchal societies on earth. We also took a four hour bike ride around part of the lake and behind a plateau to ride through a small local village. Flying up, down, and around the curving lakeside road was an amazing experience. You can take a boat on the lake at either city, but the boats at Lige are a bit nicer. Lugu Lake is a must see in Yunnan, and I will definitely be going back.
Things to do:
1) Eat! Every town on the lake is lined with places to BBQ and grill by the water
2) Bike around the lake (only 30 yuan per day)
3) Boat ride on the lake
4) Mosuo museum in Luoshui

(2) Lijiang 丽江

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This is a favorite, must see place, for Chinese tourists, however, it's crowded narrow streets can become annoying, especially when it rains. I recommend trying to stay in town so you can avoid paying to 80 yuan city maintenance fee. The highlight of the city for me was the Irish pub/restaurant called Stone the Crows. Great food! Great drinks! Friendly atmosphere! The city is worth a walk around and the park Black Dragon Pool Park north of the old town is decent. A nearby town called Shuhe 束河 is a better atmosphere and not as busy as Lijiang's old town, but they will still try to get you to pay 40 yuan just to enter. Overall, I am not a big fan of Lijiang, mainly because Dali is only a 2 hour bus ride away and a much more tourist friendly place. See Lijiang, then move on.
Things to do:
1) Lijiang Old Town
2) Shuhe Old Town
3) Black Dragon Pool Park
*Restaurant/Bar: Stone the Crows in the Lijiang Old Town

(3) Dali 大理

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Dali and Lijiang might seem similar if you just read the guide book, but you will notice when visiting that Dali has a superior layout, atmosphere, and surrounding area. 1) There are some great and lively hostels in Dali with excellent food. 2) The streets are broad, straight, flat, and no one tries to make you pay to enter the old town. 3) East of the city is a massive lake with great small boat trip options, and west of the city is a mountain you can hike or take a scenic cable car ride to the top. 4) The bars are cheap and western themed. This is a great place to just spend a few days seeing the mountain, the lake, the town and drinking, eating, tea tasting and relaxing. It's another Yunnan must see!
Things to do:
1) Cable car or hike up the mountain Cangshan 苍山
2) Small boat trip across the lake to see the giant pagoda (do not take the big ferry!)
3) Tea tasting at plantation north of Dali
4) Bike/moped ride around the lake
*Restaurant/Bar: The Jade Emu International Hostel - Great staff, great rooms, great food, amazing prices!

(4) Kunming 昆明

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Basically, Kunming is a transportation hub and not a very exciting city. I recommend seeing the western street at night which is near Yunnan University and visiting the park at Dianchi lake 滇池. For food and drinks, the street called "Western Street" is full of cafe's, bars, and a few great international restaurants. These are about the best things to see in the city, and there's no reason to spend a lot of time here.

(5) Jianshui 建水

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This ancient town lies between Kunming a few hours north, and Jinghong a long bus ride to the south. A refurbished old train complete with wooden cars, old train stations, villages, and an amazing historic bridge in the middle of the countryside really shines as a highlight of this city. The towns itself includes all the hotels, cafe's, restaurants, and stores you would find in any Chinese ancient town, but the train ride makes this place worth the trip.

(6) Jinghong 景洪

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This is one of the coziest, relaxed, and modern tourist places I've ever been. If you are looking for great weather, locally roasted coffee, cute bars, and huge markets to buy locally crafted products while taking things slow and easy, then this is your place! This whole area is well known for being like a piece of Thailand/Laos inside of China because of all the minority people living here. However, If you are looking for a minority culture experience, then you will be disappointed to see things have changed quickly, and the local culture is becoming less traditional and more capitalist. I would highly recommend this place for a few days of just relaxing and shopping at all the great craft markets.

