China is a dreamland for many travelers. It is so rich in geography, history, and culture so that many years are not enough to explore it deeply in details. When people visit China, first they look to its most famous landmarks- the Great Wall, Beijing and its Forbidden City, Shanghai, Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, Shao Lin Monastery and Guilin. But it is nothing, compared to what China really has to offer. This country is so large, that geographically it can be divided into a few smaller lands, which are quite different from each other. So, from geographical point of view, now I will focus only on one of these lands- the southern part of the country. So, let’s explore South China together!
Geographical definition of South China
The Southern part of China is generally everything, which is situated south of Yangtze River. That’s how the Chinese think about this part of their country- they call it “Nan Fang” (南方), which means “South Side” and consider Yangtze (Chang Jiang) River as a divider between the South and the North (although it is unclear whether some big cities like Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, and Chongqing, which are located on Yangtze River, really belong to the South or not).
But the scholars specializing in geography, offer some better definitions of “South China”. They consider many things like the geographical zones, relief, climate, as well as local culture and history. Thus generally what they propose to be “South China”, generally include the provinces of Fujian, Jiangxi, Hubei, Hunan, Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi. Some include also Guizhou, and Yunnan, while others define “West China” (which however is NOT the western part of China as a whole- Tibet, Xinjiang and Qinghai- they are completely different parts of the country), including Yunnan, Guizhou, the eastern part of Sichuan, Chongqing, Shaanxi and the southern part of Gansu.
Nature of South China
An endless maze of hills, covered by lush subtropical jungle. Rice fields, surrounded by bamboos and bananas. Curving rivers with small villages on their banks. This is the landscape in most of South China. If you travel from Yangtze River to the South China Sea, or from Fujian to the foot of Tibet, this is the typical view that you will often see on your route. But let’s look deeper into this piece of land.
It is one of the main parts of South China’s image. There is a watershed between Yangtze and Mekong rivers, starting from the interior of the Great Tibetan Plateau. In Yunnan province, this watershed divides into two branches. And the northern branch, which prolongs eastward between Yangtze and South China sea, reaching the plain of Shanghai, is the main “spine” of a large mountainous area, known as “Nan Ling” (南岭)- which means “Southern Hills” (although what is actually included in “Nan Ling” is not clearly determined).
These mountains are not too high and are clustered in groups, with larger plains and valleys between them. The highest peaks reach a little higher than 2000 m altitude, but in general, most of the area is lower than 500 m altitude. And all the mountains are richly covered by wild subtropical rain forests.
Yes, the forests are thick, wild and difficult to walk through. Unless there are some roads and paths, roaming off-road is an extreme and dangerous adventure. Now some of the mountains are turned into national parks and there are well-arranged paths, which is “not so wild and adventurous”, easily accessible by every tourist. But many other mountains remain wild, and hiking in their jungles is really exciting.
I still remember our 3-days trekking in Mt. Chuandiding in Guangdong province. It is a wild hiking route, favorite for many adventure hikers, with a relatively high level of difficulty. The highest peak of the mountain is 1580 m altitude, and we could see clear vertical zoning of the forest. There were lush jungles, mixed with bamboos and banana trees in the low areas. In the middle- just a thick forest, more like the forests of moderate climate areas, but still thicker. And in the high areas, these forests gradually turn into a bush thicket, mixed with grasslands. Finally, we reached the highest peak, where we spent the night camping in our tents.
This is the most spectacular landmark in South China. In fact, it is one of the most famous symbols of the whole country- the maze tower, pillar, and conical hills, with curving rivers between them, bamboos of their banks and exotic fishermen with conical hats on their boats.
Actually, this popular image comes from a certain geographical spot in China- a village on the bank of Li River, near Xingping town in Guangxi Autonomous Region. This area is a part of the famous Guilin- a paradise of unreal mountain formations created something like an otherworldly landscape. This place attracts millions of tourists from China and the whole world, who come to enjoy Guilin, Li River, Yangshuo and all other points of interest in the area.
But not too many people know that actually the karst hills cover a much larger part of South China, and Guilin is only a little part of the whole South China Karst area. The same type of hills can be found in many other places in Guangxi, Guangdong, Guizhou and Hunan provinces. And since the hills outside of Guilin are not popular, you can enjoy a completely different experience there, than in the touristy Guilin.
Go to Wanfenglin or Yingxi Karst Hills (called also “Yingxi Corridor”). You can find yourself alone in a silent, unreal landscape, without tourists, but only some locals in the nearby remote villages. Take a bicycle and tent and wander through the maze of the tower hills. I can say that we had a really great and unforgettable experience in Yingxi, where we two times spent the New Year Eve, camping among the fantastic karst hills- an experience which I really recommend to every traveler!
And that’s not all. The karst areas hide many other amazing things, like caves and underground rivers. Some of the most beautiful of them in the world can be found here, in South China, which makes exploring the karst hills areas a really fantastic experience.
South China is very rich in rivers. There are really a lot of large, slow rivers, curving through the mountains and plains. As I said, there is a long watershed between Yangtze and South China Sea. The rivers flowing north of this watershed join Yangtze, and those south of it flow into South China Sea.
