Maling River Gorge

Carved into the rock over millions of years by the surging Maling River, the Maling River Gorge is about 75 kilometers (47 mi) long and has an average depth of between 200 to 400 metres (656-1312 ft.). Encompassed within its grandeur, you’ll find 18 beaches, 20 bends in the river, 30 deep ponds, over 60 bays, and more than 100 waterfalls. It is renowned throughout China for its myriad of Karst rock formations and its plethora of breathtaking waterfalls, which lend the region an ethereal quality. In-keeping with this fairytale aesthetic, calcium deposits on the cliff-faces sparkle in a variety of colours and are said to appear like elegant tapestries lining the gorge. Many of the waterfalls within the gorge are at least 100 metres (328 ft.) in height and cascade down the Karst rock-face with a captivating grace.

While taking a cruise or rafting down the river may seem like the obvious choice to make the most out of your trip, visitors can also hike along the gorge thanks to plank walkways that have been built halfway up the cliffs on both sides, which offer a closer view of the stunning rock formations peppered throughout the cliff-face. Arguably the most beautiful and famous attractions on offer with the Maling River Gorge are the Pearl Waterfall and the Rainbow Waterfall.

The Pearl Waterfall is so-named because it is located on a high cliff, meaning that its droplets are often dispersed by the wind and give the appearance of sparkling pearls floating in the air. By contrast, the Rainbow Waterfall is actually made up of a series of eight waterfalls that all cascade down nearby cliff-faces. Since they are all within such close proximity to one another, the area surrounding their base is frequently shrouded with mist and the splashing water can cause rainbows to appear when the sun is shining.

When it comes to rafting, the waters within the gorge are considered reasonably gentle, so don’t expect white-water rapids. While battling rapid waters may be exciting, you should never forget the wise words of the ancient Chinese proverb: “Water can not only float a boat, it can also sink it.” It is a great place, however, for those who are not familiar with rafting and want to give it a try. The only exception is the section of the river from Zhaojiadu to Wanfeng Lake, which is extremely dangerous and therefore only open to professional rafters, not the general public.

The gorge itself actually belongs to a much larger attraction known as the Maling River Gorge Scenic Area, which covers a colossal area of 450 square kilometres (174 sq. mi). Alongside the magnificent gorge, the scenic area includes a variety of natural gems, including the captivating Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks and the mysterious Wanfeng Lake. The region also bears great historical significance and once served as one of the ancient seats of human civilization. This venerable history is attested to by the 240-million-year-old Mesozoic Triassic “Guizhou Dragon” fossils that were found there and caves, such as Cat Cave and Zhangkou Cave, which bear signs of primitive human activity. In terms of more recent history, the scenic area is home to a group of tombs dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) and it was even crossed by Chairman Mao during the Long March (1934-1935).

The area has also been inhabited by the Bouyei people for over 300 years and remains a stronghold of Bouyei culture. There are a number of Bouyei ethnic minority villages that can be found within the scenic area, particularly in the western part of the Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks, known as Xifenglin or “West Peak Forest.” These villages serve as perfect resting points within the scenic area and are the ideal place to engage with authentic Bouyei culture.

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The Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks

A landscape unlike any other awaits those who are curious enough to wander deep into the lesser-known countryside of Guizhou province. Known poetically as Wanfenglin or “The Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks,” this breathtaking landscape is so-named because the verdant Karst mountains scattered across its expanse are so plentiful that they give the appearance of a strange and beautiful forest. From February to April, the area is blanketed in rich golden hues as the rape flowers blossom, which adds an extra layer of beauty to the region. As far back as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the renowned geographer Xu Xiake decided to pay a visit to this unusual landscape and praised it highly, stating: “There are many peaks and mountains in this world, but only here can the peaks be truly called a forest.” If anything, Xu Xiake’s praise might be an understatement, as this stony “forest” is made up of nearly 20,000 peaks!

Nowadays, the Forest of Ten Thousand Peaks forms a major part of the larger Maling River Canyon scenic area and has been divided into two core regions: West Peak Forest, which is made up of a typical Karst plateau landscape and is open to the public; and East Peak Forest, which is characterised by clusters of Karst peaks and is currently closed to the public. This mountainous forest is located about 7 kilometers (4.5 mi) away from the city of Xingyi and takes up a colossal area of 2,000 square kilometres (772 sq. mi). To put that into perspective, it is nearly twice the size of the entire city of New York! 

