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Chasing rainbows in China

Glide through caves, meet colourful ethnic groups and hope for a glimpse of rainbows at waterfalls in Guizhou

I hear the murmur of the rapids as I walk beside the jade-green river which runs through the Longgong scenic area in Guizhou, a south- western Chinese province.

Soon, white-water foam appears and I figure that these rapids are the tail end of the Dragon's Gate Waterfall, which is said to resemble a white dragon emerging from its crystal palace.

Another 50m on and the waterfall looms into heart-stopping view. With its furious speed and lashing spray, it looks like a snow storm.

Originating from an eerily tranquil lake, the cataract explodes from a height of more than 30m. Its roar has been likened to 10,000 horses galloping.

It is a brush with greatness. Not one, but two rainbows appear in the spray of the waterfall, in apparent homage to the Dragon King of Chinese mythology.


The Dragon Palace Caves in Guizhou’s Longgong scenic area feature limestone and karst formations, as well as stalactites and stalagmites lit in different colours. ST PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

By the end of the day, I will have spotted a third rainbow at another waterfall, a record for me.

Still in awe, my travel companions and I take a lift conveniently located next to the waterfall up to the mirror-like Heavenly Pool.

We clamber into a narrow boat which bumps against the rocky tunnel as we glide into the Dragon Palace Caves, the heart of the Longgong scenic area (admission: about 130 yuan or S$27), a 60 sq km nature spot.

The caves feature limestone and karst formations, as well as stalactites and stalagmites in gnarled, alien shapes that are lit in different colours in each cavern. It is a surreal scene, marred by twinkling lights etching a cartoonish red dragon on one wall.

In Guizhou, the mystical sits easily with the mundane. The name of the provincial capital, Guiyang, means "precious sun", an allusion to the region's mild weather, where strong sunshine is a rarity.

Yet in this phlegmatic province, with its gentle, silvery light, I find myself chasing rainbows in China.

A famous saying portrays Guizhou - agricultural, mountainous and one of China's poorest provinces - as a region "without three li (Chinese miles) of flat land, three days of fine weather or three coins to rub together".

In recent years, however, the province, where I spend four days, has been catching up, with investments in roads and big data. Maotai liquor, Guizhou's signature brew, distilled from sorghum with an alcohol content averaging 53 per cent, is served at state banquets.

In the capital Guiyang, officials of yore decreed the building of Jiaxiu Tower, or First Scholar's Tower, a three-storey Ming Dynasty monument, to encourage excellence in the imperial examinations, which led to a cushy bureaucrat's job.

Coincidentally or not, Guiyang produced at least three top scholars over the centuries. The tower, located on Fuyu Bridge, or Floating Jade Bridge, became a symbol of the city.

Despite the pretty names, the 420-year-old tower, which has been rebuilt several times, looks worn and faded. I am more fascinated that at low tide, it seems to stand in centimetres-deep water which barely reaches halfway up the legs of egrets wading in the Nanming River.

Another Guiyang attraction, Qianling Mountain Park (admission: 5 yuan), is a pleasant green space with pockets of calm, despite the footfall of thousands of visitors.

  • Getting there

  • Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) flies direct from Singapore to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, once a week. The fare starts at $290 one-way.

    It is relatively straightforward to get around in a hired vehicle or tour bus in Guizhou. There are motorcycles aplenty on the roads, so watch out for them.

More than 500 macaques live in the park. Many of them stroll alongside visitors, who sometimes unwisely offer tidbits, fuelling a grab-and-harass habit. One monkey snatched a bottle of water from my travel companion's backpack.

Guiyang, with its low-key attractions, is a launchpad for more interesting day trips. Waterfalls and other scenic spots abound, while ethnic minorities, who account for about 40 per cent of Guizhou's population, showcase their culture further afield in villages and settlements.

The Huangguoshu (Yellow Fruit Tree) Waterfall National Park (admission: about 200 yuan) lies about a 40-minute drive from the Dragon Palace Caves.

The falls near Anshun town in western Guizhou are among the largest in East Asia. Multiple streams cascade, merge and diverge from a height of more than 70m.

We join the uphill sprawl of people heading for Shuiliandong (Water Curtain Cave) at the back of the falls, when I spy my third rainbow of the day melting into the foot of the falls.

Who says you never know where a rainbow ends? I bet a pot of gold is just under the rushing water.

Physics keeps the mystery intact.

Rainbows form when sunlight and water droplets commingle. This usually happens in rain, but also in the spray of a waterfall. The drops act like a million prisms, refracting, reflecting and otherwise splitting light into its constituent colours.

The droplets produce a rainbow at an angle of about 42 degrees to the observer's eye. I move closer. Gradients tilt and the rainbow teleports to a different part of the falls.

"Why are there so many songs about rainbows?" I am singing the first line of The Rainbow Connection under my breath. It should be cheesy, but I'm exhilarated instead.

It is another sensory adventure when we visit the 1,000-Household Miao Village of Xijiang (admission: 120 yuan) in south-east Guizhou, three hours from Guiyang, on a day trip.

About 50 minority groups, such as the Miao and the Dong, live in the province. They celebrate myriad colourful festivals, many involving courtship rituals for the youth.