And an important part of these southern rivers is the Pearl River system. It is formed by three main rivers- Dongjiang (East River), Beijiang (North River) and the largest and longest one- Xijiang (West River). These three rivers join together at Guangzhou, forming the famous Pearl River Delta, which is home of one of the largest urban areas in the world- a cluster of 8 mega cities joined together- Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhongshan, Zhuhai and Macau, as well as a few other nearby cities- Huizhou, Qingyuan, Zhaoqing and Jiangmen. This is one of the three richest and highly developed parts of China- rich of history, rich in culture, rich in urban life, rich of money and rich of “civilization glory”.
South China has a long coastline, stretching from the strait of Taiwan to the border with Vietnam. This coastline is not straight, but being affected by the mountainous relief of the land, it is curved in an endless sequence of small bays, peninsulas and nearby islands. Thus most of the seacoast is rocky. There are also some muddy areas, mainly at the deep bays and river mouths, which are quite dirty, combined with agricultural fields or even industrial zones.
However, there are also some really nice beaches with white sand. Some of these beaches are already turned into resort areas, with entrance fee to access, such as Dameisha, Xiaomeisha, and Xichong in Shenzhen, or Hailing in Yangjiang. But there are still some really wild beaches, with only some local villages nearby.
We have been camping on these beaches too. It was another unforgettable experience, to sleep on the sand, to hear the constant sound of the waves and to watch the stars in the black cosmos above us. Then in the morning, we enjoyed swimming in the sea or exploring the hidden corners of the rocky coast surrounding the beach. Or to walk on a long and wide beach stripe, as the beach at Shaba in Yangxi county.
This is the southernmost large piece of Chinese land (not counting the tiny islands, deeper in South China Sea). And it is much more Southeast Asia than continental China. Maybe mostly because its climate is not subtropical, but tropical, and the coconut palm trees are a constant part of the landscape. There are not too many good beaches in Hainan, but the really good ones, combined with these coconut trees look like a “tropical paradise”.
And it is not strange that it has attracted Chinese mass tourism. The result is the richest and most famous Chinese sea resort- Sanya, on the southern coast of Hainan.
In general, the waters of South China Sea at the Chinese coast are not so pure (can’t compare with the crystal clear waters of the Philippines or the Red Sea for example), especially near the river mouths. Also, many beaches are exposed directly to the sea currents of the open sea, creating good conditions for big waves and surfing.
Wet. Often rainy. Hot. It is the weather most of the time in South China, mainly from April to September. Sometimes typhoons come like furious guests from the interior of the Pacific, first striking the Philippines, then heading to the continent, which quickly kills them. But before they die, they can still cause a lot of damage and chaos.
However, there is another time of the year- from October to January, which is the best for exploring, hiking and camping. It still can rain at that time, but the sunny days are more than during the other part of the year.
The winter? Honestly, it is not my favorite season in South China. There is almost no snow. Only in the mountains or near Yangtze River, and not for a long time. In the same time- there is no central heating in the buildings. Everybody stays at home wearing a coat. Yes, outside the temperature is often around 10-15℃, but it is almost the same inside the buildings. It is especially worse (and it is maybe the worst time of the year) in February and early March, when the wet season starts, but still with low temperatures. Those who come from Britain would know what I mean.
Anyway, if you have all this in mind and prepare properly, you could still have a great time in South China, enjoying much of what it really offers.
History of South China
As the whole of China, its southern part has a long and ancient history. But its history has been not always the same as the history of Beijing and Yellow River areas. And it has its traces all around Guangdong, Guangxi and the other areas of South China.
Han Chinese- the largest ethnic group in China, have lived in the northern part of the country for thousands of years. But they came to South China only around 2300 years ago. Before their arrival, during the ancient dynasties of the North- Xia, Shang, and Zhou, in the South, everything has been completely different. The whole area has been populated by a lot of tribes, related to Southeast Asia, and belonging to the Southeast Asian language groups. These tribes are known as “Hundred Yue”.
Now their inheritors still live scattered around South China, mainly in the villages and small towns. They are the present day minorities like Yao, Miao, Buyi, Dai, Zhuang and many others.
Qin, Han and the Nanyue Kingdom
3rd century BC. The Kingdom of Qin gradually conquered all its competitors and unites all the Chinese people under its rule. Its king becomes the first Chinese emperor, and he started to expand his realm, conquering the territories of South China, reaching South China Sea.
But the new empire also caused the fall of the Qin Dynasty, and the throne has been taken by the Han Dynasty (which gave the name of the largest Chinese ethnic group- Han Chinese). And during the bloody chaos between these two dynasties, South China separated from the empire in a new independent kingdom- Nanyue. This kingdom lived only about 100 years, only until the mighty Han Empire became enough strong and stable. But it left a lot of artifacts, which can be seen today in Nanyue King Mausoleum in Guangzhou.
Around the beginning of the 1st century BC Han Empire conquered Nanyue and for the next few centuries, South China became firmly integrated into the history of the whole Chinese empire.
The southern dynasties
In the 3rd century AD, after the collapse of the Han Dynasty, China was divided into Three Kingdoms: Wu, Wei and Shu Han. Southern China was under the control of Wu. But only around 40 years later it was replaced by the Jin Dynasty, which tried to united China again, and really succeeded for more than a century.
But later, in 420 AD, the history of North and South China was divided for almost 2 centuries, getting on two different courses. While the North was dominated by the Northern Wei Dynasty, the South was under control of a few other dynasties- Liu Song, Southern Qi, Liang, Chen, and Western Liang.
