Long considered an impoverished backwater by China's successive dynasties, Guizhou's rugged peaks and resulting isolation have historically afforded distinct ethnic groups like the Miao, Dong, Yi and Zhuang high degrees of cultural autonomy.
And while it has been a difficult land to live on—poor soil and unfarmable slopes have kept it among China's poorest provinces—its jutting karst formations, rushing rivers, vast caverns and deep forests make it a fantastic destination for travelers looking to get off the beaten path, on a hiking trail, away from high prices and into a very different kind of China travel experience.
Eastern Guizhou features quintessential Southeast Asian landscapes, with limestone pinnacles towering above river valleys and water buffaloes plodding their way through steamy rice terraces. Arguably the best place in China to meet "ethnic" peoples (i.e., non-Han Chinese) on their own terms, Guizhou is home to Miao villages like Xijiang, Chong'an, Langde, Matang and Zhaoxing in the vicinity of Kaili, all of which are noted for over one hundred annual festivals.
One festival popular with visitors is the colorful Sister's Meal Festival in Taijiang where Miao teenage girls select their partners in ceremonies involving dancing, bamboo-pipe lusheng playing, bull fights and exchanges of colored sticky rice on the fifteenth day of the 3rd lunar month (not necessarily March 15th). If you're in the area, it's not to be missed.
Other festivals include a Miao Dragon Boat Festival on the Qingshui River, various versions of Spring Festival, and the Miao Lusheng Festival celebrating the unique instrument. Festivals typically involve dancing, colorful and ornate costumes, and lots of food. Many festivals also feature horse races and other sporting competitions. Long a Buddhist holy site, Fanjing Shan near Tongren is a magnificent mountain turned nature reserve. Trails will test your hiking mettle while giving you a chance to see the elusive golden monkey, one of China's prettiest endangered species.
In the north, Zunyi, steeped in Maotai where it's produced.
During July and August, liquor festivals are held throughout the area, events that can be tacked onto itineraries including visits to Chishui and its red sandstone formations, waterfalls and bamboo forests. Southwestern Guizhou, still a very poor area damaged in many places by extractive industries, is also the home of China's largest waterfalls, including the stunning Huangguoshu Falls, as well as incredible cave formations like Longgong Caves and Zhijin Cave.
For those looking for deeper tranquility, a journey to the westernmost fringes of the province is in order. Caohai Lake and the "Grass Sea" form the core of a nature reserve home to black-necked cranes, white-tailed sea eagles and other rare birds. To shake things up, head to Maling Gorge and raft the whitewaters rushing down its tortuous lengths.