The Miao village we visit, comprising more than 1,200 households, is touted as the world's biggest village of the ethnic minority, who number more than eight million in China. It is described as an open-air museum and visitors are introduced to Miao traditions, beliefs and performances.

Dancers sway to the strains of the lusheng, a reed pipe that can be 3m high. One man trills birdsong from a flimsy whistle made from leaves. A soaring choral performance gives me the chills. The women wear masses of prized silver, their necklaces and headdresses jingling hypnotically.

Symbols from the rich oral tradition of the Miao are sewn onto their famous embroidered clothing. Butterfly motifs reflect their creation myth of Mother Butterfly, which laid 12 eggs from which humanity and the rest of the world emerged.

The Miao are also known elsewhere as the Hmong. Their diaspora has spread as far as the United States, where Hmong refugees from Laos resettled after the war of the US against communist forces in South-east Asia.

There are many distinct Miao sub-groups. The Long-horn Miao, for instance, are known for their huge horn-shaped headdresses, traditionally made from the hair of their ancestors.

Our tour guide Huang Yong, 40, says: "There are long-skirt Miao, short-skirt Miao and mini-skirt Miao." I think he is pulling my leg, but then, some of the dancers in traditional costumes show a lot of it.

The souvenir shops sell specialities, such as ox-horn combs and peanut candy, against a backdrop of traditional wooden homes built on hillsides, some with air-conditioning units. A pig, cut into pieces with its head sold intact, is laid on the ground for sale at a roadside market stall. It seems too real.

According to legend, Prince Grigory Potemkin, a lover of Russian empress Catherine the Great, set up fake villages with pasteboard facades when the 18th-century ruler visited Crimea.

I am reminded of the term Potemkin village, named after the Russian statesman, which denotes an impressive appearance concealing something undesirable.

I wonder how much is hidden when tourists swarm. In this intriguing Miao village, it is a question that is hard to pose. It is like asking the employee playing Snow White in Disneyland what living with seven dwarfs is like.

But elsewhere in Guizhou, I hope for another glimpse of rainbows and water.

It is a yearning for something inexpressible, while being content to never quite grasp it.

"Someday, we'll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me."

• The writer’s trip was hosted by Jetstar.


Blessing troubled waters


The 108m-tall Guanyin of the South Sea statue on Hainan island exudes an aura of celestial serenity. ST PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

We spend a day in Sanya city on Hainan island, China's southernmost province, before taking a domestic flight to Guizhou province on the mainland.

Dubbed the Hawaii of China, Sanya's pale cream beaches are surrounded by waters that shimmer in the tropical sun, making the South China Sea look strewn with diamonds.

The Nanshan Cultural Tourism Zone (admission: from about 120 yuan or S$25) lies 40km west of Sanya's posh beach resorts.

One of several attractions in this zone is the Nanshan Buddhism Cultural Park, where an imposing statue of bodhisattva Guanyin stands at the edge of the sea.

The Guanyin of the South Sea statue, at 108m, is taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York.

Breathtaking in scale, it exudes an aura of celestial serenity, an effect enhanced by the incense and chants of Buddhist devotees that fill the air. Unveiled in 2005, it is beautifully made of materials such as marble and bronze. The flowing white robes look like they are about to swish in the breeze.

The statue has three sides: one faces inland, while the other two face the South China Sea.

The bodhisattva seems to extend her blessing to these troubled waters, the site of territorial disputes between China and other Asian countries.

Another highlight of the park is the 3.8m-tall Golden Jade Guanyin statue, which is reportedly covered in 100kg of gold, silver and gemstones.

•Jetstar flies direct from Singapore to Sanya twice a week. The fare starts at $128 one-way.


Fondness for fiery, sour food


ST PHOTO: VENESSA LEE

Like Sichuan and Hunan on its borders, Guizhou province in China's south-west has a fiery cuisine.

Chillies, pepper oil and chilli oil are enthusiastically incorporated into local dishes, which sometimes come with extra heat in the form of dipping sauces.

Guizhou's difference lies in a fondness for sour flavours. Sour fish soup (pictured) is a signature dish. The version we try at a restaurant frequented by locals has a reddish broth, tangy from tomatoes. A massive 2.7kg catfish is scooped from its tank, sliced, then left to simmer on a burner, together with spices, bamboo shoots, cabbage and other greens.

The dish is slightly discordant for me, with a spectrum of flavours that do not fully meld. I prefer other Guizhou delicacies such as la rou, or smoked bacon, which packs a meaty depth.

Street food and snacks are popular in the provincial capital, Guiyang.

The humble fare has its own poetry.

Our guide, Huang Yong, urges us to try a crispy duck snack, which is known to "make one's tongue dance". Its burn is lip-numbing, with an unusual floral aftertaste.

Another street snack, lovers' tofu, is said to have been eaten by courting couples taking an evening promenade. It is cooked on a griddle with a centre filled with vegetables and hot sauce.

Siwawa, or silk babies, are a popiah-like snack. Pickled and fresh vegetables are wrapped in a wispy rice-flour sheet, like a newborn in swaddling clothes.

Adventurous eaters will feel at home in Guizhou, where I see a few eateries advertising dog meat. I, however, chicken out of trying blood tofu, made from pig blood.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Chasing rainbows in China'. Print Edition | Subscribe