Sui and Tang
Then, in 589, China was united again by the Sui Dynasty, then by its successor Tang Dynasty, which was one of the most prosperous periods of the Chinese history. For more than 3 centuries China was a really strong empire, developing good trade relations with the newly established Arab Caliphate. And Guangzhou (Canton) in the south has become an important trade center between the East and the West.
Five Dynasties and Song
But the 10th century was again marked by instability, weakness and a lot of wars. Tang Empire collapsed, its northern territories were occupied by Liao, Jin and Western Xia Dynasties, while South China had a different course of the history- the Five Dynasties, Ten Kingdoms, eventually succeeded by Song Dynasty.
The Mongols and Yuan
China remained divided until the 13th century. But then new invaders came from the north- the Mongols of Genghis Khan. They established the largest (in on land territory) empire, ever existed on the Earth. The Mongols gradually conquered the whole of China, and at the same time, their empire was divided into four daughter-empires. One of them was Yuan, occupying China for almost a century. From this moment on, South China’s history was finally united with the North until the present day.
Ming and Qing
These two dynasties ruled over China from 1368 to 1912. They had their periods of bloom and decay. In South China, you can find a lot of historic “old towns” and other really beautiful remains of that era. In the same time, the trade activity of the South remained stable, which made this part of China relatively rich and prosperous, compared with most of the empire’s interior.
And it attracted the attention of the Europeans. First- Portuguese and Dutch. Then- French and English. As a result, the first colony was created- Macau, which turned the history of its tiny peninsula and the nearby islands into a very different direction.
But the most active and controversial were the relations with the English. There was a succession of war and peace, which caused the creation of Hong Kong as a British colony, as well as the “Opium War” (and you can see more about it in Humen, a town belonging to Dongguan, in the Pearl River Delta city cluster).
The modern history of South China
In the same time, during the 19th century, some new movements started arising in China, and they started in its southern part. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who is from Guangzhou, then Chiang Kai Shek, along with a few other leaders, were the heads of Kuomintang (KMT), the party which ruled China from 1912 to 1949. These years were full of tension and instability, coming both from inside and outside. From outside- it was mainly Japan, which invaded China, occupying much of its territory and causing a lot of suffering and struggle. And from inside- it was the local minorities, known as “tu fei”, and a new challenge- the Communists.
And the Communists were also strongly related to the south. Mao Ze Dong was born in Hunan province. During the Second Sino-Japanese War, although the KMT and the Communists were in competition, in general, they fought together against the Japanese invaders. But after 1945 they started a bloody civil war against each other, resulting in the victory of the Communists in 1949. Only Taiwan remained under the control of KMT.
From 1949, the whole China passed through all the troubles of the early Communist rule, including the disastrous “Cultural Revolution”. But from the ’80s of the 20th century, the ruling Communist party changed the course and adapted the western economic model, starting again from South China. First- from Shenzhen. Then gradually to the whole of the Pearl River Delta, and until now- throughout the whole of China.
And now we see the result of all the events of the history, from the ancient times until now.
Ethnic culture of South China
As in most of China, the majority of people are Han Chinese. And this is the largest ethnic group, not only in China but in the whole world. They are so many people, spreading in such a vast territory, that they don’t have just one language. Yes, their main language is Mandarin (Putonghua or Han Yu), but they have also a lot of other dialects, which are actually different languages (although in the same language family). In South China, the main Han languages are Cantonese (Guangdonghua or Yue Yu), Xiang (Hunanhua), Hakka (Kejiahua), Minna (Fujianhua) and Gan (Jiangxi).
Modern Chinese lifestyle
I had the opportunity to live in China for many years, and I can say that during that time I became quite familiar with the local Chinese culture, particularly in South China, Guangdong. There are many things which are common for all the people in the world. But there are also some typical Chinese habits, traditions, and way of thinking and doing things.
In general, life in South China, as almost everywhere in the country, in the big cities, is quite intense. Everybody is busy. Busy for work, busy to chat in Wei Xin, busy to study something, busy to play computer games, or just busy for karaoke, for eating or sleeping. Many people are eager to study English. And only about 10% could really learn it enough to read, write and speak. The Chinese like mass activities. Mass marathon, mass tourism, mass celebrations- they like it and they call is “re nao” (lively).
Communication with Chinese
A good thing that I really like, is that the Han Chinese are really easy people for communication. They are not sensitive about some “hot topics”, and would not offend if you do something different than them, or you have a different opinion about something. They would just say: “It is normal, he is a foreigner, we can’t expect him to follow us.” So you can talk freely about everything with them. The Chinese are also easy to adapt to something from abroad- culture, technology, style, etc., and at the same time to remain “Chinese”.
I can write a whole book about the Chinese and their culture. And it is only a part of the things that you can expect when communicating with them. There is no significant difference between the southern and the northern Han Chinese, unless that the southerners are slightly more opened to the western culture and prosperity.
But what I say here is about the people in the big cities. Life in remote villages is completely different. Actually, most of the people in the villages are old, because their children and grand-children migrate to the big cities for work. Far from the “big money smell”, they are much more simple, especially those who live far from the tourist destinations. And there you can also meet not only Han Chinese, but many other ethnic minorities.
