- This article is an itinerary.
Southwest China is, in many ways, the most exotic part of China, largely populated by various ethnic minorities with interesting handicrafts, languages, folk music and so on. It is also a poor area, relatively cheap to travel in overall.
Some areas have been or are being developed for tourism; there you can expect to find some modern amenities, Western food, English speakers and (by Chinese standards) high prices. Once you get out of those areas, expect none of the above.
For some parts of this trip anyone who does not speak Chinese will definitely need a Chinese phrasebook.
On the overnight buses, you have to remove your shoes when boarding and put them back on to get off for food and restroom stops. You may want to buy a pair of "kung fu" slippers (¥15-20) to make this easier, even if you normally travel in boots or laced shoes.
Hong Kong International Airport is the hub for international travel. Just across the border in the Pearl River Delta region, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen also have major airports. Macau, across the mouth of the Pearl from Hong Kong, also has a large airport and some of the low-cost airlines go there instead of Hong Kong, partly because the landing fees are lower. Along the way, airports at Guilin, Guiyang and Kunming offer extensive services throughout China.
All airports mentioned here have international connections with Hong Kong being the most comprehensive. See Discount airlines in Asia for details.
All the cities mentioned above have good rail connections to the rest of China.
Guangzhou and Shenzhen are also on the national high speed rail grid with services to Beijing, Shanghai and most other major Chinese cities. That grid is being expanded and will eventually include Kunming.
The most interesting route is to travel either by train or bus to Guilin, a major tourism area in Guangxi, then head north by bus through less traveled country into Guizhou, a relatively poor and non-touristic province with many ethnic minorities. This article treats that as the main route; various other possibilities are under alternate routes below.
Hong Kong to Guilin
There are flights from Hong Kong to Guilin.
The fastest land route is by high speed D train from Guangzhou South Station to Guilin North Station (3hr). If taking the bus, cross the border to Shenzhen (Hong Kong metro and a short walk). One of the main Shenzhen bus stations is within a few hundred meters of the main border crossing; see the Shenzhen article for details. There are also buses from Guangzhou or Zhuhai, and trains from either of those or from Shenzhen.
Yangshuo is a tourist town somewhat south of Guilin; for many Western tourists, especially the backpacker types, the main reason for going to Guilin is to get to Yangshuo. However, Guilin itself is also worth a stop; certainly both places are very popular with Chinese tour groups. There are also a number of more off-the-beaten-track towns in the area, such as Xingping and Yizhou, which will appeal to some travellers.
All the Guilin-bound buses pass through Yangshuo, and many travellers prefer to get off there. If you take a train or plane to Guilin, bus or riverboat transport to Yangshuo is readily available; see Yangshuo for details.
Probably the most interesting route would be:
- take the ferry from Hong Kong to the former Portuguese colony Macau, across the Pearl River estuary
- spend some time seeing Macau
- rise early to avoid crowds, walk across the border to Zhuhai
- spend some time in Zhuhai
- two hours by bus, or less on the fast train, to Guangzhou
- spend some time in Guangzhou
- get a train to Guilin, or overnight bus to either Guilin or Yangshuo
- (the bus from Guangzhou is more comfortable, and a shorter trip, than the ones from Zhuhai)
If you choose, as many travellers do, to spend most of your time in the Guilin area in Yangshuo, then your first step in continuing on this route will be the 90-km bus ride into Guilin. Consider spending a day or two there as well.
Guilin to Longsheng
From Guilin, take the bus to Longsheng (2.5 hours)
Longsheng, between Sanjiang and Guilin, has the famously scenic "Dragon's Backbone" rice terraces; these are a major tourist draw and very photogenic, quite possibly worth a stop. If you want to see them, the best way may be to take one of the many guided tours to them on offer in Guilin or Yangshuo, or to arrange a tour in Longsheng as that article suggests, This is rural China so an English-speaking guide is useful; also, it is hill country so good transportation arrangements are quite valuable.
On the other hand, you may want to skip Longsheng since it has few attractions other than the rice terraces and, if you are heading into Guizhou, you will see lots of terraced fields there.
Longsheng to Sanjiang
Sanjiang is worth a stop. It is the capital of a Dong minority area and has some sites and shopping.
Sanjiang to Congjiang
Many travellers treat Congjiang as a basically uninteresting place where one just changes buses, but it does have some attractions. There are decent moderately-priced hotels and cheap street food, and both the Dong and Miao minority groups are present.
Congjiang to Kaili
There are buses direct from Conjiang to Guiyang, about four hours through interesting scenery. However, this route is not recommended since it bypasses Kaili. Kaili is a trading town with many interesting villages nearby, the hub of Eastern Guizhou and probably the most interesting place on this route.
The direct bus from Congjiang to Kaili takes 4 hours and passes through some lovely scenery, hilly country with terraced fields and pretty villages. There are buses every hour or two from morning to mid-afternoon. Nighttime buses are not recommended here; you would miss the scenery and some of the narrow hill country roads might be dangerous.