Within the “forest” itself, there are a few highlights that have been given special names based on their appearance. For example, the densest part of the peak forest is known as Liezhen or “Array-Like” Peak Forest, because it contains a large peak known as General Peak that is surrounded by his smaller array of soldiers. There are even two shorter peaks directly to the left and right side of General Peak, which represent his body-guards! Much like the Liezhen Peak Forest, there is another smaller peak that is surrounded by other miniature peaks, which is known poetically as A Myriad of Stars Surround the Moon.

Another area, known as the Dashun Peaks, is considered to be widely representative of the average type of peak that can be found in Wanfenglin, as it is made up of six tall cone-shaped peaks. Since the Chinese word for six (六) sounds like the word for “to flow” (流), six is considered a lucky number, so these six peaks were given the auspicious name of “dashun” (大顺), which comes from the Chinese idiom “Everything goes smoothly” (六六大顺). After all, when you’re surrounded by such beauty, it’s easy to see why the locals who live here feel blessed! 

At the foot of West Peak Forest lies a shimmering strip of water known as the Nahui River, which acts as a natural string connecting several villages belonging to the Bouyei ethnic minority, such as Erzhai, Leli, Shuangsheng, and Yulong. The area has been home to the Bouyei people for over 300 years and the remote location has meant that they’ve been able to preserve their cultural customs throughout their long history. After a rewarding hike through the mountains, these villages represent the ideal place to rest and engage in authentic Bouyei culture. 

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Zhijin Cave National Geopark

With its ethereal splendour and strangely beautiful rock formations, Zhijin Cave has often been described as a vast underground palace and appears to have been torn straight from the pages of a fairytale. In fact, the name “zhijin” literally translates to mean “weaving gold,” which should give you some idea as to how beautiful this cave system is. Located in the small village of Minzhai, Zhijin Cave is a karst cave that is 173 metres (568 ft.) wide and 150 metres (492 ft.) tall at its largest point. To put that into perspective, you could fit the entire Statue of Liberty into its largest cavern with plenty of room to spare! The cave itself is contained within a national park, which also includes Zhijin Old Town, the Jiehe Gorge, and the Hongjia Ferry.

What makes this cave system particularly special is that it is home to a dizzying array of karst formations and has even earned the nickname of the “Karst Museum.” Over forty different types of karst formations can be found throughout the cave system, which makes it reasonably unique amongst karst cave networks. In particular, it is home to rare karst formations made from semiolite, prehnite, and bloodstone, which endows the interior of the cave with a variety of magical shapes and colours. The sharp stalactites hanging from the ceiling and the piercing stalagmites rising from the floor give the interior of the cave an entrancing alien appearance. The average height of these rock formations is around 40 metres (131 ft.), although many of them reach heights in excess of 70 metres (230 ft.).The most notable of these is known poetically as the Silver Rain Tree, a rare transparent crystal that is 17 metres (56 ft.) in height and is said to resemble a flowering tree. Its sparkling beauty is sure to capture the imagination of anyone who sees it, although we wouldn’t recommend trying to eat its fruit! 

The cave itself was originally known as Daji or “Hit the Rooster” Cave, which you may be surprised to hear goes back to the cave’s history as a playground for young children! Local children from the Miao ethnic minority used to gather in the cave to play a game known as “hit the rooster,” where participants hit a colourful feathered shuttlecock back and forth. Although these Miao communities would enter the cave from time to time, it wasn’t officially discovered until 1980, when the Zhijin County Tourism Resources Exploration Team delved deeper into the cave system. To date, they have already led expeditions as deep as 4 kilometres (3 mi) into the 12 kilometre (7 mi) length of the overall cave system. According to their findings, they have determined that the cave system is made up of 2 main caves and 4 branches caves, which have been divided into 4 layers and 47 chambers. Within each cave, the average height of the rock formations is around 40 metres (131 ft.), although many of them reach heights in excess of 70 metres (230 ft.).

When it comes to touring the cave system, it has been conveniently divided into 10 scenic zones: Yingbin Hall, the Sutra Hall, the Pagoda Forest, Wanshou Palace, Wangshan Lake, Jiangnanzeguo, Xuexiang Palace, Lingxiao Palace, Guanghan Palace, and the Shiwan Mountain. The first and arguably most magnificent sight you’ll be greeted by is the Yingbin or “Reception” Hall, which is over 200 metres (656 ft.) long. What makes this cavern particularly special is that its ceiling contains a large round hole that allows sunlight to pierce right into the bottom of the cave. This means that the entire hall is covered in thick green moss, which thrives in the damp conditions. The sunlight glistening off of the many water droplets that fall constantly from the ceiling of the cavern creates a scene like a thousand gold coins trickling down the rock. In fact, the hole in the cavern’s ceiling is even known as Luoqian or “Dropping Coins” Hole. Money may not grow on trees, but it seems that in Zhijin Cave it falls from the sky instead!