The ethnic minorities in South China
Let’s back to Hundred Yue. They are a part of a larger group of people and languages, forming the population of Southeast Asia. In other words, most of them are Southeast Asians, closer to Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Burmese, Khmers, and Malays, but living in China, instead of Southeast Asia. Actually, the most diverse ethnically province is Yunnan, although it is considered a part of West China (or Southwest China). And some of the Yunnan minorities also live east of Yunnan, in Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan, and Guangdong. Other minorities of South China are only local.
Among the largest minorities in South China are Zhuang, Miao (Hmong) and Yao (Mien). They live mainly in the remote villages and small towns, scattered in the mountains, that’s why some call them “hill tribes”. They live in big cities too, but they are very small minorities there since most of the big city inhabitants are Han Chinese.
The lifestyle of the minorities
I have the privilege to know some Zhuang and Yao people, who are my good friends. They live in Qingyuan, in Guangdong province, but they don’t forget their homeland in the extreme northwest of Guangdong- Lianshan, and Liannan. In Qingyuan, they live like every other citizen, speak Mandarin and Cantonese, so you can’t recognize that they are not ethnic Han Chinese. But they still have something of their unique cultures. They remember their native languages. When a holiday comes, they go to their hometowns and celebrate with their relatives.
And yes, there are many places in South China, called “Zizhiqu” (自治区), which means “autonomous region”. These autonomous regions are towns, counties, or even a province, like Guangxi. And they have special local regulations, designed for the local ethnic group. But for us, travelers, the most important is that usually, you can visit there the local ethnic villages and towns, where you can see the beauty of their local culture. I personally would never forget our trip to the land of Yao in Liannan, Guangdong province. And there are so many other ethnic areas, really worth to visit.
Areas to explore in South China
So, I tried shortly to “draw” a general picture of South China. Having this picture in mind, where can you go and explore?
Let’s start from the most popular part of South China, which is the traditional starting point for traveling further inside the country from the south- Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province.
Pearl River Delta- the southern core of China
It is a giant delta, called Pearl River, formed by the three rivers- East River (Dongjiang), North River (Beijiang) and West River (Xijiang). And it is surrounded by a cluster of eight megacities, two of which are special administrative regions- Hong Kong and Macau. As I already mentioned, the other cities of the Delta are Shenzhen, Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan, Zhongshan, and Zhuhai, and Guangzhou is the largest, one of the biggest cities in whole China.
You can make a circle trip around Pearl River Delta, starting from Hong Kong, in a counterclockwise direction. Hong Kong itself is an incredibly beautiful area. It is situated on a peninsula with highly complex shape, surrounded by many islands, of which the main ones are Lantau and Hong Kong Island. Actually, it is not just a city, its urban area is concentrated mainly on the southern end of the peninsula, and the northern part of Hong Kong Island. Most of the rest is covered by mountains and lush subtropical rain forests. There are a lot of wild areas, hiding beautiful jewels- small towns and villages, some of them even weird like Ma Wan Ghost Town, beaches and volcanic formations, especially in its eastern area, called Sai Kung.
Then you can enter Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong on the north. It is a modern mega city, however, it offers not only glamorous skyscrapers but also stunning nature. It has many interesting places to visit, among which most popular are the Window of the World and the Ethnic Village.
Proceed northwest to Guangzhou. You will pass through Dongguan, which also has beautiful mountains and parks, but maybe its most interesting place to visit is the Opium War Museum and Weiyuan Fortress in Humen town.
Guangzhou is a city which is really worth to explore. It is full of history and traditions, both ancient and modern. This is the core of the Cantonese culture. There are many “old town” style neighborhoods and gardens, where you can see the typical Cantonese architecture with its arc-shaped roofs. Explore Liwan district, the Museum of Cantonese opera and art, as well as Chen Clan Mansion. Go to the southern suburbs of Guangzhou and see Lingnan and Baomo gardens, and the old town of Shawan.
Or take a walk and cruise on the main Pearl River Canal, starting from the European Shamian Island, then by boat to the modern Canton Tower- the symbol of Guangzhou. And finally relax in its parks- Yuexiu, Baiyun and many others. There is really so much to see in this amazing city!
Foshan and Zhongshan
Then turn back to the south. The next city on the chain is Foshan. It is again full of history and culture, famous mainly for its Zumiao Temple. South of it is Zhongshan, named after Dr. Sun Yat Sen (Zhongshan is his name in Mandarin), which presents beautiful parks, some old Cantonese architecture villages, and museums.
Finally, you reach Zhuhai, where the Pearl River Delta gradually turns into a large sea bay. The city itself is nice, but its most exotic part is its islands deep in South China Sea- remote, mysterious, covered by forests, rock formations, and hidden fishing villages.
But before the end of your Pearl River Delta journey, you must visit Macau– a unique blend of Chinese and Portuguese culture. It is the smallest of the cities of the Delta and offers really a lot to see in a very small area, walkable on foot. Finally, you can back to Hong Kong by ferry or on the newly built Zhuhai-Macau-Hong Kong bridge.
Eastern Guangdong- the land of beaches and prehistorical remains
The eastern part of Guangdong consists of the following cities: Huizhou, Shanwei, Heyuan, Chaozhou, Jieyang, Meizhou and Shantou. It is covered by low mountains, and there are some really nice beaches in the South China Sea coast. This is the main area of Hakka (Kejia) culture. All of the cities and surrounding countryside have something really interesting to offer.
