'Precious province'. That's what Guizhou in South-West China literally means. Let's explore this treasure trove of magnificent limestone landscapes and diverse, colourful cultures.
Guizhou literally means "the Precious Province" in Mandarin. And it's easy to understand why: this is one of the most scenic and colourful provinces in China.
Sixty per cent of this province is covered by karst or limestone landscapes featuring jagged peaks, dramatic canyons, outlandish caves and sweeping rice terraces. And it's home to 49 ethnic minority groups (37 per cent of the population) with diverse, colourful cultures.
Guizhou (pronounced as "Gooi-Jou") is thus similar to its more famous neighbour, Yunnan province. Tucked into the south-western corner of the country, Guizhou lies on a plateau (about 1,000m in elevation) and is blessed with a year-long mild climate which varies between 5 and 25°C from winter to summer.
The province used to be a sleepy backwater, but attention from the central government is changing this fast. During my first trip here eight years ago, long bus rides on narrow, winding roads were the norm. These days, multi-lane highways through countless flyovers and tunnels glide through the mountains.
The provincial capital, Guiyang, has also been transformed from the grimy city I remembered into a clean, well-landscaped place filled with gleaming buildings, indicating the lightning pace of China's progress. And a new high-speed rail link will mean that, by 2015, Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou, will only be a four hours away from Guangzhou (Canton) and two hours from Guilin.
Guizhou boasts a whopping eight "national nature reserves", 21 "national forest parks" and six "national geoparks". Its star attraction has to be the Huangguoshu waterfall which, standing at 77.8m tall and 101m wide, is claimed as Asia's largest. It thunders away, creating a perpetual spray-cloud of mist.
Huangguoshu, which literally means "yellow fruit tree", can become even more colourful when the sun shines at the right angle, creating magical fluttering rainbows in the mist ... but alas, it was not my day.
For adventure travellers, the most exciting part about visiting this mammoth waterfall is going behind it. The limestone there has eroded over centuries to create little grottoes (some tunnels have also been dug) and so there's a path where one can experience the thrill of being so close, yet just beyond the reach of the roaring curtain of water.
Huangguoshu is just two hours from Guiyang and one can easily make a day trip to the destination.
It can also be combined with the Tianxingqiao (literally "heavenly star bridge") scenic area, which lies 6km downstream.
This is an area resembling classic Chinese brush paintings, the kind where mini waterfalls and streams have carved bizarre karst rocks with dwarfish trees.
The picturesque names here - such as "stone forest in water" and "potted landscape on water" - reflect the impressions left upon more poetic minds.
One of the curiosities here is called "shu sheng bu" (birthday steps) where the tourism authorities have added some concrete "rocks" to existing ones to make up 365 "steps", after every day of the year. While purists may balk at such artificial additions, I have to admit that they blend in well with the landscape. And most tourists seem to love taking selfies with their personal stones ...
Another amazing attraction is the Longgong (Dragon Palace) Caves, a massive 60sqkm cave system with underground lakes and waterfalls ... but our packed itinerary didn't permit a visit.
There's no end to whimsical limestone playgrounds in Guizhou, and we managed to visit the Xiaoqikong scenic area. The main draw here are the pools with brilliant blue or green hues, an optical illusion created when sunlight interacts with minerals dissolved in the water - a smaller version of Sichuan province's renowned Jiuzhaigou national park if you will.
It's located on the southern edge of Guizhou, and part of the park is actually in neighbouring Guangxi province, so it's possible to combine a visit here with one to Guilin's famous limestone peaks.
According to Fu Ying Chun, director of the Guizhou Tourism Bureau, China's central government has earmarked the province to be a "eco civilisation" rich in cultural and biological diversity.