Guangxi Province

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Capital - Nanning
Population - 46 million
Landmass - Size of Minnesota
Minority groups - Zhuang, Miao, Yao, Dong, Xiang, Hmong, Jing, Yi, etc.
Officially named "Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region" in Chinese, this province is home to many minority peoples and famous for its beautiful karst landscape, lush greenery, and ancient traditional minority villages。 This province also includes some amazing waterfalls, beaches, national parks, and the famous Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.
Trip 1 (February 2013)
(1) Guilin 桂林      (2) Yangshuo 阳朔     (3) Beihai 北海
A coworker from Ireland and myself went on a 2 week trip from Guilin to Yangshu to Beihai. We basically hit the major tourist destinations and spent most of our time in the city eating, drinking, seeing the sights, and not much else. Highlights from the trip would be the river boat ride from Guilin to Yangshuo, the empty beach and great seafood at Beihai, and the broad latin/spanish style  street in downtown Beihai was also really interesting.
Trip 2 (October 2016)
(1) Guilin (2) Dragon's Backbone (Long ji) Rice Terraces (3) Yangshuo (4) Li River/Yulong River Area
(1) Guilin 桂林
Historically, this has been a well publicized tourist area in China mainly due to the Karst landscape and rock formations that surround the city and continue down the Li river to Yangshuo and beyond. The rocky, mountainous, and green hills that dominate the area draw in tourist from all over the world. Personally, I think the city is tourist friendly, has some nice hostels and bars, and there are a few good parks, but there is more to see in the countryside 1-2 hours outside of the city, which is what I plan to focus on during trip 2 to Guangxi.
Things to see near Guilin:
1) Dragon's Bone Rice Terraces
2) Jiangtoouzhou Ancient Village
3) Sanjiang's Chenyang Wind and Rain Bridge - Famous Dai minority wooden bridge made without a single nail
(2) Yangshuo 阳朔
This small ancient village turned full blown small western themed tourist town is an interesting place dropped in the middle of a largely undeveloped Chinese province. It has arguably the highest proportion of western restaurants of any city in China, and you will probably notice a high number of western tourists because this is a must see place in Guangxi, but it is also just a few hour boat ride south of Guilin and a great jumping off point for seeing rural minority communities. You can easily take a bus, boat, or rent a bike and see the remarkable landscape and small minority villages near Yangshuo. I am planning to see a great deal of the surrounding area on Trip 2 to Guangxi.
Things to see near Yangshuo:
1)  Dragon Bridge (boat, bus, or bike ride following the Yulong river)
2) Moon Hill, the Big Banyan Tree, and Shitoucheng ancient village (short bike ride)
3) Xingping ancient village
(3) Beihai 北海
On the Gulf of Tonkin close to Vietnam, this city is small by Chinese standards but, the beach is massive with a strong breeze, white sand, and jet ski's and 4-wheelers for rent. The city was nice enough, the beach looked great, and the seafood was delicious, but winter there is cold. If you go in January/February like I did, it will be too cold to swim. In the city, there is a long broad tourist street that was built with a European/Spanish/Latin American style feel to the architecture, which I jokingly described as how I would imagine Chinatown in Havana to look like. Overall, it's a neat street, and a great place to buy some souvenirs, but a few buildings need a facelift.
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Yangshuo 阳朔

Countryside on the Yulong River
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Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

View from top of the rice terraces
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Li River

Bamboo rafting down the Li River

Guizhou Province

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Capital - Guiyang
Population -  34 million
Landmass - Size of Missouri
Minority groups - Miao, Dong, Buyi, Yao, Yi, Qiang, Zhuang, etc.
Why go? 1) Cheap 2) Culturally diverse area 3) Many small minority villages and ancient towns.
This province is mountainous, subtropical and humid, and relatively undeveloped. It is also one of the most ethnically diverse provinces, and several areas are autonomous regions for the Miao, Buyi, and Dong groups. This province is also famous for being a top tobacco producer. The nation's most famous brand of rice liqour, Moutai, is from Guizhou.
Trip 1 (Jan/Feb 2017)
(1) Chishui 赤水
(2) Guiyang 贵阳
(3) Kaili 凯里
(4) Basha 岜沙
(5) Zhaoxing 肇兴

Chongqing

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Capital - Chongqing City
Population - 30 million
Landmass - Size of South Carolina
Minority groups - Tujia and Miao
Chongqing itself is politically designated as a municipality, meaning it is under special government supervision. The city, also known as a mountain city because of the hills that run through it, is massive. Millions live in the urban area, while millions of others live in towns and villages in the rest of the municipality. In general, this city is also famous for hotpot, one of China's most popular and traditional dishes. In general, Chongqing is also know for hot food, hot weather, and hot women. Most tourists come to take the riverboat cruise down the Yangtze River. I saw all the same sights but went by bus instead. There are many other great places to visit that are not on the might Yangtze River.

What to do next?

For more photos and information on current, recent and past trips, check out the Travelinman86.com youtube page and extended photo album.