Huizhou, Shanwei, Jieyang and Shantou
The first city (considered as a distant part of Pearl River Delta) is Huizhou, mainly known for its beaches and sea resorts. Then the next city on the coast is Shanwei, presenting not only beaches and beautiful coastline but also some historic Hakka destinations and temples. And the easternmost cities on the coast are Shantou, Jieyang, and Chaozhou, featuring Hakka and Teochew local culture, some nice beaches and one of the most beautiful islands in China- Nan Ao.
Meizhou and Heyuan
Meizhou and Heyuan- they are located in the northeastern part of Guangdong, and they are the core of Hakka culture. This land consists of not so high mountains and fields between them. Here you can also see history and traditions, as well as many nice natural destinations. But the most unique and interesting spot is in Heyuan. This is the Heyuan Dinosaur Museum, presenting dinosaur’s eggs and bones, discovered recently in the area. Really worth to visit for those who love science (and for children of course).
Northern Guangdong- the “Wild Guangdong”
This is the wildest and most exotic part of Guangdong. It consists of Qingyuan and Shaoguan counties. Most of the area is mountainous and here you can find the highest peak of Guangdong- Shikengkong (1902 m altitude). Remote villages, deep and wild valleys, rice terraces, bamboos, and bananas- they are everywhere.
Karst hills and ethnic minorities
Yes, maybe the most exotic and beautiful things in this land are the karst hills, sandstone formations, and the local minorities. The karst hills are located in Qingyuan county, in Yingxi Karst Hills area. The most spectacular sandstone formations are in Shaoguan county- in Danxia Mountain. Caves and underground rivers can be found in many places in Northern Guangdong too.
And the minorities, presented by Yao, Zhuang, and Miao live mainly in this area. You can meet these people, watch their folklore performance and see their architecture and art.
All these features make Northern Guangdong are a really exciting place, not just for tourists, but also for adventure travelers and explorers. You can go to Qingyuan, then proceed to Yingxi karst hills, then to Shaoguan and Danxia mountain. Turn westward, climb the local mountains, wander between the karst hills, penetrate in caves, wild canyons, and underground rivers, then visit the minorities in Liannan and Lianshan. You can arrange a really adventurous journey in this stunning area.
Western Guangdong- the southernmost seacoast of continental China
The western part of Guangdong province includes the following cities and counties: Zhaoqing, Yunfu, Maoming, Jiangmen (although considered as a part of the Pearl River Delta), Yangjiang and Zhanjiang.
This area of Guangdong is more Cantonese since most of the Han Chinese people there speak the Cantonese language. The natural landscape is the same as the other parts of Guangdong. There are almost no karst hills and other wonderful formations as in the north, but there is a beautiful sea coastline.
Zhaoqing and Kaiping
The most beautiful mountain in the area is in Zhaoqing. It is Dinghu Mountain, presenting not just a “mountain covered by forests”, but also waterfalls, pools, temples and many other attractions. Another attractive place for those who like history and culture is Kaiping Diaolou village (Kaiping Towers)- an “old village”, as well as the nearby Li Garden. These places feature old buildings with mixed western, oriental and Chinese architecture.
The most attractive part there is the sea coast. There are a lot of resorts, such as Hailing, Zhapo and Moon Bay at Shaba. But there are also a lot of wild beaches, almost without people. You can even go camping on these beaches (just having in mind some tips for camping in the wild places of China). And as the coastline in the southwestward direction almost approaches the tropical geographic zone, you can see some coconut palm trees there. Maybe soon these beaches will be closed for building new resorts, but at least for now they are wild. The only problem is that there is some pollution from the locals (garbage remains from the local fishermen) since nobody cleans the beaches.
Finally- the extreme southwest of Guangdong. It is Zhanjiang and Leizhou Peninsula, which is the southernmost point of continental China. It also features beautiful beaches and tropical climate, being closer to Hainan and Southeast Asia.
Fujian- the land of Minna
Let’s look further in South China. Northeast of Guangdong province is Fujian. Actually, its northeast part is more considered as a part of East China (where is Shanghai, also Hangzhou and the rest of Zhejiang province, Nanjing, Suzhou and other famous places of the east)- both geographically and historically.
In general, Fujian is related to Taiwan and presents Hokkien (Min) culture and language. Being a coastal area, it had a developed trade activity, which has brought a strong western influence. Again, most of the Fujian population are Han Chinese, and there is a very small minority too. It is She people, living in some towns and villages, mainly in the southwestern part of Fujian, and even in a few villages in Heyuan county, Guangdong.
Geography of Fujian
Concerning geography- the landscape is almost the same as in Guangdong province. Mountains, plains and the same type of coastline, featuring some nice beaches. The highest mountains are located much inside the province, at the border with Jiangxi province.
There are many points of interest in Fujian, but I would mention the most important of them.
Xiamen is a famous coastal city, built on the coast of Taiwan Strait. It has a beautiful location on a peninsula and surrounding islands. And the most attractive island is Gulangyu, which presents an “old town”, but in western architectural style. This style comes from the 19th century when during the intensive (in war and peace) relations between China and the Europeans, this island has been turned into an international European settlement. So now it attracts especially the Chinese tourists, who want to experience the “western culture” in their own country.