To the side of Yingbin Hall, there is a smaller cavern known rather darkly as Mushroom-Cloud Hall, because its main feature is a 10-metre (33 ft.) tall stalactite that supposedly resembles the shape of the mushroom cloud formed after a nuclear explosion. In-keeping with this hall’s gloomy aesthetic, there is also a small pond that has been aptly named Shadow Spring, because of the way that the shadows of the stalagmites dance eerily on the surface of the water.  

The name of the Sutra Hall, by contrast, is derived from the fact that it is home to a stalactite that reputedly resembles a type of saintly Buddhist figure known as an arhat. The cavern itself is around 200 metres (656 ft.) in length and 50 metres (164 ft.) in width, with a pool at its centre that covers an area of about 300 square metres (3,229 sq. ft.). This pool has been divided into two parts by the famed arhat stalactite, which has earned it the name Riyue or “Sun and Moon” Pool. From the Buddhist figure guarding the cavern to the Yin-Yang elements of the Riyue Pool, it would be hard not to feel enlightened as you wander through the Sutra Hall!

Following the Buddhist theme, the Pagoda Forest is home to over 100 stalagmites, which are golden in colour and resemble a glistening forest of real pagodas. Near to this cavern is Wangshan Lake, which is an underground lake that is a staggering 170 metres (558 ft.) long and more than 40 metres (131 ft.) wide. To put that into perspective, this subterranean lake is over three times the length of an Olympic swimming pool!

Once you’ve enjoyed the many splendid natural attractions to be found within the cave, you can pay a visit to some of the ethnic minority villages that are dotted throughout the region. Zhijin Cave itself is located in an area populated by the Miao ethnic minority, although there are also settlements of Yi people and Bouyei people nearby. In particular, the Miao people who live near to the cave are well-known for their craftsmanship and their delicious local style of cuisine. 

Dong Ethnic Performance


From dusk till dawn, the villages of the Dong people are saturated with the harmonious sound of singing. This ethnic group has become famous throughout China for polyphonic folk songs known as “Dage” or Grand Songs. While some of these folk songs are accompanied by the pipa[1], most are sung without any musical accompaniment. The Dong ethnic minority have no written language, so they use folk songs to narrate their daily life, express their feelings, and keep a record of their history. All of Dong culture is preserved in these magnificent folk songs. The more songs a Dong person knows, the better educated they are considered to be. Singing is so important to the Dong people that supposedly, in the past, if a man couldn’t sing then he would struggle to find a wife!

From the age of five, children in the village will be trained by one of the accomplished local singers free of charge. These singing teachers enjoy a special status as highly revered members of the community. In short, people are always singing their praises! Depending on age and gender, villagers are separated into different choirs, and each choir is distinguished by their particular style of singing and the topics of their songs. For example, choirs of young children will sound sweet and lively, while choirs of young girls sound innocent and full of passion, and choirs of men have a depth to their voices that sounds haunting and powerful. Female choirs incorporate sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos, and male choirs are comprised of countertenors, tenors, baritones, and basses.

The most talented singers in any Dong village make up what are called Kam Grand Choirs or Kgal Laox in the native Dong language. The Kam Grand Choir tradition is thought to have originated sometime during the Warring States Period (475BC-221 BC), making it over 2,500 years old! In 2009, it was made a World Class Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. A Kam Grand Choir is a polyphonic choir that sings without the help of a conductor or any accompanying orchestra. Most songs performed by these choirs consist of a prelude, a main body made up of several sections, and an ending.

These songs are designed to imitate the natural world, such as the chirping of insects, the gurgling of streams, the whistling of the wind, and other soothing natural sounds. The singing is meant to spur the soul and originate from the heart, while simultaneously promoting harmony between mankind and nature. The solo singing will be done by the sopranos and the bass section is sung by the rest of the choir. Depending on the style of song, the soprano section will be performed by between one and three individuals.

There are Male Choirs, Female Choirs, and Child Choirs, and each of these is further separated into four main categories based on their styles, melodies, and the content of their songs. In the Dong dialect, these four categories are called Gating, Gama, Gaxiang, and Gaji. Gating or “Choirs of Sound” perform songs that are characterised by an undulating melody and short lyrics, employing the use of several sopranos. This style of song is dedicated almost entirely to imitating the sounds of the natural world, with the famed “Cicada Song” being the finest example. Gama or “Romance Choirs” perform songs revolving around the theme of love and employ slow rhythms and soft voices to heighten their effect.

