'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.
Kang Bing, deputy chief editor of China Daily, commented that landlocked Guizhou is not as economically developed as coastal provinces like Guangdong. But this has proven to be a hidden blessing, as it has meant a pristine environment with minimal industrial pollution - which is why tourism has been chosen to be one of the main engines for Guizhou's future economic development.
My most lasting memories of Guizhou from eight years ago have been the warm-hearted welcomes from various ethnic groups in small villages, replete with the ululating melodies of group singing, dazzling silver ornaments and amazing traditional costumes.
One of the main ethnic groups here are the Miao peoples. They once lived along the Yangtze river but as Han China expanded, they migrated to the forests and mountains of South-West China. Some even moved on to Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
A common custom is the "gate blocking" ceremony, where visitors are "forced" to drink sweet rice wine before they are allowed to enter the village - however, Muslims (and some squeamish women) in our group were excused from this.
Coming from Malaysia, I realised this was the very same welcoming ceremony at Sarawak's tribal longhouses. In fact anthropologists believe that many of the native (Austronesian) peoples of South-East Asia migrated from South China; other striking similarities include batik-dyed cloth and bamboo pan pipes (which are called sompotan in Sabah).
Like the Iban people of Sarawak (in pre-Christian times), the Miao also believe there are supernatural spirits in rivers, caverns, large trees, huge stones and some animals. They have a group dating custom where girls offer meals to boys who have impressed them by singing. And most visitors love the colourful embroidery - which make excellent souvenirs.
Qiandongnan, or the Miao & Dong Autonomous Prefecture in southeastern Guizhou, is a hot spot for the different ethnic groups. However, development is both a bane and a boon: while it has become easier to visit once-isolated ethnic minorities, mass group visits may also desensitise both the visitor and the visited.
One place which feels a tad too "touristy" is the "world's largest Miao village" called Xijiang Qianhu ("one thousand family village"). It has twice-daily cultural shows in a huge open-air auditorium and part of the "village" is also a new shopping street. However, many members of the group thoroughly enjoyed themselves renting the sumptuous ethnic costumes for photo sessions.
Personally, I preferred smaller places like Langde village, some 27km from Kaili, the capital of Qiandongnan. Here, once the obligatory cultural show was over, I could get a more relaxed and authentic feel of Miao culture, by wandering amidst the winding lanes lined with wooden houses on stilts.
Another interesting place we visited was Shibing, where the ladies of the village walked with us for about 1km from (and back to) our bus while performing songs using stools as percussion instruments.
Of course, Guizhou also has lots of traditional Chinese culture. An excellent place for this is Zhenyuan ancient town, located in a spectacular limestone gorge next to the crystal clear Wuyang river.
Next to the new-looking "old town", cross a charming bridge to see the Black Dragon Cave, an ancient complex of Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist temples which blends in with the limestone formations.Another place of interest in South-East Guizhou is Majiang county where we plucked fresh blueberries and walked past sumptuous pavilions at Xiasi old town.
Apart from the Miao, we also visited the Dong people. At the 800-year-old Zhaoxing village, we saw exquisite "wind and rain bridges" and "drum towers". Both are masterpieces of folk architecture, made without any (written) blueprints, except that embedded in the memory of craftsmen.
The bridges provide shelter where people can meet and chat while the towers have huge drums which would be beaten in ancient times when enemies were attacking.
Daily cultural shows are also held here to appreciate the Dong Grand Songs, a cappella songs sung by huge choirs. These were included by Unesco in the World Intangible Cultural Heritage because they "constitute a (living) Dong encyclopaedia and narrate the people's history". As a popular Dong saying goes, "rice nourishes the body, songs nourish the soul".
A fitting finale for our trip was at Panjiang village, home to the Buyi people who speak a language related to Thai. We hop-scotched over rocks on the river to see them do their cultural show - after they performed, they whipped out their smart phones and began taking pictures of us!