It is a unique mountain range, located at the border with Jiangxi- one of the highest mountains in South and East China (with elevation 2158 m). Now it is turned into a national park. It is interesting not only for its stunning nature- valleys, forests, and peaks but mostly for its sandstone pillar rocks, which create fantastic views in the mountain.
Tulou is a unique architectural style of fortified houses, mostly in round shape- there is nothing like this anywhere else. And these tulou buildings are located in a few villages in the southwest part of Fujian. Now they have become a UNESCO heritage site, and a visit to these amazing villages is really worth.
Southern Jiangxi- the wild off the beaten path area of Jiangxi
From Fujian, we move further inside China. Beyond the border of Fujian is Jiangxi province. Located somewhere in the middle between Shanghai and Guangzhou, and separated from the sea coast, it features mountains, plains, and rivers. Its southern part consists of three counties- Ganzhou (the largest and southernmost county), Ji’an and Fuzhou. This part of Jiangxi is more mountainous and there is the northern side of Wuyi Mountain.
Besides Wuyi Mountain, there isn’t any popular destination in South Jiangxi. And maybe that’s what makes this area attractive for those, who look for off the beaten path and real local life, unaffected by the “mask of tourism”. This land is great for trekking through mountains, hills, rice fields, and remote villages, without tourist crowds.
Ganzhou is a nice city, built on a beautiful riverside. It has some interesting historical attractions, among which the most prominent is Yugu Tower, built on a hill with a stunning view of the city and Zhangshui River. Another interesting place is Tongtian Scenic area, featuring a mountain with amazing rock formations and traditional pavilions.
Northern Jiangxi- the land of lakes and picturesque villages
Moving to the north, we approach Yangtze River. So the average altitude becomes lower, the plains- larger and the mountains- more distant and rare. Here is the capital of Jiangxi- Nanchang. In this part of Jiangxi, you can find more historical places and more attractive natural sites.
Nanchang is a large and developed city. It is known for one of the largest Ferris wheel in the world, called The Start of Nanchang. There are also some interesting traditional buildings, like the Pavilion of Prince Teng and Sheng Jin Tower.
The northern Jiangxi mountains
The mountains of Northern Jiangxi are less than those in the south, but two of them are really worth to visit. The first of them is Lushan- a national park with a lot of attractions, such as deep valleys, lush forests, historic buildings, bridges, and even some waterfalls and small lakes. This mountain is related to Chinese history from the first half of the 20th century.
And the second mountain is Sanqingshan. Its highest peak is 1817 m in altitude, and it is best known for its unique karst formations. You can see its amazing rock pillars, which are the main symbol of the mountain. It is steep and it offers breathtaking views to the surrounding plains. The mountain is also known as a “sacred Taoist mountain”.
Rivers and lakes.
Yangtze River flows through the north end of Jiangxi province. Ganjiang River flows into Yangtze at the city of Jiujiang. And these are large lakes near Jiujiang. The most prominent and the largest of them is Poyang Lake. It is (but not always!) the largest freshwater lake in China. This lake is really interesting for three things. First- it is a really young lake. It is formed by the Yangtze river flowing change around 400 AD. Second- it’s size is highly changeable, depending on the season. And third- it is known as the “Chinese Bermuda Triangle” since many ships and boats have disappeared there without a trace.
There are a few really interesting historic sites in Northern Jiangxi. The first one is Jingdezhen, a city known as the “Chinese capital of the porcelain”. You can visit the Porcelain Museum there. Another really beautiful area is Wuyuan. It is a small city near Shangrao, and not the city itself is interesting, but the surrounding countryside. It is like a fairy tale- villages presenting Chinese traditional architecture, pavilions, bridges, rice fields, and terraces and many other beautiful things, making the whole environment really picturesque.
Southern Hunan- the maze of rice fields and hills
We proceed further westward. Now let’s see Hunan province. It is located deeper in the interior of China and is also rich inin many interesting destinations and areas.
Let’s start from its southern part. There are the counties of Chenzhou, Yongzhou, Zhuzhou, and Hengyang. The whole area, being close to the main watershed between Yangtze and South China Sea, is mountainous, wild and remote. Outside of the main cities, you can enjoy mainly off the beaten path places, which have never seen tourist crowds.
But there is an exception- Hengshan Mountain (Mount Heng). It is a small, but significant mountain near Hengyang, considered as one of the Five sacred Taoist mountains. It is full of historical and religious buildings and now is turned into a national park.
Northern Hunan- the land of large rivers
The northern part of Hunan is again near Yangtze River. So it is lower, with large plains and only a few scattered low mountains. There is the capital of Hunan- Changsha, which is another rapidly developing megacity. Located on the beautiful Xiangjiang River (Xiang River), it also has many points of interest, worth to visit, such as parks, museums, temples and old streets.
Approaching northward, you can reach the second largest freshwater lake in China- Dongting Lake. It has been actually the largest before, but now much of it is turned into farmlands. Anyway, what remained of it is still large in area, and it is seasonal. During the rainy season, much water from Yangtze River flows into the lake, as well as a lot of water from the four big rivers flowing into it. But when the autumn comes, it gradually shrinks again, until the next spring.
The historic places
There are also a lot of historic places in the Northern Hunan. One of them, beside Changsha, is Yueyang, a city located on the southern bank of Yangtze River. It is famous mainly for its Yueyang Pagoda.