Gaxiang or “Morality Choirs” perform songs that are designed to educate, advise, or console the audience by praising virtues and condemning inappropriate behaviour. These songs have an even tune in order to draw focus to their lyrics. Finally, Gaji or “Narrative Choirs” perform songs that focus on dialogue and plot, and are characterised by slow, melancholy, or soothing tunes. The Gaji songs are some of the hardest to perform, as they require the performers to remember lengthy lyrics, complicated plots, and various key facial expressions. Usually these songs will be led by only one soprano.

Many folktales are preserved in Dong oral literature, usually in the form of songs. The focus of many popular tales re-count the leaders of past uprisings, such as Wu Mian, who led the 1378 rebellion against the Ming Dynasty during drought and famine, and Wu Jinyin, who revolted in 1740 because of a rise in grain taxes. Non-historical folktales include the two orphan brothers, Ding Lang and the dragon princess, the frog and the swallow, the dog, and the singing tree.

The best time to enjoy the singing of the Dong people is during their New Year festival, which is normally sometime between late October and early November every year according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The New Year celebrations are resplendent with lively singing competitions, joyous folk dances, and vibrant performances that are truly magnificent to behold.


[1] Pipa: A four-stringed plucking instrument that has a pear-shaped wooden body and anywhere from 12 to 26 frets. It is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.


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Miao Spiritual Beliefs

miao Spiritual BeliefsSpiritually speaking, the Miao people are great believers in animism and shamanism. Animism is the spiritual belief that non-human entities, such as animals, plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena, possess a spiritual essence while shamanism is the belief that certain people, known as shamans, can interact with the spirit world in a meaningful way. Some villages will have shamans whose main purpose is to exorcise evil spirits or recall the soul of a sick person. The Miao also practice ancestor worship and believe in a wide variety of spirits. Animal sacrifice is also widespread throughout many Miao communities.


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Miao Customs

Receiving Guests

miao minoroty 01Etiquette is incredibly important to the Miao people and certain customs must be adhered to, particularly when it comes to welcoming guests. Guests who have travelled a long way are given what is called “horn spirit”, which is a locally distilled alcoholic spirit that is specifically reserved for special occasions. If you visit any of the larger Miao villages, such as Xijiang, during national holidays or festivals, then you’ll be treated to this ceremony and be invited to try the “horn spirit”. Traditionally Miao people will receive any esteemed guest by slaughtering one of their chickens for the guest to eat. This is followed by a custom known as the poultry ceremony.

In this ceremony, a chicken is killed, cooked and distributed in a specific way. The head is given to the eldest person in attendance and the leg is given to the youngest. The heart is then presented to the guest of honour by a senior member of the host family, who holds it delicately in their chopsticks. The guest must then share the heart with the person who presented it to them. This gesture illustrates how many of the Miao customs have been developed with the aim of bringing Miao communities and clans together. It is important to note that, unlike in Han Chinese culture, it is considered very insulting to overeat in a Miao household if you are a guest. It is better to excuse yourself from eating when you are full, rather than trying to eat too much.

Family Reunions

When a married woman returns to her parent’s home to visit or when other family members come to visit, they will carry a chicken, about 2 to 3 litres of glutinous rice, a large piece of salted or fresh meat and a fish. These gifts are often simply referred to as a “mixed bundle”. When the guests arrive, the host family will call upon all of the cousins, paternal family members and members of the village to unwrap the bundle. They will all drink liquor and have dinner together. The dinner will be made up of the delicacies that the guests have brought and the glutinous rice will be shared with all of the members of the village.

miao dinnerOn the second day through to the third or fourth day, the families who shared the food that the guests brought should in turn invite the guests to their house to eat. The guests will normally visit between four to five families per day, but will always have dinner at the host’s house. This custom is called “disturbing the village” and has been practised since ancient times. It is an important ritual for improving bonds between distant members of the family.

When the guests leave, the host family and anyone who shared the food they had brought should send gifts to them. After the guests have left, the host family will leave their door open until the guests are long gone, in order to show the guests that they are always welcome to come again. As the guests leave the village, the host will see them off. Traditionally the host must lead them along the main road instead of a smaller path, which symbolically means they are wishing their guests a safe journey home. When a guest of significant importance leaves, all of the paternal family members and villagers will see them off. The women will adorn their shoulders with colourful cloths to express good will and the guest should wear these cloths until they get home out of politeness. The women will then propose toasts to the guest and sing what are called “flying songs”, or seeing off songs, loudly and clearly. The guest will then respond with their own song before departing.


