4-6 weeks Ethnic Expedition
For the rugged traveler aching for a taste of southwestern China’s village life, the Ethnic Expedition is your cup of tea. Some of the country’s most wonderful ethnic minorities are highlighted on this tour, and you should be prepared for some major offroad adventures. Feel free to break from the route at any point and see where China’s most engrossing region will take you, and keep in mind that this one is most appealing to the outdoorsman.
China’s Southwest is swimming with the largest portion of the country’s 55 charming and diverse ethnic minorities. The locals and their beautiful cultures, architectural styles, traditional dress, songs and dances are some of the brightest stars in this part of the country. Throw in out-of-this-world landscapes and ecosystems, and some of the best preserved parts of ancient China, and this trip shapes up to be one of the most alluring of our itineraries.
Chengdu, Sichuan (2-3 days)
Kick things off in Sichuan’s capital and enjoy the city’s exceptional teahouses (especially the one in People’s Park) and fiercely hot flagship dish: hot pot. Give the Tibetan Quarter a good portion of your time and remember that the world-renowned Giant Panda Breeding Base is here, too. Next board the two hour bus to Leshan.
Leshan, Sichuan (1 day)
There are two reasons and two reasons only to come to Leshan. One is to see the 1,200-year-old Big Buddha and the surrounding scenic area, and the other is to use the city as a jump-off point for a hike up Mt Emei Shan. Stay the night after seeing the Buddha and climb the mountain the next day.
Mt Emei Shan, Sichuan (1-2 days)
You can stay at the top of spectacular Emei Shan, which is great if you plan to see the sunrise. Otherwise take the cable car or hike up and down in a day and then board the two hour train from Emei town to Kunming.
Kunming, Yunnan (2-3 days)
The capital of China’s most ethnically diverse province, Kunming is Yunnan’s melting pot. Meander around the city’s temples and Tang pagodas and buzz by the outdoor food stalls or ethnic restaurants for a tour-de-taste of Yunnan’s specialties. Consider making time to get out of the city for Mt Xishan, Lake Dian and the Yunnan Nationalities Museum. Try to part with the “Spring City” a little early and save a sight or two for when you need to swing back through later in the trip. You’ve got the option to either fly down to Jinhong in Xishuangbanna or bunk up on a 10-hour bus ride.
Xishuangbanna, Yunnan (3-5 days)
China’s mini-Thailand surrounds Jinhong, the capital of the Xishuangbanna region in southern Yunnan. Besides sipping tea or participating in crazy festivals (like the Water Splashing Festival), this is your first spot to make treks through the countryside jungles and village-hop through minority-loaded hamlets. One third of the folks here are Dai ethnicity, another third Han, and the last third a grab bag of Hani, Lisu, Yao, Wa, Lahu, Bulang and Jinuo. Great villages to hit as you embark on your trek are Mengyang, Menglun and Damenglong. Somewhere along the way you can redeploy your base of operations from Jinhong to Menghai, the best jump off point for the villages of Menghun and Jingzhen. On the last day head back to Jinhong and pack up your gear along with plenty of food and water for the long road to Jianshui.
Jianshui, Yunnan (2-3 days)
Taking the bus to Jianshui is a long journey (18 hours), but you can hole up in a relaxed town with modern amenities built into old fashioned buildings and ancient architecture. Once you arrive, there’s a Confucian Temple, the Zhu Family Garden and friendly Hui and Yi minority groups in the city, while the very cool Swallow’s Cavern sits outside of town. Once you’ve rested a few days from the 18-hour red eye into town, take the 11:30 four-hour bus ride to Xinjie for the Yuanyang Rice Terraces.
Yuanyang Rice Terraces, Yunnan (2-3 days)
Spend a couple days in the scrubby town of Xinjie and get in as many of the splendid rice terraces at Duoyishu, Quanfuzhuang, Bada, Mengping and Laohuzui as you can before spending the last day or night on the bus back to Kunming.
Kunming, Yunnan (1 day)
Ride the bus by day then get some sleep that night in Kunming. The next day take the sleeper train to Guiyang.
Guiyang, Guizhou (1 day)
You’ll need to stop off in Guizhou’s capital of Guiyang on your way east, but besides that the only thing to come here for is a day trip out to the flagstone streets of the attractive Ming Dynasty village of Qinyan. Either rest up in Guiyang and take an early morning three-hour train to Kaili, or do the ride in the evening and stay the night in Kaili.
Kaili to Sanjiang, Guizhou (5-6 days)
The real Guizhou leg of your journey will be village-hopping around Kaili on your way to Sanjiang in neighboring Guangxi Province. You can post up in Kaili for several days and grab some rest while hitting the neighboring villages and markets (most of the ethnic groups here are Miao and their subsets) by day. Excellent villages are Xijiang, Langde, Leishan, Matang, Shiqiao, Longli, Basha and Zhaoxing. See as much of the rural awesomeness as you can in five days (or more) before getting on a bus to Congjiang, where you can either stay the night among the local Dong wooden homes or push on towards Sanjiang. Any bus ride in and out of Conjiang and around this lovely countryside will be brilliant, so choose a day bus. From Kaili to Congjiang it’s four hours, and from Conjiang to Sanjiang you’ll pass another three hours.
Sanjiang, Guizhou (1-2 days)
Rest up in Sanjiang, and the next morning (day 1) make your move to Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge and the ethnic Dong village of Maan. There’s a scattering of quaint Dong settlements here just oozing with laid-back charm. The second day you can take in some more sights before the one-hour bus ride to Longsheng, where you will need to transfer to the yellow two-hour Dazhai buses for Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces.
Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, Guangxi (2 days)
The buses can drop you off in Ping’an or Dazhai, but in order to sidestep the tour groups, Dazhai is the better option. Any village here will be excellent, however, and after you drop your bags off and get some grub, hike around the area to get a feel for the beautiful scenery and check out Tiantouzhai village to see the splendid terrace views. When heading to Guilin you may need to go to Ping’an to get a bus.
Guilin, Guangxi (1-3 days)
While Guilin is certainly a nice city, it’s not one of the particular highlights of the Ethnic Expedition. But it is very clean, modern and relaxing, sits on the lovely Li River, and has hills, parks, pagodas and a fine city wall. After nearly two weeks of rural traveling you may want to settle in here for a couple of nights, rest up and take in the city, but for some a better idea is to save more time for Yangshuo. Obviously, it’s your call.. The bus to Yangshou takes one hour.
Yangshuo, Guangxi (3-4 days)
Yangshou is gorgeous, but tour groups can pack the streets at times. Make sure to get out of town and do a Li River cruise on a bamboo boat, bike to the southern Yulong River, and amble around the villages of Fuli, Xingping and Shitoucheng. It will be very hard to leave Yangshuo, so remember that you may be enticed into staying longer than you thought.
The Ethnic Expedition meets up with some of our other itineraries along the way, in case you want to detour or extend the trip. Riding the Yangtze starts off in Dali and Lijiang in Yunnan, very close to Kunming. It’s also possible to run the Ethnic Expedition in reverse order (Guilin to Chengdu) and then start the Yangtze route partway in, or start the Tibetan Kora in Chengdu.