Connecting through Rongjiang (榕江) is always possible. Buses depart every 30 minutes.
Kaili to Guiyang
Alternately, you could take a train to Guiyang or even Kunming from Kaili. It may be difficult to get a seat, though, since in China trains tend to fill up at the major stations so none are left at intermediate stations like Kaili.
Kaili is a trading town with many interesting villages nearby. This is the hub of Eastern Guizhou, probably the most interesting place on this route.
Guiyang to Anshun
From Guiyang it is 2 hours by bus to Anshun. Guiyang is the provincial capital. It is not a particularly interesting city, but it might be worth looking around and visiting some of the many handicraft and souvenir shops. A possible side trip would be to go a few hours north from Guiyang to Zunyi. This is an important site for Chinese Communist history; at the Zunyi Conference during the Long March Mao joined the Central Committee.
Anshun to Kunming
Anshun is a moderately interesting town and the hub of Western Guizhou. China's biggest waterfall is nearby and there are also a number of caves in the area. The region produces a lot of batik work, generally with indigo dyes; you see much the same stuff here that is sold in the provincial capital Guiyang or in more distant tourist areas like Dali or Yangshuo, but if you bargain hard it is cheaper here.
Anshun to Kunming by train takes 6.5 hours. Buses travel in comparable time on the G60 expressway.
Hong Kong to Guanxi along the coast
The route suggested above goes inland from Hong Kong toward Guilin. An alternative is to travel along the coast toward Zhanjiang and optionally to Hainan, China's southernmost province and promoted as "China's Hawaiii". There are buses from Zhuhai or a fast train from Guangzhou.
The next stop would be the coastal town Beihai, reached either by bus from Zhanjiang or by ferry from Hainan, specifically the capital Haikou. From there it is a few hours by bus to Nanning, then a short bus or train trip to Gulin.
Kunming to Nanning or Guilin by rail
From Kunming, you can take a train through sensational mountain scenery to Nanning, the capital of Guangxi. From Nanning, it is a short trip by bus or train (3hr by HSR) to tourist center Guilin. See above for routes from Guilin to Hong Kong.
There are also flights possible to both Nanning and Guilin from most major cities in China.
From Nanning into Southeast Asia
Kunming to Hong Kong by (mostly) air
The fastest reasonably priced way from Kunming to Hong Kong or vice versa is by a plane/ferry combination, about 4 hours / ¥850+. You could fly directly to Hong Kong, but it is usually significantly cheaper to land in Shenzhen and take a ferry.
Many foreigners in China need to get a new visa every six or 12 months and Hong Kong or Macau are good places for this. For most passports you can get a multiple entry business visa with just a photo and money. The plane/ferry combination is the usual method for such "visa runs".
Kunming - Hong Kong
- Take the plane from Kunming to Shenzhen (cheapest ¥650; normal ¥850)
- Take the free airport bus from Shenzhen airport to Shenzhen airport terminal ferry
- Take the ferry to Hong Kong Kowloon (about ¥200)
That's it. For about ¥850 you can go to Hong Kong.
- Take the ferry from Hong Kong to Shenzhen airport (about ¥200)
- Take the free airport bus to Shenzhen airport
- Take the plane from Shenzhen to Kunming (about ¥700)
A convenient way to book the ferry and plane ticket together is at the China Travel Service (HK). It is easy to find as it is directly opposite Chunking Mansions in Kowloon where many backpackers stay.
All the cities have hotels, generally moderately priced. ¥60 to 100 for a clean double room with shower, and sometimes with breakfast, is typical. In tourist areas such as Kunming or Yangshuo backpacker dorms in the ¥20 range are also readily available.
These areas are generally quite poor and petty theft is common. Take precautions against pickpockets and watch for things like razor attacks on luggage during bus or train rides.
Armed robbery is rare, but has been reported. Victims are generally lone travelers, often female. Try to stay in a group, especially on treks through isolated areas.
Altitude sickness is a risk in some areas, especially if you go west of Kunming up toward the Himalayas.
You can fly direct from Kunming to most major Chinese cities and to some places in Southeast Asia. From Hong Kong, you can fly almost anywhere. Both cities are also well connected to the rest of China by rail and highway.
By surface transport from Hong Kong:
- the Pearl River Delta region is just inland
- across the Pearl estuary to Macau, both a huge gambling venue and a fascinating old colonial city
By land from Kunming:
- For even more sensational scenery, continue onto the Yunnan tourist trail. Next stop is Dali.
- From the end of that route you can (if you have the permits), continue Overland to Tibet
- North to Chengdu, Sichuan either by the extremely scenic and extremely slow train (18 hr) or the much faster bus (12 hr). Break your journey in Xichang
- Southwest to Jinghong, Xishuangbanna then cross the border into Laos
- Southeast to Hekou then cross the border to Sapa hills of Vietnam