And another place is Shaoshan- a small town, which is known as the birthplace of Mao Ze Dong. So it attracts visitors, who are interesting of the Communist history as a part of the whole long history of China.
Western Hunan- the land of Avatar Mountain- Zhangjiajie
Then let’s move westward. This is the most beautiful and exotic part of Hunan. Here you will find one of the most famous and fantastic places on the Earth- Zhangjiajie, recently called also “Avatar Mountain”, pointing the popular sci-fi movie. It is an unreal landscape of karst and sandstone pillar hills, combined with deep valleys, caves and many other wonderful natural formations. Now it is turned into a national park of the highest class. Although it is too touristy, it is really worth to visit.
Another really impressive destination near Avatar Mountain (south of Zhangjiajie city) is Tianmen Mountain. Its name means “Heaven’t Gate Mountain”, and it comes from a natural hole in its unreal, fantastic shape. When you ascend to the hole, it is just like you go to an open gate, leading you to the sky. Now there is a long cable car, as well as many other attractions and old architectural sites.
Outside of Zhangjiajie, the area of Western Hunan is mainly mountainous. And it hides a lot of history and local ethnic culture. The main area where it is concentrated is Huaihua, a city in the southern part of Western Hunan. There are two ancient towns nearby- Qianyang and Hongjiang. And there is a beautiful village of Miao minority, called Dehang, where you can dive into Miao’s unique culture.
Hubei- the middle of the Chinese civilization lands
Hubei province is located north of Hunan, and it is actually in the middle of the “Chinese” China (again, geographically not including Tibet, Xinjiang, and Qinghai). But since Yangtze River flows through it, dividing it into a larger northern and a smaller southern part, we can consider the Southern Hubei as a part of South China.
Its capital is Wuhan, one of the largest cities in China. Wuhan is located on both sides of Yangtze River and is full of history and culture. From Wuhan northward you enter North China.
The West of Hubei
The western part of Hubei is another really interesting area. It is covered by mountains, some of which really high- the highest peak is called Shennong Deng and reaches 3105 m altitude. But maybe the most famous place in this area is the Three Gorges (their western half is actually in Chongqing, only the eastern half is in Hubei)- a spectacular combination of the large Yangtze River, surrounded by steep mountains on its both sides. Although now there is a dam project there, the Three Gorges still remain a magnificent place to travel.
Northeastern Guangxi- the land of Guilin karst hills
Now, let’s turn southward, and west of Guangdong province. There is Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region or just Guangxi. From its name you can guess that it is an ethnically different area. And indeed, there are many ethnic minorities living in Guangxi. But that’s not all. Here you can find one of the most popular destinations in China and in the whole world. It is formed by karst hills and its name is Guilin.
But let’s look more deeply- first to the northeastern part of Guangxi. There are the cities of Guilin, Wuzhou, Hezhou, Liuzhou, and Laibin. Needless to say, Guilin Karst Hills area, which covers most of Guilin, Liuzhou and Hezhou counties is the most important destination of this area.
Guilin Karst Hills area is really large, and there are many points of interest. The most popular are Yangshuo and Xingping, where you can find the most famous landscapes of Guilin. Another interesting place is Huangyao Old Town in Hezhou county, which combines the karst hills landscape with old traditional town architecture. And another famous type of view that can be seen in the area is the rice terraces, best presented in Longsheng, north of Guilin city.
Northwestern Guangxi- the “Wild Guangxi”
It consists of two counties- Hechi and Baise. Generally, there are not some popular destinations, and the area has a higher average altitude- a distant influence from the Great Tibetan Plateau, which is not very far from here. Most of the area is covered by wild forests and a maze of mountains and rivers. There are many minorities, living in this area, most of which are Zhuang people. Other minorities include Yao, Miao, Hui and some Han Chinese (who are a minority here).
Southern Guangxi- the lower Guangxi
The rest of Guangxi is its southern part, where the capital Nanning is located, and it has a short coastline of South China Sea. This area is lower, with larger plains, some small karst hills areas and a few nice beaches at the sea coast near Beihai.
There are not too many popular places to see in this area, but the capital Nanning and countryside are worth to explore. Nanning is a nice city, known mainly for its parks- its park cover a really large part of its territory. Being the capital of a minority autonomous region, it has also a good museum (Guangxi Museum), presenting mainly the Zhuang culture.
If you go outside of Nanning, there are some mountains and forest parks that are worth to visit, such as Huangjingdong, Longtan, and Qingxiu parks. Another really beautiful place is Detian waterfall, on the border with Vietnam.
The sea coast of Guangxi
Finally- let’s see the sea coast. Beihai is the main city of Guangxi’s coastline. As I mentioned, there are some nice beaches on the coast, but the most interesting place is a volcanic island, quite inside the sea, called Weizhou. It is turned into a National Park, presenting unique volcanic formations, as well as an interesting Catholic church.
Finally- let’s take a look at the rest of the periphery of South China.
Guizhou- the wild step to Tibet
Guizhou province is located northwest of Guangxi and west of Hunan. Its capital is Guiyang, and there are many things there, typical for South China- karst hills, lush subtropical forests, the most famous waterfalls, as well as many ethnic minorities. But since it is closer to the Great Tibetan Plateau, most of its territory, especially its western part, is higher than in South China. This “higher and middle step” towards Tibet is called Yungui Plateau, with altitudes between 1500 and 2200 m.
