Southwest China Travel Guide

Southwest China is one of the nation’s most fascinating regions, characterized by a rugged landscape of mountains and craggy limestone formations as well as one of the world’s most unique mixes of ethnic minorities.

Guangxi, Guizhou and Yunnan are three of the most important provinces in Southwest China. This is where the first hint of the Himalayas begins to manifest in the landscape, producing abrupt peaks and rolling hills that continue to the northwest for hundreds and even thousands of miles.

Much of this region was largely unknown to the Western world until the late 19th century. National Geographic sent one of the first travel writers deep into Yunnan, and since then the region has slowly globalized. Today it retains its remote character despite its accessibility to tourists.

The region’s ethnic diversity is staggering, with 26 distinct ethnic groups living here. Nearly half of the country’s 100 million ethnic minority people live and work in Southwest China as they have for centuries. Farming and agriculture are a way of life, with farmers still using terraced rice fields at high elevations. A backcountry tour of Southwest China allows for excellent hiking and homestay arrangements.

One of the hallmarks of Southwest China is the karst phenomenon. Limestone pillars stand in clusters across the countryside, forming grand-scale ‘stone forests’ or ‘rock gardens’. The most popular of these is found within easy daytrip distance of Kunming.

Dotting the rugged landscape are major metropolitan centers like Guilin (one of China’s top-five destinations), Kunming and Lijiang. As Chinese authorities continue to invest in tourism, many of these ancient cities are being carefully restored to highlight the ancient atmosphere that lingers here.

The Tibet Autonomous Region is the rising star of Southwest China. The government only allows limited access to this sensitive region, but it is entirely possible for intrepid visitors to hire a four-wheel drive vehicle (with driver) and explore the high Tibetan Plateau, staying overnight at traditional Tibetan monasteries along the way.

But tourists don’t have to commit to a dedicated tour of Tibet to experience the culture. Portions of northern Yunnan Province are populated by ethnic Tibetans, and massive monasteries can be found here as well. Even the yak, an important animal in Tibetan life, is widespread in Yunnan.

Regardless of where you travel, a holiday in Southwestern China affords one of the most unique (and unsung) aspects of a holiday in the Middle Country. High mountains, grand waterfalls and spectacular views await nature lovers, with ancient architecture and myriad cultures filling in the gaps.

Getting There & Away

Each province has its own transportation hub. Many of these hubs have just as many connections to cities like Beijing and Hong Kong on the eastern seaboard as they do to capital cities across Southeast Asia.

Yunnan is accessible through Kunming. Flights arrive from across Southeast Asia including from Bangkok (2 hour, 10 minutes), while one of the country’s most modern railway systems is based here. Trains are convenient for local transport, but they also connect to far-flung cities like Shanghai (37 hours) and Suzhou.

In Guangxi Province, the most important transport cities are Nanning and Guilin. Both of these operate mid-level international airports that serve a wide range of domestic flights alongside a few international connections to cities in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Guizhou’s major transportation hub is Guiyang, which has connection to Guangzhou (1 hour, 15 minutes). Meanwhile, tourists can fly into Lhasa, Tibet, though certain permits have to be arranged first. The easiest way to cross shorter distances in the region is by train or bus, the latter being all that’s available in more remote situations.