China, Beyond the Bright Lights
Story and photos by Graham Reid

In the rural western provinces of China, few foreigners visit the wealth of natural beauty, while the government does its best to replace the past with more homogenous modern "progress."

rude rocks

The rudest rocks I've ever seen are in southwest China. These saucy stones—one in some strange approximation of a woman's buttocks, the other an excited man-part next to it—had the Chinese men beside me observing with familiar down-mouth, hooded-eye impassiveness. Their women giggled with covered mouths and looked away.

Then looked back.

The Exotic Stones Exhibition Hall in Guizhou province is an enormous collection of naturally sculpted rocks … although many fossils of fern fronds, fish and reptiles seem suspiciously shaped for effect.

When I politely expressed doubts about their authenticity, an enthusiastic young man confidently said they were the real thing: this is how they'd been found in the swamps … "before the craftsmen shaped them," he said.

So, "very authentic," he reassured me.

Elsewhere in the Hall—just across from the naturally surrealist shapes of bizarrely bleached rock formations in Panjiang Garden which appear created by a drunk Salvador Dali or an extremely disturbed Hans Arp—are these smoothed stones. They have colors and patterns which suggest landscapes or people, and others are like massive mountains in miniature.

rude rocks

There are no signs in English here because comparatively few outsiders make it to these provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan. Tourists are mostly domestic Chinese, and who knows what pornography they see? More than these hilariously graphic and sexy stones, I'm sure.

This fascinating and sometimes spectacular area of Southwest China, nearer to Nepal than Beijing, is rarely visited by European tourists. They generally prefer to traipse off to neon-lit Shanghai and the shopping streets of Hong Kong for their China experience. But out here is another China, and you're constantly reminded how different it can be.

Make Way for the Superhighway

One night in Xingyi, population 750,000, I looked out my ninth floor window at the intersection below. The traffic on the new six-lane road had thinned to nothing but the striking high-rise building opposite was a blaze of iridescent blue. I took a photo of it, then went for another. Suddenly, the absurdly vivid neon and insipidly yellow street lamps beyond were extinguished.

In an instant this prosperous city was plunged into almost total darkness, aside from small television-blue flickers and dull lightbulbs in houses and apartments.

I looked at my watch: 10pm. Lights out?

What pulls Chinese tourists to these provinces aren't the bright lights however, but the natural wonders. The landscape here is all absurdly impressive waterfalls, gorges, picturesque mountains and rivers, many boasting such exotically literal names as Thousand Peaks Scenic Spot (almost true, hundreds of low mountains rippling into the hazy distance).

Since 1999, in "The Great West Initiative" (a typical government clarion call to industrious action), these provinces—together twice the area of my country, New Zealand—are going foot-to-floorboard into the future.

Thousand Peaks

Old villages and huge hills are being moved aside so superhighways and spectacular bridges can carry visitors and investors into this picturesque part of the planet. The authorities quite literally move mountains here. But don't fret, they've got plenty in reserve.

The grand plan, according to an official report, is to "narrow the gap between the eastern and western regions" and to "accelerate infrastructure construction, to strengthen ecological and environmental protection, to consolidate the basic position of agriculture, adjust industrial structure and develop the tourist industry with special characteristics …"

That's typical gung-ho Chinese socialist jargon for sure, but the evidence is everywhere. International visitors might rightly wonder, however, just how much say locals have when some central committee decides the new motorway will go straight through their village and they'll be relocated.

Grand Illusions Stand Waiting

Everywhere small and large construction overtakes the naturally dramatic landscape. The convention center opposite the enormous, just-opened and (during my stay) largely empty Hyatt Regency in Guiyang covers an area the size of a provincial town. High-rise hotels still smelling of fresh paint and anxiety, deserted and desperate-to-please shopping complexes, and complete if under-populated towns are appearing in what had previously been rural farmland and empty mountainscapes.


Many are, conveniently of course, located near the numerous scenic attractions.

Distances between these impressive geological attractions and hotels, however, are measured in hours rather than miles. I traveled by comfortable bus along mostly empty superhighways which cut straight across valleys and through endless landscapes of what seemed like subsistence-living farms.

Outside the window was another century; one where a woman behind a wooden plough, baby on her back, hauled it through harsh dry dirt behind a massive ox. This might have been the 16th century … if it weren't for the man watching her and chatting on his cellphone.

At various points along these wide new freeways were accident-smashed cars mounted atop signs which warned of the consequences of inattention. They provided graphic images of dead bodies in crushed and broken vehicles just to nail the point home.

There's a tourism infrastructure of a kind although English is, understandably, virtually non-existent, even in some of the better hotels which stock decent international beer, wines and whisky.

One such mostly empty hotel—where gold paint and 20 foot high chandeliers were clearly not in short supply—also had cigarettes and little sex toys beside my mini-bar.

Another, equally grand, neglected to provide a mattress on top of the hard wooden base which was still wrapped in plastic. I took a photo of it for laughs. And we know it's vaguely racist and condescending, but I couldn't resist the mangled English of the sign warning people to be careful around the fountain.

It read, "Fall into the water carefully".

I chose not to fall in any way at all.

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