Anyway, it is a really exciting place to visit. There you can find Wanfenglin- one of the most beautiful karst hills areas in China and the world. The most beautiful waterfall in China, called Huangguoshu is also in Guizhou. Chishui and Anshun are very rich of natural wanders too. There are sandstone red rock formations, bamboo forests, canyons, and a unique village, built inside a cave, called Zhongdong. And of course- the ethnic minorities- mainly Miao and Dong. You can visit them in Kaili, and explore their culture and lifestyle.
Hainan- the Southeast Asian impression of China
Finally- the southernmost province of China. Hainan would not exactly in South China, but in a separate area, because its landscape is different than in continental China- it is tropical, coconut- palmed. It is much more Southeast Asia, rather than China. And it is an island- the largest island of China, after Taiwan.
The most popular feature of Hainan is its sea coast. There are the best beaches in China. So, no wonder that there is also the best and the largest Chinese sea resort- Sanya, which is also the southernmost Chinese city.
But there are many other beaches on the island, which are not so popular, therefore not such touristy and crowded. The best of them can be found in Bo’ao, on the eastern coast of Hainan.
The interior of Hainan
The interior of the island is worth to explore too. It is a homeland for the local minorities- mainly Li people, who are indigenous for the island. Most of them live in the mountains, in the southern half of the island.
So, this is the main picture of South China. As you can see, there is really a lot to explore. Is it easy to make a journey in these unique lands?
Yes, it is easy to travel in South China. But of course, as every journey to a new land, you have to consider some important details. There are many things that can be said how to arrange a trip in this part of the world, depending on many conditions and of course- depending on what do you want. So, let me just mention some of the most important things.
There is really a big choice for accommodation in South China, as in the whole of China. But there is an important detail: not every hotel accepts foreigners. The hotels, registered in Booking.com are most likely to have a right for accepting foreigners (although it is not 100% sure). Usually, those who have this right, are the more expensive and higher class hotels, as well as the hostels for backpackers, especially in the more touristy areas.
So, it is advisable to contact the property, before you go there, to confirm that they can accept you. For more information, see here.
You have also really a lot of transportation choice in South China. There are many airports and planes, operating between them. There is also a rich network of train and bus transport. Within the cities, you can travel by taxi, public bus, motorcycle taxis, even shared bikes, or just rental bikes (from bike shops, located usually near the large parks).
In the same time, there are some really wild and remote areas, off the beaten path places, which are an exciting challenge for adventure travelers. However, it is most likely that there is not any public transport going there. And the most convenient transport for such places is the rental car.
Chinese driving license
Yes, there is another specific Chinese detail: you must have a Chinese driving license if you want to rent a car and drive in the country. Which obviously makes it impossible for most of the foreigners in China, unless they live there for a long period of time. So, the only way is to hire a car with a driver. And in fact, it is not necessary to be expensive, because if you are a group of travelers, you can share the cost. For more information about transportation in China, see here.
Explorer’s gear for South China
Finally- what to take with you when you travel in this part of the world? It is not an “extreme geographical area” like Tibet, Antarctica, Sahara or Amazonia, so it doesn’t require some very special and professional gear to travel.
No matter in which season you travel in South China, if you just go where the mass tourism goes, you don’t need more than your normal clothes, shoes, and bag, especially if you come from a subtropical country.
South China in different seasons
If you go to South China during the winter, you have to consider the cold interior of most of the hotels, since there is no heating inside. But if you go during the summer, you have to have in mind that everything and everywhere outside is hot and wet, with high humidity. In the same time most of the interiors of the buildings are cool, with strong air conditioning. And don’t forget the rain- it can be rainy most of the year, especially in the spring and summer.
But if you want to go deeper, into an adventurous exploration, or just to travel in the nature of South China, you may need something more. Yes, most of the national parks are well arranged by the authorities and are made easier for “normal tourists” (without a special gear) to visit. However, I am talking about the non-touristy areas, the off the beaten path hidden places.
Gear for hiking
For hiking in the mountains- you need to have in mind that the paths can be very slippery, especially in the rainy seasons. So you need good shoes accordingly, for more stable walking. And bring your raincoat, because the rain can accompany you during your hike.
Gear for mountaineering
The karst hills areas have some good opportunities for mountaineering. There are some rocky walls in these areas, which are arranged especially for such activities. But since not every karst hill and its walls are prepared in advance, you would need your own mountaineering gear.
Gear for camping
About spending the night in the open air, accordingly, you would need a good tent. Since it can’t be very cold in South China, you don’t need a cold proof (4 seasons) tent. But you definitely need a good waterproof tent, with good ventilation, proper for humid subtropical climate. You can see more about tents here.
South China in pictures
And finally- prepare your good photo and video gear! South China has its specific beauty, which really needs your good camera. A drone would be also your great choice there. Needless to say, photos of the karst hills, rivers, rice fields and terraces from above could be really fantastic!
This is South China. A land, really rich in pictures and colors to present. Highly underrated, but hiding a lot of gems and secrets, waiting to be discovered, explored and experienced.
Watch a documentary about South China and what is beyond it:
Check out some books and other information about South China:
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