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yintan 01

Obscured by misty mountains and dense green forests, Yintan is a gem largely hidden from the rest of the world. This small Dong village just 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of Congjiang City is home to 1,700 people in 354 households and, isolated as it is, has harboured traditional Dong culture for generations. The gate is flanked by ancient Chinese yew trees, which give the village an air of mysticism as you enter. Even the name “Yintan” (银潭), meaning “Small Silver Lake”, has a certain ethereal quality to it.

Since it is so remote and has not yet been geared up for tourism, visitors rarely venture to Yintan and this only adds to its undeniably charm. While in the more popular Dong villages you’ll find yourself regularly rubbing elbows with other tourists, in Yintan the peaceful atmosphere means you can truly relax and enjoy traditional Dong culture.

The village is home to numerous Diaojiaolou, or wooden houses suspended on stilts, which climb up the mountain and mingle seamlessly with the natural scenery. These stilted dwellings are punctuated by three magnificent drum towers, which were all built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but are of different styles. Though their paint may have faded and their wood may be chipped, watching the sun set behind these towering edifices on a balmy summer’s evening is still just as breath-taking.

yintanYintan has also managed to maintain a few ancient opera stages, where performances of all kinds take place. From hearty dancing to piercing opera, the village locals really know how to enjoy the simple things in life! Unlike many other Dong communities, where youths only don their traditional outfits on festival occasions, almost all of the villagers in Yintan regularly wear their characteristic indigo-coloured clothes all year round. These clothes are handmade using the ancient tradition of cloth weaving and dyeing, which was passed on to them by their ancestors.

Almost every household in the village has a barrel for preparing indigo dye and almost every piece of clothing worn by the locals will have been made entirely by them. If you happen to be passing through Yintan on a hot summer’s day, you may even notice the freshly dyed clothes hanging from the balconies. Just don’t stand under them, or you’ll end up with indigo hair!


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Sanbao Dong Village


Long ago, it is said that there was once a huge lake in Rongjiang County, with three rivers running into it. In each river there lived a dragon and, every so often, the dragons would gather in the lake to play. One year, there was a thunderous monsoon that rained for nine days and nine nights, raising the water level of the rivers and disturbing the three dragons. The thunder became louder and louder, until eventually one deafening crash scared the three dragons so much that they all swam into the South China Sea, leaving behind only three precious treasures. When the Dong people’s ancestors arrived, they found each of the treasures and settled three villages there, as it seemed like an auspicious location. The three villages then came to be known collectively as “Sanbao” or “The Three Treasures”.

Magical though this story may seem, there are actually about 19 small villages that make up Sanbao, with three main villages, known as Shangbao, Zhongbao, and Xiabao, being acknowledged as the treasures. When you live in a place called “The Three Treasures” and your village isn’t one of them, I can’t imagine it does much for your confidence! Overall Sanbao boasts about 2,500 households and a population of over 13,000 people, making it the largest Dong village in China. So, unless you’ve seen any Dong villages sprouting up near you lately, this means it’s probably the largest Dong village in the world.

Duliu River SanbaoThis cluster of villages is just 5 kilometres from Rongjiang City and lies along the banks of the Duliu River. Sanbao is flanked by stunning banyan trees, many of them over 300 years old, which stretch for over a kilometre along the river’s banks. Most of them were planted during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and, after hundreds of years of uninterrupted growth, their roots and branches have intertwined lovingly. A cobbled path winds its way around these banyan trees, dubbed “Flower Street” by the locals, and at the end stands a statue of a man named Zhu Feng and a woman named Lang Mei, the veritable Romeo and Juliet of Dong folklore. When even the trees are embracing, you know that love is in the air!

Aside from these marvellous natural wonders, Sanbao is resplendent with stunning architecture, including a series of drum towers that have earned it accolade over the years. The magnificent Chezhai Drum Tower was built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and it has remained undamaged for over 130 years, in spite of having been built without the use of nails or rivets. It towers in at 15 metres (50 ft.) in height but is tragically no match for the village’s local behemoth! The Sanbao Drum Tower, which was built in 2001, is over 36 metres (118 ft.) tall and holds the Guinness World Record for largest drum tower in the world. Though it’s not physically as large, this makes it taller than Buckingham Palace!

Alongside these spectacular architectural achievements, the village also boasts nine temples dedicated to the goddess Sa Sui. She is one of the most important deities in the Dong canon and her temples serve as perfect examples of the elegance and decorative quality of Dong architecture. In a place this scenic, you’ll soon realise why they named it “The Three Treasures”. Let’s just hope the dragons don’t decide to come back!


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